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From hobby to booming brewery

Dawson Trail Craft Brewing brings off-the-wall creations to grow craft beer scene

For a few years, Thunder Bay was home to only one brewery.

Then George Renner and Jon Kivinen decided to take their home brewing passion to the people.

Thus, Dawson Trail Craft Brewery opened its doors in late 2016.

The brewery has been amassing a following, attracting fans to its Copper Crescent headquarters to sample its India pale ale, red ale, stout and seasonal offerings. Their creations can also be found in local restaurants and pubs.

“For me and Jon, it was a lot of experimenting,” Renner said. “We had been home brewing for about six or seven years and we wanted to explore different things we could do with different equipment.”

That led them to acquire bigger equipment and make larger batches. Eventually, the partners decided they could turn their passion into a moneymaker.

“It turned into a bit of a rabbit hole,” Renner joked. “We talked about it and thought we could do this if we did A, B, C, D, and E. We did A, and it worked, then we did B, then C, and there was really nothing stopping us.”

With one well-established brewery in the city, Sleeping Giant Brewing Company, Renner said they knew they would have to make their mark by offering what he called “wackier” beers. At first, they planned to make a new beer every month, and then they decided to concentrate on brews that no one else was offering, with a nod to local history.

One of the latest is their Imposter Syndrome, flavoured with cinnamon and raspberry. It is modelled after the Persian pastry famous to the city, consisting of a cinnamon bun with a raspberry-flavoured frosting.

Renner couldn't say if he had a favourite, but did point out their flagship India pale ale stood out in the market for being dry-hopped and fruity. It's a beer they give to people that tell him they don't like that kind of beer, due to India pale ale's being very bitter and hoppy.

“We use it as an introduction and we find people that try it come back to reorder it,” he said. “It's fun to make beer, but it's also great to see people change what they like based on what we are making.”

Their system is also quite different than most other commercial breweries. He described it as a giant homebrew system, with much of the process being manual. It's essentially the same as any homebrew system any person can purchase.

Dawson Trail Craft Brewing's success, he said, owes a lot to city residents keen on supporting anything local and artisan.

At the same time, he said, whatever they make has to be appealing.

“There's a fine line. We can't just be crazy; it has to be drinkable,” he said.

Renner said he and his partner wanted to add more selection to the local beer scene.

Just a minute's drive away is Sleeping Giant Brewing Company's headquarters on MacDonell Street. While the two breweries are competing in sales, Renner said they work together as fellow brewers.

In the craft brewing world, he said, there's a lot of camaraderie, no one is trying to out-perform, and they are working to raise the profile of craft brewing together.

Dawson Trail's success has brought them to a critical point. Renner explained their sales ratio is about half storefront and wholesale to bars and restaurants, with the rest in the taproom, and they are at peak production capacity.

They are still growing, he said, but they are going forward slowly and gauging how much more they want to sell to bars versus how much they want to sell at the brewery.

“We can't have one without the other, so it's difficult to focus on just one,” he said.

The brewers purchased more tanks this past summer and are maintaining a steady growth.