The waves of growth at Sleeping Giant Brewing Company can be measured in the successively larger and larger stainless steel tanks on the production floor.
From the original three 17.5 hectolitre (hl) vessels, doubling in size to four 35 hl, and finally, to the tallest 70 hl, this Thunder Bay craft brewer has definite eyes on expanding the brand.
Since getting the keys to their new 12,000-square-foot home in Thunder Bay’s Inner City last summer, the 20-employee craft brewer plans to dramatically boost production, install more equipment by year’s end, and hire ten more staff.
“We’re filling the space up pretty quick,” said co-owner and general manager Matt Pearson, in anticipating of ramping up production from just under 4,000 hectolitres to 9,000 hectolitres as they craft more suds for an increasingly thirstier Ontario consumer market.
At the site of a former t-shirt and embroidery factory just off Central Avenue on Macdonell Street, they’re wrapping up a $1.5-million expansion, involving the installation of an upgraded canning line that will eventually operate around the clock.
More equipment, including a centrifuge, is on the way and floor space is being set aside for a tap room to offer tastings for after-hour corporate events.
Established in 2012, Sleeping Giant was the creation of four long-time friends, Kyle and Drea Mulligan and Rob and Kerry Berlinquette. Pearson, a friend of the Mulligans, made the move to the northwest in 2013 where his wife is a Lakehead University professor.
Before arriving in Thunder Bay, the London, Ont. native was working in the restaurant and hospitality sector, often being on the flipside of the aggressive sales pitch from the mainstream brewers.
He was brought aboard to shepherd the brewer to the next stage of growth. His initial evaluation was that the brewery enjoyed solid, loyal following, but had reached a point where it needed a full-time manager, dedicated staff and larger production space.
“The local bars and restaurants were ready for it, but it was being operated as an expensive hobby, and they needed to turn it into a business.”
From their three original signature brands, they’ve expanded to six, plus another four seasonal styles that they alternate at different times of the year.
Their hoppier style of beer is occupying shelf space in 80 LCBOs across the North, the Golden Horseshoe, southwestern Ontario and now Ottawa; in 30 of the 140 licensed grocery stores, including all three approved grocers in Thunder Bay; and 10 Beer Stores provincially.
With a heavy emphasis on social media (“the new word of mouth”), making select event appearances, and taking a more “dialed-back” approach to sales, Pearson is intent on building relationships between brewer and store manager.
“Our goal is to visit every single outlet selling our beer this year,” said Pearson, with co-owner Kyle Mulligan, a local physician, who doubles as their brewmaster.
“We’re trying to build a business where we can hire people full-time, creating jobs, grow the company and this whimsical style home-run style of sales is not for us,” said Pearson.
“At all costs, we try not to make the first phone call. Our job is to create demand in the market. Hopefully, the customers ask for the product, and store manager says we should carry it.”
In such a capital-intensive business where profits are rolled back into production equipment, there are pitfalls to adding capacity and not selling enough bee, or overpromising and leaving clients’ taps high and dry.
“You’re asking restaurants to change their menu to put your product out there. If you can’t consistently supply someone, you better let them know beforehand,” said Pearson. “If you rub people the wrong way, they won’t want to do business with you for a while.
“We know how much money it costs us to acquire a customer, and when they call me for product, and we don’t have it, that’s a waste.”
The company is taking a pragmatic and measured view of expansion.
“You should really dominate your local market before you get imperialistic,” said Pearson.
Within two months of introducing their360 Pale Ale into Thunder Bay LCBOs, the numbers were so strong that a second product was immediately listed.
Demand in the four outlets was such that they were delivering 40 cases per store per week.
“We feel that we’ve overachieved with our locals,” said Pearson.
The inroads they made provincially and numbers extrapolated from their growth projections made it much easier to order more brewing equipment a year in advance knowing the demand would be there.
Pearson defines Sleeping Giant’s defined home turf is Northern Ontario and both sides of Lake Superior, having been approved for sale in Minnesota with a distributor already lined up.
“We’re ready to start doing that, but we need to service our own province first,” said Pearson.
With an emphasis on sourcing local ingredients, Pearson finds being situated in northwestern Ontario hasn’t inhibited success.
The brewery taps into Lake Superior’s “unbelievable” water supply, and the yeast becomes from the local Canada Malting plant a kilometre away.
“The two main ingredients for beer are water and malt…and we get the best.” “That’s huge” on the production side, he said. “We go over in a flat-bed with one-tonne sacks and load up.
Shipping out of Thunder Bay is inexpensive too since motor carriers offer cheap rates to haul otherwise empty trailers back south.
“If you want to be an export company, Thunder Bay is not a bad place to be,” said Pearson.
When people ask Pearson, how Sleeping Giant is making it work in northwestern Ontario, he answers it’s all about finding efficiencies wherever you can.
The collegial atmosphere among craft brewers makes it easy to tap into best practices.
Pearson discovered that Juneau-based Alaskan Brewing Company, which sells six-packs in Minnesota, burns its spent grain as hog fuel to heat their facility.
His query email received a reply the next day with an invitation to come north.
“There are efficiencies you can pick up. You just need to look for them.”