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The Godfather of Ontario Craft Brewing

Charles MacLean
Master Brewer & Founder of MacLean's Ales
Hanover Locator Tag
Published Date: September 14, 2018

While in England, I got hired as a trainee brewer. When I came back to Canada, I came up with the idea of starting a craft brewery - but that was an idea ahead of its time. 

On behalf of Grey County, Nelson Phillips conducted the following interview with Charles Maclean.
It’s 10:30 am. Charles MacLean greets me at the door of the brewery. We sit and chat for a moment or two. He sips a coffee as kegs and cases are carted through the space. I mention I’ve never had the fortune of sampling one of the newer brews he’s naming off - and just like that, there’s a glass in my hand. Ah well. When in Rome, as they say. Or better yet, when in Hanover — northern hospitality at its finest.

He’s not a bearded hipster riding the craft brewery wave with the backing a few wealthy friends and their investor parents. He doesn’t come off as a stagnant beer purist obsessed with classic, conservative beer tastes, either. He’s somewhere right in the middle of all that - like his brewery lays smack dab in the middle of his West Grey home and Kincardine family cottage. The irony being, when I was first introduced to MacLean's as a journalist tasting pints at the Bighead Shindig (Rest In Power) in 2015 - I likened the flagship Pale Ale as the porridge that Goldilocks ate - juuuust right.

That’s the beauty of MacLean’s Ales — classic perfection, manifested from humble roots. 

Bred from Scottish stock, educated in jolly old England, and pressure-cooked in the Canadian brewing hotbeds of Toronto, Guelph, and Grey County, West Grey’s own Charles MacLean knows a thing or two about beer, and since 2014, his HQ in Hanover has been a guiding light for the economic muscle of the craft beer industry in rural Ontario communities north of the GTA corridor.

Charles pouring a beer

Charles MacLean (CM)

My great-grandfather immigrated to Sydenham Township in Grey County in 1862, so my grandfather grew up there and became a teacher in Owen Sound – and then a Presbyterian Minister with his first charge in Kemble. He later moved to Tara where my Dad was born, and then to Ripley where my Dad grew up. They later moved closer to Wallaceburg, and then to Toronto where he stayed – which is still common here until people decide to come back and retire here.

Nelson Phillips (NP)

Funny how that’s been a thing for so long, eh?

CM

Well, we have a family cottage south of Kincardine, as well as an original family farm my cousins family farmed until the 70’s… I remember as a kid going up to visit them every summer… So I’ve got early memories of Grey County, and deep roots around here. 

 

Charles grew up in Toronto, but his exposure to beer and the brewing way of life took place across the pond. After a tour in Scotland, he got a job as a carpenter in England. When that fell through, he ended up working in a pub, as many young travelling Canadians often do. It was here that Charles would gain a knowledge of brewing that he would eventually bring home to a backwoods farm in West Grey.

And if you’re in the business of craft brewing in Ontario today - you owe this guy a huge thank you. He’s one of the original lobbyists who helped loosen the provincial government’s stranglehold on craft brewers back in the day.  

Charles Maclean with a crate of cans

CM

It’s nice as a kid to live abroad, and it was easy because of the language - and while the culture is different, it’s also similar… So I got a job in this pub, and one of the beers we sold was from one of the first craft breweries in East London. I met the owner one day when he was in on a sales tour.

NP

Brewing roots from England?

CM

That’s right. A couple weeks later I called him up and got hired as a trainee brewer. When I came back [to Canada], I came up with the idea of starting a craft brewery - but that was an idea ahead of its time. So I worked as a carpenter in home renovations, and then things started to change — I got involved with a group called the Campaign for Real Ale. A British ex-patriot started a Canadian branch here so we lobbied the provincial government to make it easier to set up a craft brewery, and we got independent distribution — at that point, you had to buy into the Beer Store - minimum 1% of their shares, according to your market share. That was really prohibitive for craft breweries, so we got that changed so you could deliver directly to pubs and restaurants.

 

Charles was one of the original partners/brewers at Wellington Brewery - Canada’s oldest independently-owned microbrewery that started in 1985. He left after a few years and started working as a consultant, then worked at F&M Brewery in Guelph as head brewmaster for 15 years, which would later become Stone Hammer.

He bought a property in West Grey and built a house, where his farm workshop would eventually become a hybrid woodworking shop/brewery.  

Charles with the fermenter

NP

So the legend goes, you were a bit of a home brewer.

CM

Before I was into commercial brewing here, I was home brewing. But like most commercial brewers, I don’t brew at home - just like most chefs I know don’t really cook at home [laughs].

The brewery started as a small brewery at my farm… My idea was to make a bit of beer and some furniture, but the brewery got so busy I just didn’t have any time for the woodworking shop. I knew I was going to have to expand, and was still commuting once per week to Guelph, so I started looking there and elsewhere - then some of my customers asked about expansion and investing, so I put together a team and built this brewery here in Hanover…

NP

How many litres was the first brewery at your farm?

CM

One hectoliter - 100 litres per batch. So I did about 100 hectoliters per year. Here, this year we should go around 4,000 [hectoliters]. We can get up to 10,000 in this building, and we have room to expand here. We could almost triple the size of the building on the lot… We went for everything.

NP

So you knew there was going to be a future in Grey?

CM

That’s right… It makes more economic sense to have it inland. When you’re on the coast, you immediately lose 180 degrees of access - and for distribution we’re an hour to Kincardine, less than an hour to Owen Sound, Collingwood - we can cover that area down to Grand Bend in a few hours.

NP

What’s the pull to buy a beer from Grey County in Toronto LCBO’s?

CM

That was part of our strategy… Most people around the coasts here are cottagers in some fashion, so they go home to Toronto and pick up a few beers they’ve enjoyed at the cottage… Sometimes small town beers have a little more mystique that you associate with time away.

NP

The Grey County Mystique? [Laughs]

CM

Yeah! When we opened here four years ago there was maybe 60 breweries in Ontario, now there’s 272 with another 75 in the planning stage. 

Maclean's Ales keg

When he’s not at the brewery, Charles is at home enjoying all the things you’d expect a lifelong Grey County cottager and outdoorsman to be up to. He founded a woodworking group that has members who build canoes, bowl-turners, and cabinetry-makers, etc.. He’s also an avid hunter, angler, and cross-country skier who built his home in West Grey to accommodate skiing right out the back door.

“When the brewery was at the farm, I would go for a ski every day after work. I still keep my skis right out the kitchen door…”

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