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Manitoulin Brewing rooted in proud Indigenous heritage

4.5 min read

“Manitoulin Island is a unique, beautiful place. It’s the largest freshwater island in the world, there’s water everywhere, and it’s densely populated with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities,” says Nishin Meawasige, co-owner of the Manitoulin Brewing Company (MBC).

“Manitoulin” is an Ojibwe word meaning “great spirit.” The island is in Lake Huron, and those who visit instantly appreciate the deeper meaning of its Indigenous name.

For Nishin, the island is the inspiration for MBC, the independent craft brewery he co-founded with friend Blair Hagman in 2015. In 2019, the pair brought on a third partner, Holden Rhodes, and the three of them are building on previous successes and looking to bring more MBC products to all of Ontario and beyond.

Manitoulin Island and the surrounding area are home base, and the brewery is an extension of the place they cherish. “The branding behind our products is all based on landmarks here on the island,” shares Nishin.

“We’re promoting the island to the world. These are real places with real stories that people can learn about and experience when they come to Manitoulin Island.”

Celebrating Sisters project

One way the brewery is giving back to its community is by joining the Celebrating Sisters project created by members of a group called the Indigenous Brew Crew. MBC is one of 43 craft breweries raising money on Indigenous Brew Day for organizations supporting and empowering Indigenous women and girls.

They’ve brewed a special beer for the occasion called Ode’imin, which means strawberry in Ojibwe. Sales start in summer 2021, with proceeds going to a local non-profit group, Manitoulin Streams. The non-profit is creating a summer program focused on young women and youth, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, and their role as water keepers protecting waterways on and surrounding Manitoulin Island.

Ode’imin Strawberry Beer, Manitoulin Brewing Company

“We had Mariah Meawasige, a female Indigenous artist who works under her company name, Makoose, design the artwork on the can,” says Nishin. “Supporting Indigenous women preserving our precious water resources here on Manitoulin are important to us and a way for us to support our communities.”

Always thinking about the details, the MBC also came up with an augmented reality customer experience for the Ode’imin can design, a first for an Ontario craft beer product and another way to deliver something innovative to their customers and help raise money for an important cause.

“We’re excited to be dipping our feet into the virtual realm of augmented reality with the Ode’imin can design. These are new waters for all of us, so we’re very interested to see how it impacts our customers and ultimately increases the success of our cause.”

That deep commitment to the community has been a part of MBC’s approach from the beginning.

Nishin says it’s been a whirlwind of a journey since he and Blair first reconnected while standing in a craft beer line at a music festival in Guelph.

“I think we wanted to do something different for ourselves and that entrepreneurial spirit started to develop, and we couldn’t shake it. One thing led to another, and we bought ourselves a nano brewery, and then we were learning about the chemistry and the agriculture behind it all.”

Humble beginnings

“We started brewing in a garage on the island and contacted a qualified head brewer to learn the basics of brewing beer. It was a lot of fun. I remember in the winter thawing water hoses in the sauna; it was challenging, and we were doing what we could and learning in every way possible.

“Our approach was to get a product to market before investing resources into a physical brewery. We went through a focused marketing exercise and brought our first product, Swing Bridge Blonde Ale, to market in 2015-16.”

MBC is now adding their eighth product to Ontario liquor stores with the launch of Ode’imin Strawberry Beer.

The silver lining

“It’s been a long and challenging grind, but this year is a real tipping point in terms of seeing what MBC is able to achieve. The last 15 months have been a challenge for everyone, but we decided to reflect and take the opportunity to look at it with, ‘what’s the silver lining in all of this?’, and we have refocused and pivoted in new directions.

“The refocus meant looking at what we’ve done well and what’s preventing us from continuing to grow and succeed as an independent craft brewery in Northern Ontario.

“We’ve really jumped into automation to help us. We realized we needed to eliminate mundane repetitive work so we can focus time and effort on building relationships and further sales opportunities. We sell beer as a commodity but that’s the easy part; the real work is building strong relationships and new opportunities with our customers and trying to set ourselves apart in doing so.”

That fundamental shift in their sales approach and automation piece is yielding a shift in how they operate, generating the results they’re looking for.

“Based on the hard work we’ve done and being able to work with FCC we’ve been able to focus on growing the sales pie for our business to realize new revenue streams and really move the yardstick in 2021.

The great relationship we’ve been able to build with FCC has allowed us to have more stability and certainty with respect to the growth that we’ve achieved over the last 12 months, in addition to the growth that we’re projecting for the future.”

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