It seems that Dave Andrew can make beer out of just about anything. Fan favourite, “Zesty Farmer”, is infused with lemon zest. “Spring Blonde” incorporates maple syrup from locally tapped trees. “Scurvy Elixir” incorporates spruce tips while 40 pounds of farm grown cherries were dumped into a lactose-infused IPA for the creamy, thick, cherry milkshake “River Road Blonde” beer that sold out in a week.
“We get friends coming into the cold room to check out the labels to see what new beer we’ve come up with,” says Dave.
Dave is a beer connoisseur. After 10 years brewing his own beer in the basement, he and wife Nikki Andrew decided to make a major life change and establish River Road Brewery and Hops on River Road outside of Bayfield.
“My wife said maybe it was time I make money on it instead of spending money on it,” laughs Dave.
Dave was an automotive technician and Nikki worked full-time in the financial industry when they decided to get back to the country a decade ago. The property is expansive and Dave decided to start a little hobby – he grew 10 hop plants near an outbuilding and set up a small brewery in his basement.
As the two toured other breweries he realized his hobby wasn’t that much smaller than some of facilities they were visiting. It got them thinking about making a lifestyle change on their 10-acre property. Nikki wanted to use their property to its full advantage while finding a way to be at home with their kids (four in total, ranging in age from 22 to nine). The farm had been an orchard but the trees were diseased and had to be pulled. Could hops grow here instead? Dave’s hobby plants proved they could thrive in the sandy Burr loam soil on the farm.
“Ontario used to have one of the largest hop acreages at the turn of the 20th century until downy mildew came in ... and prohibition,” says Dave.
Thoughts churned. Business plans were drawn. Dave, handy and creative, built his own, larger-scale, three vessel, Herms system brewery which uses a heat infused recirculating mash. It is located in the farm’s former market store.
Nikki’s business acumen and marketing skills were the perfect fit for the new business venture.
The next task was to plant the hop yard. They hunted down dead fall cedars and old hydro poles (hop vines can grow 24 feet in a season) and 2,600 hop plants representing three hop strains were planted into three acres near the road as perfect advertising for the farm’s new venture.
“It’s not the ideal spot. They would thrive better by the bush. But out front they are our business card,” explained Dave.
Growing hops isn’t for the fainthearted. Once the 18 foot high poles (industry standard) are in place, a trellis is made of coir twine (natural fibre twine) which is tied to the top of the pole and stapled at the bottom. The plants grow upwards vigorously before sending out side shoots which first flower, then grow into a cone-shaped fruit. To harvest, the cords are cut and the vines fed through a processor which knocks the cones off. The cones are then dried and pelleted.
The hop yard has a drip line irrigation system because the plants require one gallon of water a day to reach their full potential. The River Road hops are just a year old and won’t provide a full crop for three years.
Dave is keen to discover how the local terroir (the set of all environmental factors) will affect the flavour of the hops. From his experience with the hobby hops, he believes they will be “more earthy; not quite as bright of a taste.”
Future plans include building an Oast House (a hop kiln) to dry the hops and to attract tourists.
Once the hops come into full production, there is potential for added income. Dave estimates they will require one-fifth of the crop for their own needs and can sell the rest to local breweries. Hops are a “high-dollar crop” selling for $30 per processed pound. Each plant produces two pounds at full maturity. As a re-emerging crop market, hops interest many entrepreneurs until they understand how labour-intensive the crop is.
Each spring, every pole needs new twine as it is cut in the fall to harvest the plants. The entire yard needs weeding and the lower shoots of the plants have to be cut manually to reduce the risk of downy mildew.
Eventually, Dave and Nikki may incorporate a herd of sheep into the yard as natural weed eaters with the added bonus that the sheep will eat the bottom stems and reduce manual labour.
As part of their sustainability goals, Dave and Nikki funnel rinse water from the production of beer to irrigate the hope yard. Another byproduct of beer brewing is grain distillers which they feed to a small herd of Highland cattle on the property. The herd becomes a draw for customers to come with their families. As an added bonus, the animals naturally fertilize the land.
While the hops have yet to reach maturity, beer production is in full swing at River Road.
Dave and Nikki brew three to four times weekly, producing 1,200 to 1,600 litres per brew. They are often sold out by Sunday. A three-batch brew day requires 14 hours of labour and often friends help out with a late night canning session or a chat and drink while putting stickers on the cans.
River Road beer is available at every bar in Bayfield as well as a few in Goderich, London and Stratford. They mostly sell cans and growlers and the farm store is very busy on weekends. Zesty Farmer is always on tap but customers never know what they might find ... Dave has made 16 different varieties in the last six months.
All River Road beers are ale which differentiates them from other county breweries. Stonehouse in Varna focuses on lagers while Square Brew in Goderich produces European Pilsners. Dave likes the taste of ales and appreciates that they are quicker to brew than a lager or pilsner.
From a lifestyle point of view, Dave and Nikki recognize they are busier but it’s a different kind of busy. Having a home business is more family oriented and, they are discovering, more joyful.
“I am a welder/fitter by trade, then I built trucks and then I became a mechanic. Broken trucks made customers unhappy and it used to be I was always dealing with unhappy people,” remembers Dave. “Now I create fun stuff that makes people smile!”
He loves that the beer brewing business allows him to use his mechanical skills designing, building and fixing equipment. Yet it also lets his creative side flourish. Recently, he was chatting with a friend who mentioned she had a quince tree bearing much fruit. Thoughts of that quince took hold of Dave and he’s keen to see what kind of beer he can make with the apple/pear-like fruit.
Nikki gets to come up with the clever names. River Road recently teamed up with Shop Bike and their Coastal Coffee brand to develop an ale latte made with coffee, milk and sugar. It was cleverly called “Thanks Ale Latte”.
One night, Nikki finished a brew while Dave met with his monthly Scotch-tasting group. That batch was named “One Lonely Scotch Night.”
As the business grows, Nikki is enjoying running the retail space and taking care of the farm animals. She also brews, cans and labels as needed.
As Huron County earns a reputation for its unique breweries and wineries, Dave and Nikki feel very much that there is a camaraderie among the smaller craft brewers.
“We visit the other breweries all the time to chat and hang out,” says Dave. He’s a friendly sort...the kind of guy quick with a story and a “hey, want a beer?”
The breweries may well connect because by working together, the collection of Huron County breweries is drawing beer-lovers and tourists from across the province adding to the overall economic prosperity of the County.
River Road is one of those “labour of love” businesses that requires long hours. There are days the couple i dead on their feet but nine days out of 10, “it doesn’t feel like work.”
Having made a good living off the farm, they are now able to make a good living on the farm.
Plus, the goal of sustainable brewing is very important to Nikki and Dave. “I like to teach the old way of doing things such as, if you can’t buy it, grow it. Use what you grow yourself.” Establishing relationships with other growers to partner by combining beer and honey, or beer and coffee and even beer and quince is very satisfying to them both. ◊