Shillow Beer Co. Launches in Toronto

I’ve decided to start a brewing company!

The first order of business, even before recruiting someone to write my first recipe, was to figure out a marketing plan. The LCBO is the least expensive channel to reach a large swath of the Ontario market and far more concerned with saleability than what’s actually in the bottle. I’m thinking ahead.

So I’ve chosen to target my beer towards bureaucrats. Toronto is littered with these well salaried individuals. Tens of thousands more are nobly advancing our free and democratic society right across the province. Plus, the LCBO’s Beer Category Manager and Beer Product Manager – those all-powerful gatekeepers that review every single submission – well, they’re on the public payroll too! Can’t hurt to play to their vanities.

Trillium Warrior Stout - “Beer for the noble folks that make our lives better"
Trillium Warrior Stout – “Beer for the noble folks that make our lives better”

Trillium Warrior Stout isn’t just any dark beer. It will be aged on Maple bark, which is said to increase feelings of pride and mental acuity. I’m currently sourcing hothouse hops grown organically in underprivileged communities.

Also it will be hand crafted… by artisans. Yes, artisans!

I haven’t actually contracted the first batch yet (choosing a brewery with excess capacity will be much easier once the LCBO has approved my plan), so I can’t really describe the taste, but I already know there will be roasty notes and it will be well balanced and there will be some sort of pleasing mouth feel and finish. You’ll love it!

Although it goes against my own instincts, I’m also quite taken with the marketing plan of another new venture. Shillow Beer Co. showed up in Toronto with nary a gimmick. Instead, the wife and husband team of Jamie and Ben Shillow introduced a brown ale as their first commercial offering. Sass on The Side doesn’t even have its own Instagram account!

Shillow swag
Shillow swag = small, unassuming buttons

As I may have written a thousand or more times in the past, my first love was a brown ale. Sure, Big Rock Traditional isn’t the most exciting beer on the market, but it didn’t have to be 25 years ago. It was quite simply the best beer on the prairies back then. It could stand on quality and flavour alone. Who knows how well Ed McNally’s first release would have done if it had been released in 2014?

I’m not saying Sass on the Side is the same as Trad, but Shillow’s first commercial batch is also a brown ale (albeit an American Brown Ale, coming in at 5.6% ABV). It’s thoroughly satisfying without being complicated. Is that enough?

Considering its modest place in the market, yes, it probably is.

Ben insists (“I know you guys are writers so I want to be clear…”) this is not intended to be the flagship. Sass on the Side is simply Shillow’s initial offering, designed exclusively for Beer Bistro, where it poured for the first time last week. Jamie – a graduate of Niagara College Teaching Brewery’s program, who also works at Beer Bistro – drew up this recipe to complement several of the menu items (mini-burgers and frites cooked in duck fat were sampled at the private launch).

Other styles from Shillow are on the horizon but we won’t know anything about them until January. I repeat: January. In the meantime you will not be beat over the head with tales of how wonderfully this brewery is filling a void you didn’t realize existed. The focus now is on producing beer, not media releases. Sass on the Side (5.6% ABV) will paddle in a sea of more exotic offerings at Beer Bistro. And it will be just fine.

Sass is a beer, not a revolution or a lifestyle. It doesn’t champion the hero you imagine you’ve become. Its appeal is its unapologetic mission to elevate the experience you have with your food. Frankly, it’s tough to get excited about the beer itself.

But what about Shillow as a company? By starting with a flavourful, balanced (for real), classic beer style and a very reputable point of sale, Shillow is establishing its reputation for substance, not schtick. It’s Neko Case doing country music in the 1990s, but sounding like Patsy Cline in the ’50s.

Brown ale, I feel, is the best gateway style for craft beer. It’s great on its own and easy to pair. It’s safe, but not without flavour. Launching a new brewery with one might be strange by today’s standards, but in a field where breweries try to stand out by being unconventional this just might be oddball enough to work.

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