“Can I pour you a beer?” asks brewmaster Spencer Wareham pointing to the wall of Kilannan taps behind him.
Man, I’ve been hoping someone would offer me a pint of Kilannan for years now. When the original iteration of the brewery stopped production in its Rockford facility just south of Owen Sound, I thought ‘that’s it. I may never sample an Alt again.’
But here we are; be still my foolish heart. A cold pint of Alt is plopped down in front of me atop a massive harvest style live-edge bar in Kilannan’s newly minted brewery 2.0 at Coffin Ridge, a unique new partnership between Spencer and Gwen and Neil Lamont, the owners at Coffin Ridge.
How this all came to be is a bit of a wild story.
Just prior to its closing down, the plaza that housed the old Kilannan brewery enjoyed a few ‘exciting’ moments when neighbouring units were raided multiple times by the OPP, an evolving situation that helped Spencer solidify the decision to not renew his lease and try to move on. “Yeah, I wanted out of Rockford bad,” he says sipping a pint after hours in his new space. “That was the catalyst that pushed me out of there.”
The timing for that helped set him on a new path. Talks with some family-connected investors began soon after the final Kilannan stock was drawn from the tanks, with the hopes Spencer would come aboard as shareholder and brewmaster for an all-new brewpub chain, thanks in part to his experience in non-stop production brewing for nearly a decade.
“That was all really exciting – the wheels were in motion, I didn’t renew my lease, starting listing equipment for sale – then literally the day after we set up a retainer, my terms, everything – COVID lockdown. It wasn’t set up enough to keep people accountable, so it all dried up.”
At that point, Kilannan’s gear was all being sold off and there was no turning back. The situation forced Spencer into a much needed break. He didn’t know it yet, but that bittersweet moment in time would pave the way to his eventual adaptation as a cider maker and a part time winemaker, before coming back to his roots in beer at one of the prettiest locations in Grey County.
“As much as I don’t like to admit it, in hindsight I was definitely burning the candle from both ends. I went on hiatus for a few years and then one day got a call from Gwen. She said ‘you don’t know me, but you know Neil, who was a regular of mine. We negotiated for me to be here [as cidermaker] without her ever meeting me. All through COVID it was really just me here by myself trying to get established… One day I was in the office and Gwen caught me on my computer looking at brewing equipment – I was just going to get myself a little homebrew setup because I missed it, and she asked ‘what would it take to do a brewery here?’
The idea was simple: Spencer would bring the Kilannan brand, brewing expertise, and the existing customer base, while Coffin Ridge would supply the space, marketing considerations, and everything else. “It’s a true partnership,” says Spencer. “I love being here and working with them. It’s worked out really nicely.”
The goal is to have four offerings back in cans by the Christmas season, so the process at the time of our interview was merging the two iconic brands into a package that celebrates the Kilannan name and blends in the iconic Coffin Ridge brand identity.
Now simply known as Kilannan at Coffin Ridge, the cellar capacity of the brewery has been reduced to about 1/10th of what the original brewery was capable of pumping out, but there’s a deliberate and celebrated reason for that; brewing beer more often is fun, and drinking fresh beer in a brand new purpose-built taproom, or on a stunning patio that overlooks a vineyard and the rolling hills of Grey County’s northernmost outpoint is a damn delight.
“I don’t want to become a droid or self-fulfil a prophecy of distribution,” says Spencer. “I want this to be fun and we have the traffic coming out here everyday to do that. I want to keep fresh beer in house and have people see where it’s made, drink it where it’s made – that way it doesn’t have to go sit on a shelf [somewhere].”
All of the work on the brewery kicked off in April and it wasn’t until September that some beer was ready to go. To me that seems fast, but to Spencer, time flies when you’re having fun.
“I’m impatient and want things immediately,” he laughs. “It’s a wild time of year right now (October) with grape harvest – that will always be priority – when the grapes are ready, you go. It’s a winery first, so my ‘passion project’ gets put on the backburner.
We tour the facility and come back to the bar. There’s a private group coming in from the fields as part of an evening walk and the staff takes over to pour fresh pints. The music cranks up a bit, the chatter of a Friday evening out with friends fills the space, and I see a big smile on Spencer’s face as he tops me up a Growler of New Zealand Red for the road. It’s clear all that turmoil with closing, the pandemic, and forced time off was well worth it. This feels like it was all supposed to happen. I finish my pint and place the empty glass back on the counter. Kilannan is back.
Words by Nelson Phillips
Photos by John Fearnall