County beer producers embrace local with beer and cider festival
When Nat and Drew Wollenberg met, they were both going to be rock stars. Both were studying at a university in Australia, but their story begins with their rock band. The band’s drummer was a hobby brewer. As poor students, brewing their own beer was an obvious choice, cheaper than buying pints at the local pub and a little more fun, too.
The band didn’t stay together, but Nat and Drew did. She became a trauma nurse, he started a business producing music. Drew’s beer hobby also stuck.
In 2005, the couple visited Canada, where Drew had grown up. Part of their trip was a stop in Prince Edward County to visit his grandparents. Enamoured by that certain charm the County has, the place stuck in Nat’s mind.
The couple got married. They had kids. Then, when Drew proposed a move to Canada to live in the County, Nat jumped at the chance. They began planning their trip, which included preparing the kids for the move, getting documents together, and creating a business plan for a brewpub.
With the demand for nursing staff always high, Nat easily found a job in the area. But it wasn’t long before the couple embraced the County’s entrepreneurial spirit. In 2014, they bought a building on Main Street and opened up the County Canteen.
The plan was to replicate Australia’s hearty pub culture.
“Australian brewpub culture, you’d sit down and be a family with two kids, there’d be two detective sergeants over on one side, there’d be two bohemian sword-swallowers on one side, and it was this culmination of every walk of life… truly getting along,” says Drew. “Just that zero pretense. Which is awesome.”
Once the brewpub opened, it became evident the Wollenbergs couldn’t replicate Australian pub culture. Drew says there still isn’t any pretence. He recalls an evening when a 19-year-old came in for her first drink during Pride week, sitting one table over from a couple in their 80s. But the County Canteen has created a culture of its own, drawing locals on winter nights for karaoke, trivia, live music and dance parties.
“That culture of fun all the way through winter, first was out of necessity. Now it’s kind of an institution. I don’t know what we’d do if it was Wednesday and it wasn’t karaoke,” says Drew. “No one ever believes us, but we truly did build the Canteen for locals. It does go crazy in the summer. That’s like everywhere. It doesn’t matter where you go; it’s going to be the same. But we really did have that in mind… it was geared for winter.”
Drew also suddenly had a more commercial outlet for his beer hobby, which was starting to take over the Wollenbergs’ kitchen. Then an interesting sort of chemistry began to happen, both in the pub and in the County in general.
The same year the Canteen opened, so did County Road Beer Company, sister company to Hinterland Wine Company. Subsequently, the County has seen a significant uptick in craft breweries, with Parson’s Brewery, Prince Eddy’s, Midtown Brewing Company, Strange Brewing and 555 Brewing Company— also a Wollenberg creation—popping up around the County. Along with the more established Barley Days and the quiet but long-lived Lake on the Mountain Brewing, the County now has eight craft brewing companies. It’s enough for a tour, if wine is not your thing.
“The breweries have got great relationships with each other. Not just on the island, but also MacKinnon Brothers, Wildcard, Signal, who are just on the outer perimeters. So that’s what we call the GCA [Greater County Area],” says Nat. “We are getting together, to have social interaction, so we can talk about where we get [equipment and ingredients from… we want to encourage them.”
The proliferation of breweries and beer culture, along with a culture of festivals celebrating all manner of food and drink inspired the Wollenbergs to start Homegrown, a festival that celebrates breweries and cideries in the GCA, with the help of other brewers and of the municipality’s economic development office.
“There was definitely something missing in the festival scene that will help showcase [beer and cider],” says Drew. “Because you’re always just part of the Cheese Festival or Terroir. You’re always the side project. But this is going to be totally focused on truly local craft breweries and cideries. It’s not going to be watered down on things externally.”
Tomorrow evening, the Canteen will host a tap takeover of all the GCA beers and ciders involved in Homegrown. It’s the first time they will all be featured in the same place.
“We wanted to have a focus on County brewers, and we also wanted to have a focus on where people start from. Generally, a majority of the brewers, they’re avid home brewers, and they’ve taken their passion to the next level,” says Nat. Part of the festival will be a home brewing competition, open to the public.
Homegrown will also focus on those growers who supply brewers— local hops and barley growers and malters will also have the opportunity for exposure.
Homegrown will take place on Saturday, October 21 at the Crystal Palace.