Hindsight is 2020: An Interview with 5e Baron and Silo

Opening a new brewery is no easy feat, but even less so when there’s a global pandemic going on. Since March, a series of seemingly contradictory and fluctuating lockdown regulations has added to the archaic, outdated and complicated liquor laws that already hampered microbreweries from getting off the ground across Quebec. As we get towards the end of this crazy year, we thought we’d talk to two up-and-coming breweries who have persisted through all of this to make their debut on the Quebec beer scene in 2020— 5e Baron and Brasserie Silo.

Both of these breweries only opened earlier this spring, but have received critical and fan acclaim across Facebook and Instagram. Opening up in Aylmer, 5e Baron have already made a name for themselves in the Gatineau scene, where they have showcased a mastery of hazy IPAs, lagers, and stouts, all packaged in beautifully designed cans. They were also one of the few Québec breweries to join in with the #BlackisBeautiful collaboration, putting them instantly on the map. Meanwhile, Brasserie Silo has implanted itself in the local scene in the northern Montreal suburb of Ahuntsic, drawing on the past experiences of its owner and brewer at La Succursale and Birra Bar à Bières Maison. Bringing a taste of traditional German and Czech  beers to Montreal, Silo caters to a niche that was missing in the scene, while also offering some fun twists on the ever popular IPAs and Sours and brewing a full range of beers for local Birra.

In this article, Jacob Barette, owner of 5e Baron and Jean-Phillippe Lalonde, owner and brewer at Brasserie Silo, give us an insight into what it has been like to open a new brewery in 2020. They discuss how their plans have changed since March, the challenges they have faced and how they have adapted, and offer some insights into the implications for the future.

Firstly, can you tell us a bit about the background of your breweries? What are your stories? How did you go from an idea to opening in 2020?

Jacob: Well, as it turns out, the three of us didn’t know each other before this project. It just so happened that we were three individuals with the same idea, and once the connection was made (through one of the partners working at a local bar), we decided to put our efforts together and make this happen. Stephen had touched based with Dimitri, our brewer, about learning how to brew, and I offered my graphic design services if ever Dim was to brew small home brew batches for weddings and whatnot. So although we had thought about opening a brewery separately, I believe meeting each other and realizing that we had very complimentary skillsets fast forwarded the process as we were able to tackle it as a team. From there, it was important to us that we discuss the direction we wanted to take. Before defining recipes, branding, etc, we had to decide what kind of brewery we wanted to be. From there, it took about 3 years to put together a business plan, work at refining recipes, go out and get financing, find a spot, renovate and open.

Jean-Phillippe*: The project was born because I wanted to distribute my products to a wider public beyond just my bar. I had been brewing at my brewpub (La Succursale) for several years but we weren’t very well known because we couldn’t distribute. Also, I wanted to be able to produce the beers from Birra Bar à Bières Maison myself, rather than at other breweries. I now have total control over the production of the beers and that allows me to improve and push my ideas and the quality to the maximum.

What were your original plans or visions for your respective launches? How did these plans change after the pandemic struck in March?

Jacob: We had always planned to focus very much on our local market. We had thought it would be fun to auction off our first beer for a local charity, but that was pretty much it. We wanted to open without much fanfare and let people discover 5e Baron and our approach. The pandemic definitely changed our grand opening as we were only able to sell cans to go. While it could’ve ended as a massive disappointment, our local market responded so well, so many people showed up, all smiles, all love, everyone was respecting distancing rules and it couldn’t have been better. Since then, we were able to partially open for the summer and are now back to cans to go. We’re inviting local businesses to set up kiosks at the brewery on release days as we usually get a good turnout and thought it would be a good way to give people a simple way to support their local economy. For example, last release if you came out, you could buy from 4 different businesses. I guess because we were sort of born in this, we’re constantly thinking of ways to adapt. Won’t lie though, we’re very much looking forward to functioning and using the space as it was intended, once it’s safe to do so, of course.

Jean-Phillippe: My business plan was based on a diversity in my points of sale. I was counting on Birra and Silo (where we have a bar with 125 seats) as well as other bars to sell 75% of the beer in kegs. The other 25% was to be canned for the local market and for some distribution across the province. Obviously, this plan will not be place for a long time. All of our production is now in cans but I occasionally produce some kegs for Birra and Silo as well as other interested bars.

This slowed down our production because it’s much quicker to produce kegs than to can unfiltered beer. I’ve therefore had to push back the production of lagers. I’ve bought some new tanks to help the situation and we will be able to use them from December.

Another big change was that we weren’t able to organize a launch party! We didn’t have the chance to show off our brewery and explain our vision and our beers as much as we wanted to because of the health measures.

What have been the biggest challenges you have faced in 2020? How have you been able overcome them?

Jacob: Opening in a pandemic….! Seriously though, just how unstable things have been. We have to adjust a bunch of different things based on how our beer is packaged, i.e. if we can distribute kegs, then we order less cans and vice versa. Sometimes with how things are now you need to readjust on the fly, and as these things are planned well in advance, it does cause some problems and losses.

Jean-Phillippe: The market is saturated with new breweries and breweries who have started distributing because of the pandemic. In Montreal, people aren’t going out to bars as much and we therefore absolutely have to sell our beers in the stores. It’s very difficult to attract attention.

Jacob, as we all know, #GatineauisTrending and has become synonymous with high quality beers in Quebec. How has it been establishing a name for 5e Baron in the area?

Jacob: Well, we feel we still have a bit to go still. Don’t get me wrong, we’re very happy with everything so far, but we’ve only been opened for 5 months now, so as one would expect, we still have some details to iron out on some of our recipes, but we’re very happy with the response so far. One thing I think that separates us from other local breweries if we had noticed a lack of locally produced lagers, or even just well, properly made lagers. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that there aren’t any, but we didn’t see them often enough and generally speaking we love our lagers. In defence of breweries who don’t brew them, it’s a bit of a tough call to make as you monopolize a full fermenter with a beer that takes more time to produce (much more time if you do it properly) and wont cause much of a stir upon release. So we’re kind of playing the long game here. We only brew styles for which we see tremendous merit, and while our hoppy beers got people talking a lot early on, we’re hoping in the long haul that our approach in offering these high quality, meticulously brewed lagers will get noticed as well.

Meanwhile, Jean-Philippe, you started Brasserie Silo with a view to brewing more traditional styles of beer. Do you think this was a risk in 2020, when many consumers are still chasing new trends like NEIPAS, Pastry Stouts and Smoothie Sours?

Jean-Phillippe: I’ve been commercially brewing traditional styles of beer for 9 years now. It’s what people know me for. They are simple beers that have stood the test of time. I don’t only brew these kinds of beers, but they are the styles I prefer and very few breweries are interested in them. I don’t think that specializing in this type of beer is a risk as long as they are well made, balanced and consistent. They are easy-drinking but also complex beers, full of subtlety and flavour. They are for everyone.

Occasionally I worry that my products are too light or too bitter when the trend is for sweet beers packed with flavour. I tell myself that some people are going to taste my beers and move on to another brewery because they think they not funky enough, or aren’t for beer geeks. I am always open to improving my beers. But, I think it’s important to have a range of beers and not only brew to trends. Beer lovers who have tried everything or have travelled always eventually come back to the classic styles. They appreciate their subtlety and balance.

Would either of you say that COVID-19 has changed the craft beer industry and market in Quebec for good? If so, how?

Jacob: It’s really hard to say as the only way we’ve experienced owning a brewery is during this pandemic, so we have no idea what our business would’ve or will look like under normal circumstances. However, and this doesn’t apply specifically to beer, I hope that there will be a continuation of supporting local businesses. This whole thing has showed us how important it is not just during these trying times but it was important before and it’ll be important after. I don’t think many people wish to return to normal only to find out that their dining out options are now limited to the Boston Pizza’s of the world with the excitement that comes with picking between a Coors Light and a Bud Light.

Jean-Phillippe: I hope not. Beer is made to bring people together and bars and restaurants are an essential part of our industry. We need to be able to continue sharing beer in person and not just virtually.

Is there any advice you would give to any other breweries planning on opening up in Quebec in 2021?

Jacob: If I’m being perfectly honest, if it’s possible, wait this thing out before opening. It’s rough. It’s a great business with wonderfully nice and super effective people. Many breweries, suppliers, etc have helped us out in time of need and that’s really the nice thing with the craft beer scene. These collaborations, whether it be beer or events, they’re born out of mutual appreciation for each other. We’re very much looking forward to experiencing owning a brewery under normal circumstances. But if you’re on the verge, wait out the pandemic if possible.

Jean-Phillippe: Take the time to plan. Normally, some breweries can make a living from on-site sales alone, without having to sell all of their beer on the shelves. If you are planning to sell everything in the stores though, what makes your brewery stand out?

Finally, what’re the next steps for you both? Where do you see your breweries going in the next year?

Jacob: We have a few things planned, some barrels we have to put beer into, keep working on our beer portfolio, what to add, what to take out. We’d love to make people discover our small area of Gatineau. We absolutely love it and believe the most wonderful thing about small breweries is that when everything is well made and well thought out, you can get a real sense of place with beer. We make these beers thinking first and foremost that they will be enjoyed at our place, so when it’ll be possible, we’re looking forward to packing the place and having people enjoy some 5e Baron beers the way we have always intended.

Jean-Phillippe: Starting in the next few weeks we will be increasing the number of lagers we produce. We will have more time to let them clear and mature in our new horizontal tanks. As well as Louvain, Svelty Lezak and Chabanel, we’ll have dryer Pils made with corn. I also want to brew some Franconian Lagerbiers, a Vienna Lager, a Rauchbier, a Dunkel, etc. I also want to add some new IPAs and other sours.

There we have it. With hindsight, 2020 might not have been the best year to get a major brewery project up and running, but both 5e Baron and Brasserie Silo have made the most of this weird situation and excelled in their own domains. As more and more breweries wait in the wings and COVID-19 shows no sign of slowing in Canada, 2021 is also shaping up to be another interesting year!

* Original interview in French, translation by Mike Davis.