I'm at Beyond The Pale Brewing Company's taproom and it's about 11 a.m. It's a bunker with lots of art on the wall, brew kettles in the back and the smell of beer in the air. The guy the size of a National Football League (NFL) linebacker sitting at the bar is the owner Rob McIsaac.
“Too early for a beer?” McIsaac asks.
“Umm, yes,” I reply, tempted at the thought.
But I'm unsure. With 14 beers on tap, I'm feeling like I could stay here for a while.
Founded in 2012 by the 42-year-old Ottawa native and Shane Clark, Beyond The Pale Brewing Company is one of Ottawa's more popular craft beer brands. The irony is that like so many successful businesses, it happened almost by accident. Or fate, after McIsaac returned to his hometown Ottawa after 12 years in Boston and Ithaca, New York where he had studied pre-med before switching to Cornell University for an MBA business degree and a career in the Boston's investment houses.
Now married, with his first born and back in Ottawa to be closer to his family, McIsaac was looking for some direction in his career when his pal Clark, serious beer maker, told McIsaac he hoped to one day open a brewery when he retired.
That struck McIsaac as an odd thing to say.
“Why wait until you retire,” McIsaac says. “We should do it now. My experience in the U.S. was that the craft beer market was growing. One of the things I remember from my undergraduate economics course was that the Canadian market follows the American in terms of trends. I thought if craft beer making was growing in the U.S., it would work in Ottawa.”
So, with $150,000 investment from Clark's's father and their own savings, the two friends opened a modest brewery and taproom in on Hamilton Avenue in Hintonberg in 2012. At the time, they were only the third local craft beer in the city. (By comparison, today, there are 40.)
“It was a lot of long days,” McIsaac recalls. “What became clear was that it was very difficult to make any money making a small amount of beer. Beer is very much a volume game. You need to make more beer to make any money.”
So they moved into the current space at 250 City Centre, installed a bigger brewery, taproom and bottle shop, added an 175-seat patio and teamed with Smoque Shack barbecue as their food vendor.
Today, Beyond The Pale (an old Irish expression meaning above reproach) make 600,000 litres of beer annually. Of the 14 varieties they brew, the most popular being Crew Cut, Yummy and Pink Fuzz, which they market through their taproom, at bars and restaurants, by the can at the bottle shop and select LCBO and grocery store locations.
Gregarious and intelligent, McIsaac looks after the business end of things while Clark attends to the beer. The job suits the big man, who works hard to generate new opportunities and enjoys sharing his success with his employees. It's very civilized and chill.
But like many local business operators, the COVID pandemic tested McIsaac's leadership. It meant two years of reinvention and existential redefinition for Beyond The Pale.
“It set us back years easily,” he says.“We had to close the hospitality end of the business completely, and focus on bottle shop, LCBO and online sales completely. It was rough, but we were in better shape because we were so well established than our competitors.
“But in the end it was a good lesson because in business, there are always going to be lots of ups and downs. So you have to stay level-headed during the good and bad times.”
For the moment at least, the pandemic seems to be a distant memory, and life has returned to normal at Beyond The Pale. The staff are playful, customers are abundant and McIsaac is focusing on the brewery's next business opportunity, a venue concept he can't get into just yet.
And, according to McIsaac, the best part of it for Beyond The Pale and the craft beer industry in general, is that the potential for the craft beer market provincially is ridiculous.
“Only 10% of the beer consumed in Ontario is craft,” he says. “If 90% of Ontarians are drinking macro-lagers like Molson Canadian or Labatt's Blue, we figure we should start making beers that appeal to them as well.”
But the important thing is to enjoy your work and not get too far ahead of yourself.
“Having fun and making good beer, those are the mandate of Beyond the Pale,” he says.