Story by Rod Charles
Vacay.ca Deputy Editor
NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, ONTARIO — Robin Ridesic, founder and CEO of The Exchange Brewery in Ontario’s Niagara Region, is making a name for herself and her brewery with a unique style that is lighting up the industry and catching the attention of beer enthusiasts across North America.
Not a small feat for a brewery in a region known primarily for wine and waterfalls.
There’s no question women are playing a larger leadership role in the demanding craft brewery field. While it isn’t new to see female brewery owners it is fair to say that Ridesic has captured the attention of the Niagara Region — which features 13 breweries — with her unique blend and bold approach.
“We’re going for a different style of branding than you see from most craft breweries,” says Ridesic, who built her brewery in the old telephone exchange building, hence the name of her enterprise. “We’re a different style of brewery playing with different niche styles and we’re playing with the barrels and the regional fruits out of Niagara and we wanted our branding to also be unique and reflect that. Our selection includes a range of American styles along with sour and funky Belgian-style beers and ales.”
For years people have travelled to Niagara looking for the best drinks in Canada, and usually those drinks are of the grape variety. These days, visitors will find some of the nation’s top-rated beers are close to where icewine and pinot noir are produced. Many will be surprised.
In fact, when you step into Exchange, you might be forgiven for thinking you are in a winery. The Belgian-style beers and ales stand out not only for taste, but for the bottle designs that feature a distinctly European feel and at first glance almost resemble wine bottles.
But that’s where the comparisons to wine end. Within moments of walking in and experiencing the premises it becomes clear that you are in a brewery. Exchange houses a 10-barrel brewhouse with five large fermenters and eight serving vessels. Their ales spend a range of time maturing in this oak to develop their distinctive and complex flavours. One thing I liked about Exchange was its tasting room, a relaxing and classy spot to chill out with friends before dinner or a play at Shaw Theatre. The beers are also totally different from what I usually drink. Perhaps Ridesic’s biggest achievement — besides the awards Exchange Brewery is winning — is the success she has had expanding the tastes of thousands of old-school beer drinkers.
Exchange Brewery Earns Accolades
Don’t look now, but many of those old-schoolers are starting to take notice. In May, Exchange Brewery received the Gold, Silver and Bronze prizes for three of its signature beers at the 14th annual Ontario Brewing Awards. These awards came just a few weeks after the Exchange’s big wins at the 2017 New York International Beer competition in February; making 2017 an already successful one for the brewery.
“We put so much heart and soul into creating the Exchange Brewery and it’s so nice to get recognition from people who love beer, but it’s also great to get recognition from people who love our brewery as much as we do,” says Ridesic. “It’s nice to have other people feeling the way we do about our beer. We just had our one year anniversary, so it’s nice to have this recognition so early on.”
Outstanding Beer Emerges in Niagara
Ridesic credits head brewer Sam Maxbauer for making the type of beer she envisioned when she decided to launch Exchange. The beers take several months to years to create because of the amount of time they need in the barrels and Ridesic understood that the learning process to make the beer would also take a long time. The unique style of “wild and funky” beers that Ridesic dreamed of creating in Canada needed a special brewmaster and when she discovered Maxbauer in the United States she knew she had her man.
“Sam Maxbauer had been a brewer at Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales, which is in Michigan. It is a brewery that I have admired for years, one of the best in the world,” says Ridesic, who had to work closely with Canada Immigration and Citizenship to bring Maxbauer, who is a U.S. citizen, to Canada. “Sam was the second-in-command brewer at Jolly Pumpkin at the time. I think I just got lucky that he was willing to move to another country and kinda take a chance on a start-up. He is unbelievably talented and has not only made outstanding beer but he is also a wonderful guy to work with.”
Maxbauer says Exchange’s goal is to appeal to every type of beer drinker while at the same time pushing people to try something new.
“I have always wanted to work for a start-up brewery, and then Robin came along and it was good so I decided to become a new resident of Canada,” says Maxbauer, who calls Niagara-on-the-Lake a great place to live. “A lot of our beers are fairly experimental. We do barrel-aged beer and power ales, so a lot of people who come to our doors haven’t tried anything like that before. We see a lot of first-timers come through and have a really unique experience.”
MORE ABOUT THE EXCHANGE BREWERY
List of beers: exchangebrewery.com/beer/
Address: 7 Queen Street, Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON
Hours: Daily, 2-9 pm
Ontario Brewing Awards for The Exchange Brewery
GOLD: Oud Bruin (Farmhouse Dark Category)
SILVER: Flanders Red Ale (Farmhouse Dark Category)
BRONZE: Amber Ale (Amber Ale Category)
2017 New York International Beer competition
GOLD: Golden Ale (Ale Beer Styles – Belgian And French Origin)
GOLD: Peppercorn Rye Saison (Ale Beer Styles – Belgian And French Origin)
GOLD: Foreign Exchange Stout (Ale Beer Styles – North American Origin)
BRONZE: Amber Ale (Ale Beer Styles – North American Origin)