Brad Campeau is on a mission to make craft beer accessible to everyone in Ottawa. He’s the owner and operator of Brew Donkey, a start-up that delivers craft beer and runs brewery tours around the city. This week, I got a chance to ride along with Brad and get a glimpse into a day in the life of the donkey.
Our morning begins in the Brew Donkey- a modest single room in Maker Space North, a collective office space in the 250 City Center complex. The room is packed with boxes full of stickers, posters of various beers in the area and a few jars full of hops. Inside sits the donkey himself.
“It’s not very glamorous,” he warns me as we walked out to the minivan that he uses for all of his deliveries. As we get into the vehicle, he pulls out a piece of paper covered in his own chicken scratch with a list of beers for the day- nine different orders to be picked up from ten breweries.
Brew Donkey started in 2013. Brad was in Vancouver and Victoria and saw the accessibility to craft breweries and beer, and realized that was something that Ottawa didn’t have.
“You could visit eight or nine breweries in about a 25 minute walk, so three or four breweries a day was an easy walk. Ottawa’s not like that,” he explains.
In addition, there was wide craft selection in private beer stores that Ontario couldn’t match. Brad saw an opportunity to bolster Ottawa’s craft beer scene, and so he put together Brew Donkey.
Our first stop- Big Rig Brewery in Kanata. As soon as Brad walks in the door, he’s greeted with familiarity by everyone in sight. The most jovial of these is Brewmaster Lon, who declares that Friday is Boot day, and pours us each a sample of a new cask that he’s opened. It’s a mandarina hefeweizen, a new experiment by Lon.
“I think experimentation is super important,” Lon tells me, “but I think quality is even more important than that. Even if people are experimenting, good sound procedures and getting a good sound beer is still important within that process. I’m happy to try experimental beers, but sometimes people don’t adhere to enough quality control measures when they’re going into those things.”
His mentality is clear in the beer, it goes down smooth with a pleasant citrus touch to it that leaves the drinker wanting more. Brad picks up his order- a growler of Big Rig’s Black IPA, and we’re off to our next destination.
In addition to the deliveries, Brew Donkey runs brewery tours each weekend.
“The brewery tours were something that I initially envisioned as something to help our current delivery customers get better educated on the beers that were available for delivery,” says Brad “but at this point more often than not people are just using the tours as a great time.”
The tours go to three breweries in a given area of town, where the tourists get to go to the back room, sample beers and learn about the companies. While we drive on from Big Rig to Covered Bridge, Brad explains that the brewery tours had taken off more than he could have possibly expected. Almost every weekend, the tours sell out, he tells me over the clanking of empties in the back of the van.
After a short drive south, we arrive at Stittsville’s Covered Bridge Brewing, where we’re greeted by a smiling John Van Dyke, co-owner of the company. Brad picks up a Black IPA for the delivery- apparently they’re a popular item this week. After the beer is bought, I get a chance to talk with John.
“We’re getting a lot of great beers out there, which I think is only a good thing for people around Ottawa and for brewers.” says John. “I think it’s probably the best way that we can encourage people to start drinking craft beer and drinking locally. If we can kind of convert some of those people that are normally drinking some of the big name brand stuff over to craft beer that’s great.”
With some covered bridge in hand, we’re off to Broadhead Brewing.
Brew Donkey, like any business, isn’t without its struggles. Due to Ontario’s strict liquor laws, Brad isn’t allowed to hold any inventory on the beer. If he keeps beer overnight, he technically becomes a distributor, not a delivery service. This means that all beer has to be picked up on the day of delivery.
Sometimes, people place orders for beers that are sold out by the time Brad does a delivery day. Others think they can order beer for instant delivery at any time.
Another challenge is expanding delivery limits. Brad uses area codes to determine his limits, but many of the communities surrounding Ottawa are on the edge of massive area codes. Promising delivery to rural communities can be difficult, especially considering most people will only order a few beers.
Today, Brad’s deliveries will start on the east end, but I can’t tag along that far. There’s only two more breweries to go before he drops me off.
The first of these is Broadhead, a bustling brewery with DIY equipment and a handful of people seemingly on their lunch break picking up some beers. Here, Brad hands in a couple boxes full of empties. If you order from Brew Donkey, he’ll bring your craft empties back to the breweries as well. After giving in $100 worth of empties, he grabs a growler and a can and we’re off to Nita Beer.
Nita is a new company off of Collonade drive. Brad tells me that they’re targeted at creating beer for the active sporting community. Upon arrival, it becomes clear what he means. Their beers are each labeled with skiing difficulty signs according to how heavy their flavour is .
Andy Nita is the owner of Nita Beer. When we arrive, he has just finished updating the new Brew Donkey online store with a trio of new stouts, Perfectum, Omne, and Trium.
“We released three stouts based on good things come in threes,” says Nita “The Trium one I like the best, it’s actually a spiced stout that has cloves and cinnamon in it. The cinnamon cloves was kind of like ‘well there to be a lot of those ingredients in Irish cooking, so let’s fire it in and see what happens’”
We pick up a growler of their OPA, an IPA and hit the road once more. After Brad drops me off, he’s going to swing by a pub to meet with an Ashton Brewing Company representative, and then off to the Clocktower before working his way to the East end.
Once all of the beers are picked up, Brad will begin his deliveries in the evening, and then do it all again on the next delivery day.
As promised, the day wasn’t particularly glamorous but it allowed me a sneak look inside of one of the most exciting aspects of Ottawa’s growing beer community. Brad says that Brew Donkey has been well received by the small population that know of it. The brewers themselves have nothing but praise for him.
“It’s really good for us,” says John from Covered Bridge, “People in the east end can try our stuff even if we’re not on tap there, and that just creates more demand for us, so yeah it’s a good thing.”
Big Rig’s Brewmaster Lon was even more enthusiastic.
“He is the Don Quixote of craft beer. He is Don Quixote on a donkey, driving beer to the windmill every day, it’s beautiful,” Lon smiles “He’s bringing beer to the people.”