(image shows Jeff Tkachuk and Matt Johnston at Collective Arts Brewery. - John Rennison , The Hamilton Spectator)
Collective Arts Brewing is a visible brand around Hamilton, through its Burlington Street headquarters and as a sponsor at local events. But the company's owners have global ambitions and are shipping beer to several international markets just three years after opening.
This spring, Collective Arts began selling in Sweden. The brewer ships to several parts of the United States, and has sold beer in Italy, Spain and Australia.
It has held "launch weeks" featuring a series of art-meets-beer events in Vancouver, Boston, Chicago and Nashville, with an upcoming launch planned for New York City. Finally, the company plans to launch in the United Kingdom within the coming months, with a week of parties planned for London.
"We looked at … what are the key markets we want to be in from an operational perspective and also from a cultural perspective," explained vice-president of finance and operations Jeff Tkachuk, noting artsy places like Nashville line up perfectly with the company's image.
"Then it's up to us to figure out how to get the beer there and whether there are points of interest (where we can sell beer) along the way."
The company started making its product at other breweries in 2013, but grew quickly enough that its owners knew they'd need to open their own place. They chose the massive former Lakeport facility with a vision for rapid expansion, said vice-president of finance and operations Jeff Tkachuk.
"It was the plan from the start," he told the Spec on a tour of the facility, which features more than 25 massive tanks that hold between 60 and 300 hectolitres each. "To go into a smaller facility knowing you'd have to move or expand in a year or two didn't make sense."
Collective Arts initially shared the space with Burlington's Nickel Brook Brewing Co. but now uses the entire facility itself. What began as a company with five employees now employs more than 100, including local workers and those in the markets where it sells. Sales have risen to more than $10 million per year.
Ontario is home to about 250 breweries, according to the Ontario Craft Brewers association. In 2017, the LCBO reported selling $88.5 million in craft beer.
Co-founder Matt Johnston said that despite the increasingly crowded craft beer market, the brand has done well partially thanks to its branding, which includes work by visual artists on the outside of its cans.
Many beer brands focus on the brewery's hometown — think The Hamilton Brewery or Brantford's Bell City Brewery — but Collective Arts thought it could get better traction further afield with what Tkachuk called a "geographically agnostic" image.
You have to get consumers to choose your beer from the shelf before they can try it, Johnston added.
"There's a lot of breweries that are struggling because if you don't have something unique about you, other than where you're from, the emotional engagement people have with your brand is concentrated to your localness," Johnston said. "There are so many choices."
The changing artwork on the cans is one way the brand adapts to local markets. In Boston, where Collective Arts partnered with the Boston Tattoo Convention, some of the company's cans feature area tattoo artists' work.
Johnston says Collective Arts' launch weeks are pivotal in linking the brand to the arts scene in new cities, but notes the company works on an ongoing basis to keep the brand "very alive in those markets. It's not just about putting the product on the shelf, it's about having staff there that can create those experiences and profile the beer, but also the artists we work with."
Maintaining a presence is key, says McMaster University marketing professor Marvin Ryder, who feels that one week is typically too short to truly introduce a brand. Getting the beer on tap in bars on a steady basis is a great way to sell the beer by its taste, and having the right packaging is the way to sell in the store, he added.
A 2017 Nielson survey found 70 per cent of craft beer consumers decide what they are going to buy while looking at the store shelf.
"Package design is a critical success factor, as well as designing the box containing the cans to act like a little billboard on the shelf," said Ryder.
"In Ontario, self-identified craft beer drinkers reported drinking, on average, 3.6 different brands of craft beer per month. Fifteen per cent of people surveyed reported trying 10 different craft beer brands per month."
He said the relative lack of loyalty means smart brewers will also go after the segment of customers looking to buy something unusual or in "limited release" — something Collective Arts has tried to exploit. Its special release for its recent Liquid Arts Festival was "tropical milkshake" flavour, featuring vanilla, passion fruit and mango.
"Consumers aren't terribly loyal and it makes the industry fairly volatile," said Ryder. "At this moment, we're in the boom phase. Ultimately, we will reach a point where we will have oversaturated the market and we will see a shakeup."
For now, Collective Arts is moving full-steam ahead. One of its next goals is to create a 929-square-metre hospitality space at the brewery that could be used for concerts and art shows. That part of the building is currently used for dry storage but occasionally cleaned out for launch parties and events.
Communications manager Toni Shelton said she doesn't want to say more until the details are finalized, but in an earlier conversation, Johnston and Tkachuk appeared excited.
"We want someone, whether they're local or coming into town to visit us, to have a great experience," said Johnston. "If you do shut it down for private function, we're building it in a way that there's still an ability (for visitors) to have a really cool experience. We're just working through all those details."