By: Alyssa Andres
In the world of craft beer, trends abound. Styles of beer seem to become popular in waves – whether it’s fruity sours or ridiculously hoppy triple IPAs. When breweries catch on to a trend, they tend to ride with it. This results in a market saturated with similar offerings, while, somewhat ironically, it seems what many craft beer lovers are looking for is something new.
While most breweries across North America are producing many of the same styles of beer and using similar brewing techniques, there is a small town brewery in Cambridge, Ontario, that is doing the opposite. Reverence Barrel Works has built itself on experimentation with the goal of producing small-batch craft beer full of personality.
Reverence Barrel Works owners Brett Hunter and Matt Duimering always wanted to focus on two things: experimentation and quality. The two brewers started RBW in September 2019 after quitting their day jobs and quickly started playing around with different concepts for their beer. They’d both used traditional and non-traditional methods of brewing, incorporating slow-fermentation techniques, wild yeast strains and an array of different ingredients. They experimented with beer-wine hybrids, wild-foraged edibles and have even used gelatin in some of their beer. By playing with techniques and styles, RBW has managed to catch the attention of craft beer lovers across Ontario.
The craft beer scene within Ontario is vast and spans across the entire province. There are microbreweries in some of the smallest towns in Ontario, and craft beer lovers will travel great distances to find the latest and greatest that breweries have to offer. Hunter and Duimering opened their brewery with this concept in mind. They knew if they had something on their roster that was a must-try, it would put their small brewery on the map for people touring the craft beer circuit.
The release of Reverence Slrrp! Blue in December 2020 did just that. Hunter and Duimering created an 8% ABV, slightly soured blonde ale with the “natural flavor of blue” and the addition of gelatin, giving the beer a texture similar to unset jello. Although not something most people would care to drink every day, it was something that everyone wanted to try.
“People drink with their eyes,” said Duimering. “When you’re scrolling through Instagram, you’re used to scrolling past a picture of beer, a picture of beer, and now there’s a picture of this blue beverage in front of you. You stop scrolling immediately.”
Slrrp! Blue sold out quickly and was followed by Slrrp! Green and Slrrp! Red. The beers were something people felt they needed to try, and because they were produced in small batches, they sold out quickly after each release. Although successful, the Slrrp! series was more of a gimmick for Reverence to draw attention to the brewery. Their primary focus is on producing more traditional beers with a modern flair.
Hunter and Duimering have experimented with a wide range of styles, from red wine barrel-aged sour red ales to maple barrel-aged pastry stouts. They use natural fermentation methods for their beer, so patience is a virtue when creating their products. Some beers take a few months to produce; others will stay in barrel for years. In the end, it’s all about quality and ingenuity.
Since releasing their Slrrp! series, the brewers have gone on to partner with local wineries to create beer-wine hybrids using several grape varietals and brewing techniques. They chose to work with wineries that share their similar vision and values. They wanted to pair with like-minded people also focused on creating quality products that represent the region and reflect the unique terroir and climate of Ontario.
Hunter and Duimering decided to source grapes from Traynor Family Vineyard in Prince Edward County, Ontario, for their beer-wine hybrid “Glou Glou Marquette.” The Traynor Vineyard is a small winery focused on sustainable permaculture, hand-harvesting their grapes and using natural, low intervention winemaking techniques. The brewers used Marquette grapes from the Traynor Vineyard and added them to a blend of golden sour ales. The beer spent five months in puncheons resting on the grapes, giving it a deep color and slight tannin. With rich flavors of red cherry and black raspberry, this hybrid beverage drinks more like a pét-nat wine than a traditional beer.
Duimering said he loves working in this hybrid style that expresses the terroir and uses natural fermentation. “We don’t want to be pitching just wine yeast strains into our beer because I can go buy those commercial strains,” he said. “We want to work with people who are asking what is the native microflora? What is the flavor of Ontario? So whatever [yeast] is on the grapes, that’s what ferments them. We put that in our beer, and you get that terroir carrying over.”
By incorporating wine into their beer, Reverence is appealing to a whole new demographic of drinkers. Being located close to wine country, it makes sense to utilize these ingredients and draw in wine lovers who are touring the area. Reverence has released several of these wine-beer hybrids, including a Chardonnay barrel-aged brett Saison aged on orange wine skins and a Flemish red ale aged for two months on Cabernet Franc skins. These beers are alive with personality and flavor, bringing the taste of the region to life.
Located an hour west of Toronto, Reverence Barrel Works is not only surrounded by wine country but also by expansive farmland and sprawling forests. Naturally, Hunter and Duimering also gravitate to incorporating some of the region’s other fruit and flora into their beer. They’ve utilized wild foraged sumac to create their “Patience & Fruition Sumac,” a tequila barrel-aged golden sour with notes of lemon and raspberry. They are now awaiting warmer weather to incorporate other wild edibles into their recipes, including dandelion, for a natural bitterness.
As a young brewery, the two brewers are continuing to experiment and expand. Many of their beers are extremely small batch and don’t make it onto their website or bottle shop. As a result, Reverence Barrel Works has started a “Barrel Club,” offering its members exclusive access to these limited edition beers. Each member receives 12 different beers a year not available to the public. Other benefits include access to pre-order unreleased beers and double bottle limits on limited edition beers. The Barrel Club allows RBW to showcase their most experimental beers as well as brews that would never be feasible to produce on a large scale due to cost and labor. They can also test their products this way and get a sense of what people like before producing large quantities. The club has been a great success for the brewery, with all 75 spots in the club selling out last year.
Another reason RBW has been successful, even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, is the support from bottle shops that have opened across the province. Before the pandemic, restaurants in Ontario were not legally able to sell takeout alcohol at all. Since restaurants were forced to close for most of 2020 and now into 2021, the government amended that law, enabling restaurants to offer takeout beer, wine and even cocktails in sealed containers. Many restaurants have transformed their operation into full-fledged bottle shops, offering an array of craft beer from across Ontario made by small producers that are not available in regular liquor stores. These shops have helped get RBW’s beer into the hands of a community that would otherwise never get to try their products.
In their own bottle shop, RBW does not offer tasting flights. Their beer is sold only by the can or bottle in order to encourage their customers to experience the full product. “I’m not a fan of speed dating,” Duimering said, “and I often find when people do flights, they’ll get a heavy stout and a light lager and a fruited sour and then some hoppy IPA, and it just wipes your palate. We want people to really get to know the beer and enjoy it more.”
The bottom line for Reverence Barrel Works is quality. Duimering and Hunter want to do things right and ensure that when people taste their beer, it’s the best it can be. Whether it takes a few months or a couple of years to produce, they’re turning out unique products made with love and passion, and that is something craft beer lovers want.
Consumers are starting to move away from what is trendy and looking for something different – something unique that tells a story and represents a person or a place. By going back to more traditional methods of production, using local ingredients and taking their time to create quality, small-batch beer, Reverence Barrel Works is able to capture the attention of their target audience and make a name for themselves in an otherwise extremely saturated market. They are definitely a brewery to take note of while exploring the flavors that Ontario craft beer has to offer.