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Sollio Next Generation Award: MacKinnon Brothers Brewing Company - Adding Value to Their Values

After a big premiere last year, the Sollio Next Generation Award is making its second foray into Ontario among The Agromart Group retailer customers with three finalists—three farms working in grain production, each with their own niche: one uses its harvest to brew beer, another grows large-scale crops while making its machinery more profitable with contract work, and the third focuses on seed production.

Competition judges visited, videos were produced, and the finalists and their Agromart retailer representatives attended the gala during Sollio Cooperative Group’s annual general meeting. The Sollio Next Generation Award plays an important role not only by highlighting successful models of new farms or transfers—which has been its mission for the past 21 years—but also by amplifying the reach of great stories and opportunities for cultural exchange between farmers across Canada.

When farmers get to trade business practices and share their cultural heritage through a competition, everybody wins.

Ivan MacKinnon crawls under his seed drill, patiently greases each seeding unit and puts the machine away once he’s done. Before maintaining the machine, the mechanical engineer by profession who worked for years for Kellogg’s before giving up his good salary and predictable schedule, brought the technical manual along to make sure he didn’t forget any lubrication points. Once an engineer, always an engineer!

It was in 2012 that Ivan became the eighth generation to take over his father Michael’s grain farm, Miller Seed Farm, which produces oat, wheat, barley and soybean seeds.

Since the 1960s, the farm has been producing seeds and adding value to grain. But Ivan and his brother Daniel, an agronomy graduate, weren’t about to stop there. Having attended the start-up of a friend's microbrewery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, the former advisor to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture went to Scotland to study brewing and distilling before returning to the Bath farm to draw up plans with his brother. Their goal was to turn malting barley into beer. Today, 6% of their 1,300 acres under cultivation is dedicated to malting barley for the brewery, which is processed into malt by Barn Owl Malt of Belleville, ON. The brothers also grow four acres of hops, an uncommonly demanding climbing plant. Among their blonde, red, black, white and fruity beers, and of all their 700,000 litres of beer, they are most proud of their Harvest Ale, whose two-row Esma barley, malted Munich style, and Mackinac hops combine in the vat to produce a 5% alcohol beer with a bitterness index of 15 and accents of malty toast.

“I’ve known the MacKinnons—Peter, Michael and now Ivan and Daniel—for three generations,” says TCO Agromart Sales Manager and Partner Terry O’Neill. “The guys managed to turn what was just a dream into something real.”  And a dream it was, up until the first concrete slab has been poured. That’s when the brothers decided there was no turning back. MacKinnon Brothers Brewing Company was taking shape.

Today, do the brothers see themselves more as farmers or brewers? “We run our microbrewery like a farm, at low cost, calculating profitability and doing as many tasks as possible ourselves, because margins are thin,” Ivan explains. “As a farmer, you’re at the mercy of the weather and the price of inputs and grain, but by making beer, you reduce risk through better control,” says Daniel. The brothers started off investing their personal savings into their project, but soon teamed up with two other co-investors: their cousin Ben Vandenberg, who was skilled with a hammer and saw, and their friend Andrew Weel, who was handy with a welding torch and ratchet wrench.

The MacKinnons and their passionate team offer a full-scale lesson in slow drinking experiential agritourism, with a completely redesigned farm. Here, the old buildings are repurposed as an office, a brewhouse (where malt is mixed with water), a reception hall for weddings (in the old barn), and a tasting room that looks like the team’s official headquarters and is open every day, all year round. There are even street food trucks, countless Adirondack chairs, a volleyball court and a stage for a summer music festival that attracts a whopping 7,000 festival-goers. The centrepiece is still the new microbrewery, whose three-roofed architecture replicates the old barn on the family farm a few hundred metres away.

MacKinnon Brothers Brewing Company, whose farm has existed since 1784 when their Loyalist ancestors migrated north to remain loyal to the British Crown, is also about sustainability: sustaining its operations over the decades, but also in the sense of sustainable development, relying on local grains that are malted locally. The carbon dioxide produced by the yeast as part of the alcoholic fermentation process is collected, purified and stored for subsequent use in beer carbonation. Their brews are of course available in beer stores and at the LCBO, but 85% of the volume is sold in the greater Kingston, Napanee and Prince Edward County area, resulting in fewer transportation-related GHGs. The ultimate step of this sustainability process will be to carry out a life-cycle analysis of a crate of beers (production, processing, distribution, and consumption), “from cradle to grave,” as they say.

For an engineer and agronomist duo, this is sure to go down smooth!

Photo by Christophe Champion

Read all about the winners of the Sollio Next Generation Award  2023

Étienne Gosselin

Étienne contributes to the Cooperateur since 2007. Agronomist, he holds a master's degree in agricultural economics. He worked as a freelancer in the print and electronic media. He lives in Stanbridge East, in the Eastern Townships.

Étienne contributes to the Cooperateur since 2007. Agronomist, he holds a master's degree in agricultural economics. He worked as a freelancer in the print and electronic media. He lives in Stanbridge East, in the Eastern Townships.