Earlier this year, we caught up with MC and beer podcaster Craig Thorn as part of our Aussie Export series. As we chatted, Craig mentioned a few other Australians he knew who had embedded themselves in Canada's craft beer scene and went on to introduce us to Natalie Wollenberg.
In 2014, Natalie, her partner Drew and their young children moved to the small town of Picton, Ontario, having fallen for the area while visiting Drew's family. Located in Prince Edward County, the "island" (a sliver of land does connect it to the rest of Canada) sits on the north shore of Lake Ontario some two-and-a-half hours east of Toronto.
The County, as it's often referred to, is home to myriad wineries, distilleries, cideries and – in part thanks to Natalie and Drew – a growing number of local breweries. So, here's Natalie to tell us how she ended up running a brewery in Canada.
Natalie Wollenberg – 555 Brewing
How did you end up running a brewery in Canada?
A Canadian and an Australian met in Darwin and the rest is history. Drew came out to Australia about 17 years ago with his family because his dad is a geologist and was working in Arnhem Land. I had just finished studying nursing at university and Drew was doing a degree in classical music.
We moved eventually moved to Perth and Drew got into homebrewing; initially, it was a real cheap way of getting bad beer. But he caught the bug and his knowledge, interest and the beer dramatically improved.
We were visiting “The County” as his parents and grandparents live out here. On our last visit, it just felt like the right time, right place to make that move of doing something ourselves.
So we devised a plan to open up a brewpub. What was a casual whimsical conversation led to heavy plans and uprooting our family from Perth to Picton! We arrived here in June 2014 and, with hard work, support, great friends and great opportunities, we opened The County Canteen in June 2015.
With the tourist season beginning, we opened with a blast and hit the ground running – it felt like being dipped in a deep fryer. What we planned as a brewpub with some bar snacks and not a very labour intensive menu ended up being a full on kitchen, full on tourist season – full on everything. Drew’s mum basically looked after our kids full-time as we were initiated into hospitality (felt like hazing more than an initiation). We finally got the brewing going but our biggest issue was capacity.
Our beer would be on for a short time, then sold out – pretty frustrating so we had the opportunity to open up a brewery in a location up the road. So, like the County Canteen, we jumped off the cliff yet again. We opened 555 Brewing Co in March 2017 and here we are a year later.
Who else is involved in the brewery?
My husband runs the beer side of things, I run the front of house and kitchen and logistical crap (marketing, social media). We have another brewer, Brett French, who has also spent some time living in Australia.
Drew and Brett have a bit of a bromance but have one main thing in common, they make awesome beer!
What does the name of the brewery refer to?
The name 555 refers to a famous county story: the Lazier murder in 1883. Basically, these dudes burst into this farmhouse, shot the farmer in the chest and killed him, and they stole $555 dollars, which was from their hop harvest. The wife managed to get away though.
There’s been a book written, a play written and also a museum dedicated to the story.
Is there much of an awareness of Australian beer where you are?
We don’t have much of an awareness here of Australian beers, but we are on the other side of the world. Drew’s stint (stint meaning a good 14 years) in Australia had a major influence in his brews. Most of his beers are influenced in some way by the Australian take on the classic American styles. So that means Southern Hemisphere hops are a go to, but the availability here can waiver.
Is there much of a beer scene in Picton? How does it compare to some other parts of Ontario?
Prince Edward County has been well known for being a bit of a wine country. Initially, Barley Days was the OG and then up popped seven more breweries in the last two years.
The island has about 24,000 people in total, with some of them only being here seasonally. The County reminds us a tonne of Margaret River: green, lush, wine country, awesome scenery, beaches.
When Australians visit Ontario, is there anything they shouldn't miss beer wise?
When Aussies come to Ontario, Prince Edward County is a must! The Toronto beer scene is killer, some of my favourite stops are Bellwoods and Blood Brothers and, for the best beer bar scene, head straight to Bar Hop or Beer Bistro.
As for the local beer scene, we have a variety of different breweries in the area as well as what I call The GCA (Great County Area – coined from the Greater Toronto Area). We have an awesome farm brewery close by called MacKinnon Brothers Brewery – some of the most hard working blokes I know.
Close by to 555 Brewing Co is Prince Eddy’s, Parsons Brewery, Lake on the Mountain Brewery, Barley Days, Midtown Brewing, Signal Brewery, Wild Card Brewing and Napanee Beer Co. It’s a tight knit brewing community, but we are kind of on an island so being isolated has its issues. But most of the world's problems can be solved over a beer.
What about local beers?
Looking at the beers we started pouring at The County Canteen compared with now, the variance and diversity is crazy. We started with 16 taps of a good wide range – now it’s 26 taps of Ontario only beers: barrel aged, kettle sours, gruits, cucumber infused, whatever.
For a town of 4,000 in Picton, we have some variety that isn’t available in higher populated areas. Some of our regulars basically just ask what’s new and I love that.
You can check out other features in the Aussie Exports series here.
Photo at the top (left to right): brewer Brett French, Natalie and Drew Wollenberg. Other images from the 555 Brewing Co Facebook page.