The following story/interview appeared in the October 2012 issue of The Canadian Brewerianist, written by Troy Burtch.
25 years is a long time. A long time for any independent business to be in operation… let alone a family owned and operated craft brewery in a market that hasn’t always been the easiest road to venture down.
Great Lakes Brewery has a long and storied past that is as unique at the craft beers they produce. Started in 1987 in an industrial unit in Brampton by Bruce Cornish and four other silent partners, the group produced two beers, an ale and a lager, using malt extract, a far cry from all grain used by craft breweries throughout North America. The beer was packaged in 1Litre plastic homebrew bottles with a focus on the home retailer.
After four years of production, Cornish and the silent partners had run out of capital to keep the brewery functioning. Fortunately for Great Lakes supporters, a construction magnate in Etobicoke by the name Peter Bulut Sr. had been introduced to Cornish through respective business deals and plans were underway to sell the brewery to him. Bulut Sr. purchased the business in 1990, made the change from malt extract brewing to all grain in 1991 and in the early months of 1992 moved the brewery to its current home at 30 Queen Elizabeth Blvd just off the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW) where Cornish continued on as head brewer for a short time.
There were many ups and downs in the early years, but the family worked together and managed to grow the brewery substantially and eventually introduced a number of new styles to the beer line-up, winning them multiple awards along the way.
In 2009, with the health of Peter Bulut Sr. in decline, his son, Peter Bulut Jr., took on more responsibility of the day-to-day operations. Peter, along with the brewing team, took great steps to introduce new and exciting brands and marketing initiatives that led to increased sales through the LCBO, bars and restaurants, and have solidified Great Lakes reputation as a leader in beer innovation throughout the Canadian craft brewing industry. He’s allowed the brewing team to experiment with flavours, to have fun with weird and wacky names, and to showcase their creations with monthly Project X nights.
Peter Bulut Sr., the man who saved the original Great Lakes brewery and who turned it around to what it is today, passed away in 2010, but not before ensuring that the brewery would remain in the family. On any given day, you can walk into the offices at Great Lakes to find Bulut Jr. working on the equipment, on sales and marketing strategies, or on LCBO projects.
QUICK PINTS WITH PETER BULUT JR, Co-Owner and President
CB: Your father, who had no previous brewing/brewery experience, purchased the brewery in 1991 from Bruce Cornish when it was in decline. What drove him to that decision?
PB: At the time it was, well, he always had an appetite for the alcohol industry. He just saw the business as being sexy, and as an entrepreneur, he thought it was something that he could really sink his teeth into as he felt that the beer business, with its strong history, would be a great business to be in. He realized soon after that it could be quite the successful business with a good workforce. Having a big family, well, he thought it was great! He pulled in the whole family to help out and that was the get go. As a kid I could remember him talking about getting into the alcohol business one day and it was his entrepreneurial spirit that pushed him forward.
CB: Can you recall the struggles he had early on?
PB: Many, many, many (with a laugh). We had grown very fast out of the gate and I think one of the early struggles that he identified was the need for more “professional” help on the brewing team. We had a Brewmaster format the original Great Lakes lager recipe, but after that we had no real involvement with a Brewmaster; we just had a brewing team and QC team that just plugged away. As we grew larger, he got nervous about quality and he thought that maybe we needed some more expert advice around us and it turned out that the advice we got wasn’t really the best and it affected the product. It created some stress around the team and he had a hard time getting around it. He found a way to overcome it and turned the ship back around. That was probably the biggest challenge in the early days. We learn through experiences.
CB: He moved the brewery in 1992 to its current location. Why did he select this particular location for your brewery?
PB: Dad did some work for a building around the corner from us where Costco is now and he liked the area due to its visibility from the QEW. He always said if he were to run a business he’d like to locate here. When it was available, he jumped on it.
CB: 25 years is a long time to own and operate a family run craft brewery. No one else in Ontario has sustained that long. Keys to success?
PB: Oldest family owned brewery in Ontario…it’s hard work and dedication. It’s definitely not the smoothest road in the craft beer business. There are huge hills and valleys and big ups and big downs, but I think just keeping your head above water and keeping your stick on the ice…you have to preserver! Being surrounded by a great team helps too : )
CB: GLB has come a long way from the producing only a couple of lagers to all the pales ales and seasonals today. Why did you make a change?
PB: The change was due to the change in the market. We took notice to the growing appetite from consumers who wanted to experience more variety, more styles. We had some Great Lakes employees who were really pushing for some more robust flavourful ales and they wanted a way to show off the creativity side of the brewery. They asked me if they could come up with something. We started the “roundtable talks” which were usually over some beers and we came up with the Devil’s Pale Ale. June 6, 2006. That was really the inspiration for the change. We launched it at the 2006 Toronto Festival of Beer and everyone loved it. That winter brought about the Winter Ale and when we received more positive response, we knew we were on to something special.
CB: Describe what a typical day at brewery looks like for you?
PB: Haha. There is nothing typical about working at a small craft brewery. I split my time between the office (administration stuff) and the plant and scheduling and beer making and forecasting, etc. We had the main kettle go down in May and I spent a week being a kettle repairman, and a new kettle installer. So, there is nothing typical about a day here.
CB: What background did you have that made you feel you could undertake such a business?
PB: I learned hands on. My Dad had a construction company and I schooled in Construction Engineering in college. I was one week out of college before jumping into the beer business. I was a young guy and the first role they put you in back then was handling the malt bags. Slinging malt! I would have to load 30-40 100LBS bag from Canada Malting to the brewery, then walk them up a ladder to store them. It was tough. After the malt, it was time for deliveries. Then washing kegs. When we were moving into the new brewery (current location) I was left to brew with Mike Lackey and to keep the beer flowing…we burnt some beer.
CB: What do you see in the next five years for GLB?
PB: Loaded question! I see our seasonals still maintaining their integrity throughout the years and I see some extreme creativity in terms of the products and our marketing. It is very competitive in the marketplace in terms of branding and shelf presence, not so much “us against them”, I don’t think of the other craft brewers as competition as much as I see them as comrades, the competition is the consumer and to attract more consumers to ourselves we’ll have to get more craftier with how we market Great Lakes. We’ll have a little bit more fun while sticking to the same Great Lakes attitudes and developments as we have over the years.
CB: Can you describe Project X? When did it start? Why did you start it?
PB: Prior to Project X we had the ability to do some one-off and experimental beers to get ready for production beer. We used to have a ‘brew your own’ behind the brewery and we would bring wort over there, boil it, add ingredients to it, and essentially create new beers for trial purposes. Unfortunately it closed and the next closest ‘brew your own’ was miles away, so we decided to just get our own small system for the brewery. Once we got the system together, we started doing our own in house trial batches of beer so we figured we’d let some people taste it. We came up with a monthly event to make that happen and Project X was born. It now takes place on the second Thursday of each month at either the brewery or at one of our key accounts in Toronto. We do one-off beers, serve some great food and have a great time. Over the years since it started in 2009, some of the beers have become more and more creative. We’ve done a lot with cask-conditioned ales, played with ingredients and people love it. (NOTE – Project X nights to longer happen)
CB: What is your favourite Great Lakes beer?
PB: Tough one. Tough one! I don’t know if I have ONE favourite Great Lakes beer. I have a multitude. I think the GLB 25th anniversary beers are probably some of the best beers that have come out of this brewery! The Robust Porter, the Belgian Saison– terrific. I really enjoy our annual seasonal Pumpkin Ale though.
CB: You mentioned the four new 25th Anniversary beers. How did you and the brewing team decide which styles to brew?
PB: As usual, we wanted to do something that we hadn’t produced on a large scale before. We wanted to celebrate the heritage (read the back label of the 25th Anniversary series beers) of Great Lakes and my Father who came over from Europe. We thought it would be great to think of some European styles to brew while adding our own Great Lakes twists on them. Whether we increase the traditional hop profile, or use different malts…we wanted to make them uniquely Great Lakes. The idea to come up with the beers was basically a roundtable of Great Lakes staff – let the guys, along with myself, discuss some ideas and I think we came up with some winners. All three so far have been just fabulous!
CB: Will any of those styles be brewed again at Great Lakes?
PB: Potentially. People ask us all the time, especially with all the one-offs we do, “is this going to be brewed on a larger scale?” you know? A lot have. A lot will. But to answer your question – yes, they probably will. When? Hard to say.
CB: What GLB brand are you most proud of?
PB: I would say Winter Ale. Watching that brand grow year after year has been great. We started with a few thousand bottles in year one and it quickly increased in quantity every year since. When we first made it, it was supposed to be a gift for our customers, and we launched it at our Christmas party, and everyone went nuts for it. Everyone was asking “can I buy some, can I buy some,” and so we started selling it to bars and restaurants, and eventually to the LCBO. It was quite inspiring. It was the launch of Winter Ale that brought about our Orange Peel, Pumpkin Ale, Green Tea and the other seasonals and our specialty program.
CB: LCBO or The Beer Store?
PB: Both are great based on the needs of consumers. For Great Lakes and Great Lakes needs though, definitely the LCBO. The LCBO outsells the Beer Store by far for us, but we’re working to change that, trying to get consumers to buy craft beer at the Beer Store as well.
CB: Best Ontario beer event/festival that Great Lakes has participated in?
PB: We do a lot. I was pretty proud, probably because I was hands on there, but the Etobicoke Ribfest is a standout. We kind of got in there as a last minute guest in accompaniment to a large brewery and we had anticipated X amount of sales, and we ended up selling twice as much beer there. It was great to be part of such a massive event in our backyard. That was pretty exciting.
CB: There is a great story about the Devil’s Pale Ale 666 in the early days, correct?
PB: Haha. Yes. The creative behind it, the conception of it, the way the name came around and the way the tagline “The Devil Made Me Brew It,” was fun! When we pitched it to the LCBO they originally rejected it and then it eventually came around only after we signed a disclaimer. If there were too many complaints about it, like the name, or connotations about Satan’s beer, etc., then they would have to pull it from the system. Because it was one of the first “risky” Ontario beers in the LCBO they were pretty nervous about the reaction it would garner. That in itself made the journey exciting.
CB: How many employees currently work for Great Lakes?
PB: We’re about a family of 30.
CB: Two generations of Bulut’s have operated the brewery now; will the brewery stay in the family?
PB: Yes! Oh yeah! That is the intention.
There has been a lot of change at Great Lakes throughout the 25 years. Brewmasters have come and gone, new beers have been tested, produced and introduced to the Ontario market, new distribution points have been opened, but one thing remains the same today that Peter Bulut Sr. had in mind when he purchased Great Lakes in 1991 – producing great beer is the main focus and Great Lakes will continue on this path for years to come.
INTERESTING GREAT LAKES FACTS (AS OF 2012):
- Peter Bulut Sr, the man who saved Great Lakes in 1991, was not really a drinker. It would be a stretch to say that he drank 24 beers in a calendar year.
- Mike Lackey, GLB’s experimental brewer, is the longest serving employee, banking in over 21 years of service. He has done everything from brewing to delivery driver to draught line cleaner.
- GLB owns a 1979 hearse that is covered in Devil’s Pale Ale 666 logo’s
- GLB also owns a 1989 K-Car to promote Crazy Canuck Pale Ale
- In 2012, GLB won more Canadian Brewing Awards then any other Canadian brewery with 6.
- GLB was recently named the Best Brewery in Ontario for producing Cask Conditioned Ale at the 2012 Golden Tap Awards in Toronto.