READING TIME: 4 MINUTES
Craft beer has a home in downtown St. Catharines. Several downtown locations have craft beer offerings in line with the recent market moves to more craft product, but one has been ‘doing it since 99’. The Merchant Ale House or “The Merch” to many, were pioneers. John Tiffin, James Vanderzanden and Iain Watson opened their doors in 1999 and have stuck to their ‘we sell what we make’ mantra ever since.
John began brewing at a young age in his basement where his passion developed. At a time before the internet, when information on the brewing process was hard to come by, his first batches were a long way from the product loved by visitors and frequenters of St. Paul Street today. During his time at college in Hamilton, he had a hobby brewing store around the corner from his student house that helped to develop his talents and refine the process. John and Iain were friends and James became a friend as well while renting a room from Iain. A running joke that they should start a brew pub escalated over the years, with James actually creating a website which looked very real until the site visitor would see the address was a house on Murray Street. Iain, owner of Flagro industries, had the ability to make the equipment for them to brew. The one time joke eventually escalated into a reality, with the three partners brewing every weekend at James’ parents’ house in Branchton for a year to ensure their brewing beer hobby was one they truly wanted to turn into their full time project.
Early on the market had its difficulties. Craft beer wasn’t growing like it is today. Sticking to their philosophy wasn’t easy when some customers, hearing that they didn’t carry Coors Light or another popular product, would walk out and take a table of 6 people with them. Not an easy pill to swallow for any new business, especially one in the restaurant/brew pub sector. They stuck it out through some of those initial reactions and committed to developing their customer, rather than trying to please everyone. They had many positives as well and have grown the business every year since its inception. For several years they have maintained a 95% in-house product sales level. 5% comes from other craft beers made in Ontario.
The recent revitalization of downtown has also had a strong impact on their business. John Tiffin, an avid curler himself, is excited about the upcoming 2017 Scotties Tournament of Hearts to be hosted at the Meridian Centre.
John said, “We’re seeing customers who are saying to us that it’s their first time downtown in ten years. We knew nights with Ice Dogs games would be strong, but we’ve been surprised at the level of downtown activity on event nights for things like concerts and shows. We’re in close contact with the Meridian Centre and the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre to adequately plan for the busy nights. The quiet months are going away and that’s great to see for everyone downtown.”
The new traffic means many people are discovering “The Merch” for the first time.
“A lot of people don’t know that we actually brew here, that the equipment in our first floor dining area isn’t just for show. We get to tell them that the beer they’re drinking was made just a few steps away.” said John. “New customers especially enjoy that they can come in and try a flight of four of our beers without committing to a whole pint of one. That way they can sample and find what they like best.”
Upon a visit you can check out one or any combo of Blonde Bombshell, Blueberry Wheat, Pumpkin Ale, Old Time Hockey Ale, Skullcrusher, Maibock, and many others.
What’s next for the team at Merchant Ale House?
“We’re going to continue to get even better at the things we’re great at. I’m interested in making beer that people will always enjoy. If you like it but don’t want it again next time then I haven’t done my job.” John said, “I’ve got lots of recipes in my head but we only have so much space on the equipment and on the menu. There will always be new recipes and seasonal beers popping up. We’re also constantly improving and introducing new things to our food menu which has gotten more and more popular.”
The Merch has also delved into infused spirits with 16 on the menu that have been infused with local ingredients. There is a strawberry-rhubarb vodka, vanilla bean and honey Wild Turkey and a Christmas themed candy cane vodka among them.
Their current capacity is just on the edge of keeping up with demand, but whatever happens you can count on John, James and Iain sticking to what got them here. The beer will be in-house, the food will be local, and “The Merch” will continue to be a downtown icon.