All the Way Back
If home is where the heart is, then residents of the southwestern Ontario city of Oshawa can rest assured that the industrious young entrepreneurs behind the recent start-up of the city’s first real microbrewery have their heart in the right place.
For All or Nothing Brewing & Distillery cofounding brothers Jeff and Eric Dornan, who started out in the craft beer industry in 2014 using various co-packers to bring their brand to market, a chance to realize their vision of running a thriving microbrewery where they both grew up and went to school was the proverbial no-brainer from the moment the opportunity came knocking on their door.
As Jeff Dornan fondly recalls, it was initially all about location, location, and location.
“Although Oshawa has lived in the shadow of the big General Motors plant here for many years, there is a lot going on in Oshawa that people outside the city may not know about,” says Dornan, who graduated from the local Durham College & Ontario Tech University before joining their father’s sales and service business in the early 2010s.
“My brother and me both view Oshawa as a fantastic city: a city which has its own port, an airport a big downtown core, a large sports arena and countless other big-city amenities all within the city limits,” Dornan extols.
“And despite what has been going on with the GM plant in recent years, Oshawa is very much a booming city,” says Dornan, recounting the momentous decision a couple of years ago to acquire an abandoned but historic downtown Oshawa building that had been used as The Beer Store retail outlet since the 1950s.
After spending a couple of years operating All or Nothing in Oakville, Ont., where Dornan brothers purchased a small brewing and distilling facility in June of 2016, “the idea of bringing our business back to where we started was really exciting for us,” Dornan recalls.
Situated on Ritson Road South in close vicinity to the GM automotive plant that employed nearly 30,000 workers back in its glory days, the 25,000-square-foot facility was at one time one of the busiest beer stores in Ontario, but changing fortunes saw it sit idle for about eight years before the Dornan brothers proceed to acquire it in 2018.
“We had to do a lot of heavy renovations, electrical work, plumbing, painting and a tonne of other repairs to get the place up-and-running,” Dornan recalls, “but we were so passionate about bringing the building back to life that the time flew by really fast.”
Aside from renovation and reinstallation of all the key brewing and production equipment relocated from Oakville, All or Nothing also installed a sleek and modern storefront to sell its beer and brand merchandise, along with a welcoming outside patio area for customers to enjoy some of their purchase on-site.
“We are very proud of what we have done with the place,” says Dornan, who actually resides a short eight-minute drive away from what is now once again an elegant and contemporary commercial landmark with welcoming exterior and storefront area.
But while the facility’s festive grand opening to the public last June was filled with promise of glorious days ahead, the sudden global outbreak of the deadly COVID-19 virus this past winter has naturally put the early expectations of continued brisk growth on hold for the time being.
“We were having some very good early success before COVID-19 came around,” Dornan recounts, “but like everyone else, we had to adjust our thinking.”
But rather than merely accept the new reality of social distancing and retail lockdowns as a de facto new normal, All or Nothing decided to do its part in the collective pushback against the pandemic’s spread by retooling a substantial part of its production capabilities to manufacture non-sterile hand sanitizing solution that quickly became one of the most sought-after essential commodities in combatting the virus.
“We heard about people hoarding sanitizer at the start of the outbreak,” Dornan recalls, “and because we used to produce alcoholic coolers and spirits back in Oakville, we had the knowledge, and the equipment and supplies, to switch over to the production of sanitizer pretty swiftly.
“So we temporarily halted the production of beer altogether to make as much tank space available for converting sugar and water into alcohol, which would be distilled into the ethanol.
“It takes about three to five days to ferment the sugar water into alcohol, and then about an eight-hour shift to distil and dilute that into the final 65-percent ethanol solution,” Dornan relates. “So we would go through 4,000 liters of sugar water to turn out about 500 liters of ethanol that we would then dilute, mix and blend to the exact specifications.”
As for packaging the final product, Dornan had to look no further than the significant leftover inventory of unused 296-ml aluminum cans, manufactured by Crown Beverage Packaging, that All or Nothing also brought in from the former Oakville location.
“After I found out there was a big market shortage of spray-pump type dispensing containers typically used to package sanitizer and soap products, using our inventory of 296-ml cans, previously used to package coolers and some limited-run products, seemed like a perfect solution.”
Since commencing sanitizer production in early March, the brewery has produced well over 100,000 cans of the All or Nothing Hand Sanitizer brand solution—distributing them a diverse list of healthcare, industrial and commercial facilities caught off-guard by soaring demand for sanitizing and disinfecting solutions essential to containing the COVID-19 spread.
“Now that there’s been more and more sanitizer products coming to the market, things have calmed down a little bit,” says Dornan, grateful for the opportunity to return some of the plant’s capacity back to its original purpose of making beer.
“It is possible for us to produce both products for the time-being,” says Dornan, naturally eager to focus on ramping up beer production for the upcoming summer season, while also making make up for the lost downtime.
While the company plans to use up the reminder of the slim 296-ml cans it currently has in stock for the sanitizing solution if necessary, about 80 per cent of all beer produced at the Oshawa facility to date has been packaged in the industry-standard 473-ml Tallboystyle cans, also supplied by Crown.
This includes the company’s three leading beer brands, comprising: Think Big’Ger Cream Ale; Hustle Over Hype Pale Wheat; and the Snooze You Lose Brown Ale.
Dornan says the company’s ale products were largely inspired by some of the Old World English-style beers, while the wheat brand beer was developed according to timeless wheat beer recipes originating in Germany centuries ago.
In addition to this core year-round product lineup, Dornan says he is proud of the cult-like status in the craft-beer market enjoyed by the company’s innovative Mind Over Matter Mead Braggot beer infused with fermented honey, the main ingredient in alcoholic mead beverages.
With a hearty seven-percent alcohol content per volume, Mind Over Matter is still packaged in the slimmer 296-ml cans that, according to Dornan, “give it a unique personality and shelf presence at the retail level.”
Dornan explains: “It’s a very balanced mixture of barley and fermented honey with a very subtle profile and aftertaste that makes it truly unique, hence we package it in 296-ml cans that are also unique to us in the marketplace.
“It’s a product that has some real historical merit to it,” Dornan says, “so we treat it like a special side project especially close to our heart.”
As Dornan relates, the ability to express oneself creatively through new product development is one of the craft beer industry’s more compelling reasons for getting into the business, which has been growing at double-digit rates through most of the last decade.
“When we first started out six-and-a-half years ago, there was only about 40 microbreweries in all of Ontario,” says Dornan, who also serves as chairman of the industry’s leading trade association Ontario Craft Brewers (OCB).
“Today there are over 300 brick-and-mortar microbrewing facilities across the province,” Dornan states, “so we picked a good time to catch the earlier wave of this tremendous craft beer renaissance of the craft brewing business.”
With current annual production capacity of 5,000 hectoliters, Dornan says the company is “somewhere in the middle of the pack” of Ontario craft brewers in terms of volume, but he quickly points out that boosting capacity strictly for the sake of raising volume was never the company’s goal to begin with.
As Dornan explains, the company’s steady success in the market to date—with All or Nothing brands now sold at well over 200 LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) outlets—has been achieved by focusing on a few selected beer styles that it has identified as its most promising segments, through both experience and continuous R&D (research and development).
“Once we focus on something, we go all out wholeheartedly,” he says, citing “obsessive personalities” driving both Dornan brothers’ shared ambition and drive to succeed.
Currently employing eight people to keep the new Oshawa operation running over a one-shift, Monday-to-Friday production schedule, Dornan is confident that the significant capital investment poured into the new Oshawa brewery will help the company achieve for a whole new level of growth in coming years.
“Like any other new business, we’ve had our peaks and valleys in the past six years,” Dornan says, “but overall our business is up significantly from our early days.”
According to Dornan, All or Nothing already enjoys a lot of local goodwill and brand loyalty by virtue of being a locally-founded company, and he says the company has big plans for making the brewery a prominent local event venue and a social gathering point after the pandemic crisis subsides.
“We definitely have some great capabilities at our facility with all the extra square footage,” Dornan proclaims, “and all the tools we need to succeed.
“While we spent a lot of time literally filling holes in the ground to bring this building to life, we have also been busy identifying key areas for process improvement, like grain handling for example, and focus on fixing them.
“There is a lot of science involved in the beer making process that we had to learn,” Dornan recalls, “along with understanding all the many inputs in the production process: from the mineral content of the source water to all the different fermenting techniques, the supply logistics, the production line layout, process documentation … thousands of decisions that need to be made to ensure consistent product quality going forward.
“It’s something that we have always done in the past to build the business up block by block,” he says, “and with this great new facility, we feel like we are really ready to make a strong statement in the marketplace.”
Says Dornan: “What attracted us to the craft beer business from the start was an opportunity to offer Ontario consumers a locally sourced product and the opportunity to be really creative about making and marketing such a product.
“We just love the whole story of the craft beer industry, the whole David versus Goliath angle,” he states.
“While we may be just a fraction the size of the major brewers, we believe that our strengths in creativity, speed-to-market, and being nimble and flexible will enable us to compete with anyone out there.”
This fighting spirit is boldly captured on the vibrant and punchy packaging cartoon graphics—featuring a slim bare-knuckled street brawler named Cornelius raising fists against a large monster foe—created by his brother Eric and local graphic artist Matt Dyck.
“It’s all about projecting a confident image that All or Nothing is not afraid of anyone out there,” says Jeff Dornan, “and is always giving it all we got in everything we do.”
Printed in bold back against a high-gloss yellow background, the instantly likeable Cornelius mascot makes numerous appearances not only on the cans of beer themselves, but also on the surface and the inside of the distinct black-and-yellow 24-pack corrugated cartons used to ship the All or Nothing beer brands to LCBO stores and other retail customers.
Expertly manufactured by Cascades Containerboard Packaging at the company’s IMGN retail and branded products division plant in Toronto, the two-color litho-printed cartons were designed as combination shipping/retail-ready cartons featuring an innovative auto-locking bottom feature that enables the brewery staff to assemble and load the case manually in seconds without using any tape or glue.
“That is a really big thing for us,” says Dornan, praising Cascades for the sturdy construction and strength of the single-wall B-flute cartons, along with easy-tear die-cut perforations for removing the top of the boxes.
As the tops are removed, the cutout inserts of the brand mascot Cornelius pops out from the inside on one side or the case, squaring off against its much larger opponent Lennox, also popping up in a ready-to-go pre-fight stance.
“Our customers seem to have as much fun with these characters as we had developing them,” says Dornan, adding each 24-pack case also comes with a couple of branded coasters pressed against a sidewall inside.
“Cascades really did a fantastic job for us with these boxes,” says Dornan, citing warm feedback for the box design from the LCBO staff and individual consumers, some of them actually taking time to make humorous media postings of the brand mascots ending up in unlikely places.
“It’s been a little secret of ours that we think helps us make a positive long-lasting impression on the Ontario consumers,” says Dornan.
“I think it really captures the essence of our company’s spirit and culture of giving it all we got when it comes to producing high-quality beer for the people of Ontario to enjoy and have fun with,” Dornan concludes.
“Hopefully, we’ll be doing much more of this in the weeks and months to come.”