Craft brewery looking to build a dynasty lineup of beers
Left Field Brewery
Mark Murphy and Mandie Murphy
36 Wagstaff Drive, Toronto Ontario
A lineup of baseball-inspired brews, including Eephus Oatmeal Brown Ale, 6-4-3 Double IPA and Resin Bag IPA
Entering Ontario’s craft beer market is no day at the ballpark.
Coming up with the perfect recipe, a catchy name, an appealing logo, as well as the funds for a contract brewer to bring it to life, and then delivering it to local consumers is only just the beginning. From there it’s still a matter of testing the market, meeting minimum volume requirements and accessing highly competitive retail channels.
But that won’t stop industry newcomers Mark and Mandie Murphy, founders of Left Field Brewery.
“It goes without saying that the beverage alcohol industry is a very fun industry to work in,” says Mandie.
“I think it’s also fun to make a product where you make every decision that goes into it,” adds her husband, Mark.
The couple first met at Brock University while Mark was studying accounting and Mandie was pursuing a communications major with a specialization in media.
Mark went on to earn his CA designation and spent five years as an auditor before deciding he didn’t want to work behind a desk. He graduated from the Brewmaster and Brewery Operations Management program at Niagara College in 2012 and spent a year at Molson learning the tricks of the trade, before pursuing his dream of crafting his own product.
Mandie, meanwhile, worked in a number of marketing and communications roles, including managing a portfolio for a major wine and cider company. Eventually she had to switch into packaged goods, avoiding a conflict of interest as she helped her husband launch their own alcohol brand during evenings, weekends and the occasional vacation day.
Mandie eventually left her job in January to help Mark market and sell a lineup of baseball-inspired beers full time.
Her experience in the wine industry taught her the importance of branding for alcohol products, and the self-described “huge baseball fans” believed they knocked it out of the park.
“Really high quality beer is table stakes, that’s what everybody’s doing, so you need to set yourself apart and be iconic and memorable,” says Mandie.
That catchy theme has landed Left Field’s products on taps in more than 50 bars and restaurants in southwestern Ontario, primarily in downtown Toronto.
“Last month was our first month we could compare year over year sales, and we more than doubled them,” says Mark.
Yet in spite of the positive reception, the company is yet to turn a profit.
“At the end of the day beer is a volume-driven business, and we don’t have huge volume,” Mark says.
Turning a profit wasn’t the goal just yet, explains Mandie. Instead, Left Field was determined to build brand awareness before taking the next step: building their own brewery.
The couple signed a lease in February, using their own capital as well as outside financing, and plans to open a 6,000 square foot facility in the heart of Leslieville in early 2015.
Building a brewery is risky in any market, but craft brewers in Ontario are competing in a whole other league. That’s because there are only two distribution channels for packaged products — aside from building a retail store within the brewery itself — and one is hardly an option for industry newcomers.
The Beer Store charges a base listing fee of almost $3,000, plus an additional $230 for each product type. “You can imagine even doing distribution in 100 stores how quickly something like that would add up,” says Mandie, adding that there are service fees, bottle handling fees, and recycling fees as well.
Furthermore, since the Beer Store is owned by the three of the world’s largest, foreign-owned breweries, “you’re essentially paying your competitor to distribute your product for you,” says Mandie.
That makes the Beer Store largely inaccessible to craft brewers in Ontario, leaving the province’s roughly 60 microbreweries and their 300 brands competing for limited shelf space at the LCBO.
“Not every craft beer product can be on (LCBO) shelves,” says Mandie adding that they won’t know how much shelf space Left Field products will earn until the brewery is up and running.
“You only get one chance at a first impression with the LCBO, and we want to get off to the right start,” says Mark. “They track the sales and have certain targets for all brands, so the last thing you want is to launch a brand and it doesn’t move so you get de-listed.”
John Hay, president of Ontario Craft Brewers, a trade association of which Left Field is a member, says that retail access is a common obstacle for craft brewers in Ontario.
“(The Beer Store) is not really designed, nor is the LCBO to some extent, for the starting brewery, and there’s an awful lot of them right now,” he says. “There’s a lot of people who want to sell in that system, so the competition is tough.”
As the Murphys move forward on construction of the Left Field Brewery, Hay advises them to continue making appearances at festivals, signing contracts with local bars and restaurants, and building their brand presence.
“They need to keep their beer in front of the consumer as much as possible and stay visible,” he says. “They’re good at doing that, and I expect it will continue.”