Brew master raises glass to competition
Updated: Sep 23, 2021
She is the co-founder of Saint John’s only brew pub and restaurant. Since 2009, she’s been brewing handcrafted, all-natural ales and lagers at Big Tide Brewing Company’s Princess Street location. In addition to great beer, they also have a menu that reflects the flavours of their brews.
Wendy has an interesting resumé. She has an undergraduate degree in microbiology and immunology from McGill University and had every intention of pursuing a career in public health. It was when she took time off to travel after completing her undergraduate degree in 1994 that the trajectory of her career changed. She ended up in Alberta quite by accident and met some people who were doing an IPO and raising funds to build a brewery in Canmore.
I started my conversation with Wendy by asking her if the craft beer movement was just waking up in the mid-90s…
A: Absolutely. It was the very beginning of the craft beer movement. Big Rock Brewery and Alley Kat in Alberta had just started but on the West Coast of the United States there had been a number of microbreweries.
I had my first sip of IPA and I was like,“Oh my God. This is what I’d been missing.” It was an awakening. It was really exciting and I had no idea what I was getting into.
Q: How did you go from taking your first sip of IPA to working within the industry?
A: Long story short, I was hired to build a brewery. Basically, I was the assistant brew master and the manager of quality control. So we built the brewery from the ground up. We did everything from installing brewery equipment, writing operations procedures and learning how to control things through the computers. Along the way I had to pick up skills like getting a forklift driver’s license and getting certified as a power engineer. I had to actually challenge the exam where I was taking the course to become a power engineer to be able to run the brewery.
Q: So you fall in love with the whole beer-making craft and come back home to the east coast and get into the local industry?
A: I came back to a city with a history of brewing and I didn’t get a job in the brewing industry. I had to go in a different direction. I had to reinvent myself. How do I apply the skills that I have? I have the weirdest resumé. I was determined to stay in the brewing industry.
Q: So what did you do?
A: I went to a headhunting agency and I said,“Okay, well, these are my skills. Can you find me a job?”I ended up working in development at Enterprise Saint John. Steve Carson, who is the CEO, hired me based on the fact that I had these dramatically different skills that were transferable, that you could actually take from one industry and apply them to another.
I spent a lot of time counselling people starting small businesses. I spent a lot of time attracting industries to this city and so I was able develop an understanding of the business climate in this city, as well as the journey of an entrepreneur. Then I was given the opportunity to fill in as an instructor at the University of New Brunswick in the fourth-year business program to teach people how to start businesses.
Q: At what point did it become obvious that you needed to start this thing that would eventually be called Big Tide Brewing Company?
A: In 2007, my business partner, Chris Vair, and I knew that another similar business that we were involved in together wasn’t going to last. We knew that we wanted to continue to do what we love. I love this industry. It’s a passion for me.
Q: How would you describe Big Tide Brewing Company?
A: You know it’s funny because we are a brewery, we’re also a restaurant and we’re an establishment. When we started there were four breweries in New Brunswick. There are 29 now.
Q: How has having 28 competitors affected your business?
A: It’s interesting because we’ve stayed true to our concept. We want to expand, we want to be able to broaden our market and up until very, very recently we have only been able to sell our beer here. So we’ve been strategic and very calculated in terms of how we grow and how we create a loyal customer base and we how continue to expand into the market.
Two-and-a-half years in, we started selling growlers because the licensing would allow that and up until then nobody was allowed to do this. We worked with the provincial government and with the other brewers in New Brunswick to be able to sell growlers, which caused our volumes to triple instantly from one month to the next.
Q: So a policy change related to selling growlers really helped your business?
A: Absolutely. Since then we continue to see incremental growth despite the fact that from the time that we started there is now almost quadruple the amount of breweries in the province. We already know who our consumers are, and we are able to supply that market.
Q: What has been the most challenging part of this endeavour?
A: Brewing is part science and part art and I like the science part. The science part is easy for me. The art part, the creativity, the going beyond what people might expect is the hard part for me. The challenging part for me is to expand my own capacity as a brewer to meet the needs of the market.
Q: Do you find the increase in competition challenging as well?
A: Competition is absolutely a good thing because you have to continue to evaluate and create things that meet the needs of your clients. It’s definitely a good thing if you’re a client. If you are a business in that environment, it’s challenging but it’s a demand that you have to meet.
Competition raises our game.
Q: Do you have opportunities to collaborate with other brewers?
A: Absolutely. It’s a very, very supportive and collaborative industry despite the fact that it has gone from four to 29 in a short period of time. Everybody continues to work together, whether it’s on buying new things or designing new recipes for our consumers.
Q: What advice would you give someone who has a passion and wants to make a living from that passion?
A: Passion is fantastic. It will allow you to love what you do, but details are really important. If you love what you do and you want to jump in both feet first, hang on just a little bit and make sure all the details are there. Know exactly what your market is, do your research, do your due diligence in terms of your business plans.
Make a business plan, follow your business plan and stick to your business plan.
Q: How would you finish this sentence,“A leader’s job is to …”
A: Continuously challenge himself/ herself. That’s what I’ve learned in this industry. As a pioneer in this industry, you have to continue to challenge yourself. Don’t get comfortable. Don’t rest on your laurels.
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This article published in the Telegraph-Journal on Saturday, July 2, 2016.