Split Rail nabs loan for permanent canning line

The team at Gore Bay’s Split Rail Brewing Company are already busy using their new canning equipment to output cases of their made-on-Manitoulin beer. A loan from Fair Finance Fund enabled the receipt and roll-out of the line in May.

GORE BAY – Split Rail Brewing Company in Gore Bay has secured a loan from the non-profit Fair Finance Fund to install a canning line within its production facility, allowing the brewery to grow its presence across the province and provide more options to its customers.

“The Fair Finance Fund has been a fantastic opportunity for Split Rail, not only because of the loan for the equipment upgrade, but because they also offer business supports and mentorship, which is really exciting,” said Andrea ‘Andy’ Smith, who co-founded Split Rail Brewing Company alongside Eleanor Charlton in 2015.

Split Rail has previously offered some of its products in cans but it could only do so using a mobile canning line loaned from Toronto once per month. This loan came in during March and the permanent canning line was fully up and running as of May.

Springtime is always busy for the team at Split Rail and their fans. They begin each warm season with upgrades to their operations, with past years’ additions including added production tanks, expansions of outdoor patio spaces and hiring more staff. 

This year, a canning line and an online store with home delivery options at SplitRailManitoulin.com were the highlights.

“That’s been the plan—measured growth to meet growing demand and building a stellar team who share a passion for excellence, social responsibility and a 100 percent made-on-Manitoulin mandate,” said Ms. Smith.

Brews are already being canned for distribution to The Beer Store outlets and customers. Split Rail beer is already sold across Northern Ontario and in select Southern Ontario markets; the shift to cans will further that goal.

Cans are expected to help the business because they have lower up-front and shipping costs, as well as being generally more sustainable than glass, said Ms. Smith.

Split Rail’s Barret Campbell keeps a close eye on the can filling stage of the new production line.

Split Rail hired a second full-time brewer last May and the new technology will enable more expansions to staff and product offerings. Despite the challenges from the global pandemic, it has maintained staffing and worked toward its long-term growth goals.

“As always, we are deeply appreciative of the support we receive and we encourage everyone to continue supporting all our local businesses. Running a business in the best of times is hard, and now for many, or probably most businesses, it’s even more difficult with the added pressures (of COVID-19),” Ms. Smith said.

The Fair Finance Fund offers a repayable loan rather than a grant, but Ms. Smith said her expanded capacity would help to offset the eventual pay-back. She added that cans are the preferred format for LCBO, The Beer Store and grocery stores, so Split Rail beers will be more marketable to these spaces.

Many customers have come to love the glass-bottled offerings of Spilt Rail beer and Ms. Smith promised that the bottles will not disappear from the lineup. Although some regular varieties will transition to cans, special occasion and special run bottles will be present in the future.

Another benefit to using 473 mL cans versus the existing 500 mL bottles is their lower cost of ordering and shipping will be passed down to the consumer.

For customers seeking the most sustainable home beer experience, the brewery will continue to offer 1.89-litre growler fills, although these have been temporarily suspended province-wide due to COVID-19.

Ms. Smith said she appreciated the support from individuals, communities and organizations. She heard about Fair Finance Fund through its co-founder Maureen Strickland, formerly of LAMBAC. 

With Split Rail being a women-run business, the founders felt Fair Finance Fund formed a fantastic fit.

“We strive for continual improvement in everything we do and we’re always looking for ways to build a stronger company. We appreciate the expertise that the Fair Finance Fund can share with our team and we also note they’re all women, so far, that we’ve been working with, which has been fitting and exciting,” said Ms. Smith.

Fair Finance Fund launched in 2018 to support Ontario’s food and farm sectors. Since its lending program began in 2019, Fair Finance Fund has issued seven loans to Ontario businesses totaling more than $400,000. It has recently begun to offer short-term loans.

Fair Finance Fund project manager Sally Miller told The Expositor that it supports companies that help build strong, resilient local and regional economies. Craft beer fits into this model by drawing tourism, supporting local food businesses and expanding the profile of regions.

“Split Rail is a well-designed company with firm social purpose. We invested in them because we saw an excellent opportunity to support their expansion to the next level with the new canning line, and also because of their clear commitment to a workplace that provides decent work and sources local ingredients whenever possible while maintaining a sustainable business,” said Ms. Miller.

She added that Northern Ontario has great potential for food and agriculture businesses, and this fund will help to grow those possibilities. Most of the fund’s clients are “relatively small and nimble” operations that can adapt as needed.

Ms. Miller said the fund is unique in that it goes beyond financial assistance and helps businesses apply for funding, connects businesses with any required expertise sources and regularly meets with successful applicants to discuss their projects.

The fund is supported through individual investors and organizations who buy bonds in the fund and help contribute their capital to sustainable agri-food enterprises in the province. Details of the fund can be found at FairFinanceFund.org.