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Riot Brewing Co. closure a product of the times

Hard for small businesses to make a go of it with rising costs and debt-ridden consumers

Wednesday was the final ‘last call’ for Chemainus’ Riot Brewing Co.

The craft brewery in Chemainus Village Square has closed its doors for good, the victim of a variety of financial circumstances that are being felt by countless small businesses across the country. Riot’s $40,000 repayment of a $60,000 Canada Emergency Business Account loan it received following COVID was due Jan. 18 and compounded by its landlord only offering a minuscule amount of time from Saturday to Wednesday to pay its bills.

“We fell behind in rent,” said Ralf Rosenke, Riot’s co-owner along with Aly Tomlin.

The pair has been in difficult spots like this before since first conceiving the idea for the brewery in 2009 and then enduring many ups-and-downs before Riot Brewing Co. finally opened its doors in November 2016. Not the least of their extenuating circumstances was the windstorm of December 2018 that cut power to Chemainus for up to five days in places and hammered businesses for much longer to get back on track.

Related story: Sour outage beverage commemorates power outage

Many patrons who packed the place Tuesday and Wednesday once word leaked out that the brewery was closing felt like drowning their sorrows in their beer and the whole situation did not sit well.

“Sad day for Chemainus,” said customer Peter Collum. “Another dream crushed by an absentee landlord.”

Riot went out amid as much fanfare as could be mustered Wednesday. The Grinning Barretts, who frequented the premises many times to play their unique Celtic music, were there with their bagpipes as a final salute.

Riot’s fate is as much a product of the times as anything else. Tomlin pointed out 1-2 out of five Canadian breweries are facing serious closure decisions within the next year.

“It’s saturation,” said Tomlin of the marketplace. “COVID kind of helped the saturation.”

At the same time, prices have hit peoples’ pocketbooks hard.

“Everything has risen,” said Tomlin. “Craft beer is a luxury item. People can’t afford groceries.”

It was naturally mixed emotions for the co-owners as the final closure hours approached.

“Part of it is a bit of a weight lifted off our shoulders,” reasoned Tomlin. “It’s been such a struggle since COVID. We were actually trying to sell. They could not make a deal with the landlord.

“There’s a lot of breweries for sale,” she added. “You can’t really raise your prices any more.”

“Everyone’s watching their dollars,” Rosenke concurred. “The front-of-house lounge here is pretty much the same. But the wholesale sales dropped significantly.”

People are having to made hard choices with their spending habits.

Rosenke and Tomlin tried to sort out their situation in the big picture before reaching their hard decision.

“We talked about it and with the potential for a large rent hike in 18 months, do we want to (continue)?” Rosenke pondered.

They decided to move on.

“It’s still going to be a hard couple of years before things get back to normal,” Rosenke conceded. “Maybe in a sense the landlord made us play our cards. Obviously, we wanted to keep going.”

Riot’s products consistently won major awards among its peers over the years, including a bronze for its Working Class Hero dark mild at the Canada Beer Cup in Niagara Falls, Ont. and a bronze for Lipslide Lager at the Canadian Brewing Awards in Halifax in 2023.

Related story: Beer peers honour Riot Brewing crew with another award

But with all those accolades, “it didn’t pay the bills,” Rosenke reasoned.

He said Riot’s main focus has always been on the community and that’s the greatest take-away for him.

“I think we excelled in that part. We’re going to miss the friends who became family over the years. Hopefully, we’ll continue to see them.

“It’ll be interesting. The sad part is the community. Honestly, that’s what it’s all about.”

The importance of community should be a message that resonates for people from Riot Brewing Co.’s plight, Rosenke added.

“Make sure people support your local businesses. Take it for granted and they’re gone. You don’t want to do that.”

Tomlin and Rosenke aren’t sure what’s going to come next. “I’m sure that hand will play out pretty quick,” Rosenke said.

Don Bodger

About the Author: Don Bodger

I've been a part of the newspaper industry since 1980 when I began on a part-time basis covering sports for the Ladysmith-Chemainus Chronicle.
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