Sarabeth and Sean Holden never intended to open a brewery during a pandemic.
The Toronto couple had sketched out an initial launch date of February 2020 for Red Tape Brewery, but construction delays pushed it back. Then COVID-19 pushed it back further, and now they’re in their second month of operation during a full-on lockdown and state of emergency.
But the Holdens are taking it all in stride. They named one of their flagship beers after their pandemic experience: That Was Easy Pale Ale.
“We just opened up a brewery during a pandemic,” Sean says with a smirk I can feel through the phone. “No big deal.”
When it comes to breweries, Red Tape Brewery is unique. Located at 159 Main, the family-run business has a (currently closed) taproom, a retail shop and free local delivery. But Red Tape’s main thing is bespoke brewing. They’ll consult with you for your special occasion and make you a personalized beer. Everything from the taste to the name to the label is made to your liking.
Bespoke brewing was part of the plan to begin with, but now it’s the main aspect of Red Tape that customers have latched onto.
“People are looking for a way to connect with each other, even if you can’t physically congregate,” Sean says. “We’re able to create something that’s really meaningful to people on a personal level.”
The back story
Red Tape Brewery is a family business in every sense of the term.
Sean has been homebrewing as a hobby for about a decade, but the beer that inspired the brewery came to be in 2017. He and Sarabeth were expecting their first child, so they decided to make a special beer for the occasion. They used champagne yeast and put it in champagne bottles, and then shipped off bottles to family and friends.
When their baby, Ray, was born, they sent out an announcement and received photos back of people popping bottles and cheering his arrival.
“It all stems out of our family, and it’s also for our family,” says Sarabeth. “It’s a model for our kids that they can be entrepreneurs, that they can take risks and build dreams.”
That initial beer, Celebration Saison, is one of Red Tape’s original six beers.
Sean runs a database as his day job (which he still has) and it’s how he started brewing huge batches of beer for the 200-250 people working in the office. He started a brewing club there, which he compares to a hackathon but for beer – that’s how he got excited experimenting and making one-off beers.
Sarabeth, meanwhile, is a published children’s author and a former policy analyst. So she’s used to cutting through red tape.
Sean is friends with the founders of Beau’s, and Red Tape’s Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants Pale Ale is inspired by other independent brewers who paved the way, like Left Field, Muddy York and Great Lakes.
“They did all the work so we could come in and have a Shopify store where we deliver beers,” he says.
Red Tape’s other beers are Captain Bowesy’s Porter (named for a friend who is a pilot for Porter airlines), Sara’s Sour Soda and Oslo’s Ray of Sunshine IPA.
All have personal connections to the couple, and they’ll incorporate more in future beers. Sarabeth is half Inuk and plans to introduce some beers with ingredients that come from Inuit culture or from the land in her home community of Pangnirtung in Nunavut.
Or, you could make your own beer.
The Holdens are clear that bespoke brewing is “an investment” for a milestone event, not just a takeout novelty for your Friday-night Zoom hang.
Customers must spend a minimum of $1,200 for a bespoke beer, which includes 100 cans, consulting on the beer, brewing and designing its package. The price per can goes down the more you order – up to 1,000 cans.
They’re proud of their beautiful taproom, which is currently off limits as per provincial health and safety protocols. Eventually, the space will host tastings and other events. The Holdens compare the experience to shopping for a wedding dress or going to a baker to try wedding cakes.
Right now, consultations mostly happen over email and Zoom, which is slightly challenging because the couple has two young and active sons (the second arrived this past February). But they’re making it work, finding new ways to describe the taste and smells of their potential beers.
“It’s interesting hearing all the stories,” says Sean. “Some people latch onto tastes, some talk about flavours they remember from growing up, some focus on colour. We want to create something that really speaks to you or about you.”
So far, the Holdens have been getting requests from people having Zoom weddings. A special beer is something the couple can send to guests – something meaningful loved ones can cherish and enjoy in strange times.
Still, they can’t wait until the day they meet people face to face. They never intended to put 100 per cent of their beer in cans, either. All their logistics have changed as the business has pivoted.
Because Red Tape opened during the pandemic, it isn’t eligible for government support programs like the wage subsidy or commercial rent relief.
But the response has been way bigger than they expected. One day, Sean hopes to quit his day job so he can stop scheduling brewing sessions – which can last past midnight – on evenings and weekends.
“That’s the dream,” he says. “That’s the business plan.”
This story is part of a series spotlighting small businesses across Toronto. As the push to support local becomes even more crucial, we want to highlight the trials and the triumphs that shops, restaurants, cafes and online retailers are experiencing in this city. If you want to suggest a business, contact us here and select “Editorial (Life)” from the drop-down menu.