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Memoir

“I was a successful marketing exec in Toronto. I gave it all up to farm hops and open a brewery”

Graydon Lau had a decades-long career in the marketing industry, working for big-name alcohol brands. When his best friend approached him with a wild idea, he left his job and dove in. Then, just as everything was coming together, tragedy struck

By Graydon Lau, As Told To Anthony Milton
"I was a successful marketing exec in Toronto. I gave it all up to farm hops and open a brewery"
MRacco Photography

I started my marketing career in 1989, working for the spring water company Evian. Its parent company, Danone, owned beer brands, including Kronenbourg, where I eventually became the brand manager. I developed a knack for beer marketing and kept moving up, working for big-name clients like Bacardi, Canadian Club and Polar Ice Vodka. 

In the meantime, I got married and had three kids. I lived in downtown Toronto and had a long commute to the Bacardi offices in Brampton. The work was demanding. I’d leave before my eldest daughter woke up in the morning and come home after she’d gone to bed. When I was approaching a big deadline, I’d pull all-nighters and work weekends. Still, I loved the excitement and the people, many of whom became close friends. 

But, by the time I turned 50, in the late 2010s, work wasn’t so fun anymore. It was the era of cost-cutting, and my age was catching up with me. My younger clients started questioning my judgment, and while I never let it show at work, I grew increasingly frustrated. At home, my temper got shorter and shorter. Before long, I was in full-on midlife-crisis mode. I looked in the mirror one day and thought, I’ve done this for so long. What do I want to do now?

Around that time, an old friend, Brian Pearson, came to me with a wild idea. I’d known Brian since our first day of high school at North Toronto Collegiate Institute. He’d grown up just down the street from me in Moore Park, and we used to meet at the corner and walk to school together every day. As we got older, we spent summer weekends partying at his parents’ property in Oro-Medonte. When Brian told me, over beers in my kitchen one day in March of 2015, that he had a business plan, I was all ears. 

Brian had purchased the property across the road from his parents’ farmhouse. He got the wide swath of farmland for a very reasonable price because it wasn’t in great shape: of its 87 acres, 54 were swamp. There were no utilities, and the land that wasn’t waterlogged was being used as a hay field. Then came the big pitch: “Let’s start a hops farm and turn the place into a brewery,” he said.

I wasn’t convinced right away. Neither of us had any experience brewing beer, but the idea intrigued me. Brian worked in finance and knew how to run a business, and I knew how to market and sell alcohol. By April, I’d started helping him out on the property, clearing trees whenever I had a free day. The more time I spent up there, the more I came around to the brewery idea. That fall, I left my job, raided my savings and jumped in.

The farmland around Quayle's Brewery in Coldwater, Ontario
Courtesy of Quayle’s Brewery

The property wasn’t a total lost cause. The hay field was located on a high hill, with sandy, loamy soil and a constant breeze from Georgian Bay—everything hops love. Of course, we had to see if the plants would actually grow. So, equipped with tips from other hops growers and Google, we planted 10 different varieties of hops, totalling 500 plants. They grew just fine, so we doubled down, planting six acres in 2016 and six more in 2017. Over the winter, we made use of the swamp, which was flush with cedar trees. Using chainsaws and a snowmobile, we harvested 350 of the taller, straighter trees and staked them in long, 14-foot-wide rows, running strings between the tops for the plants to grow onto.

By 2017, it looked like our experiment was working. Our hops were growing happily, and a vision was coming into focus: with a central brewhouse modelled after an old barn and surrounded by yards of hops, we’d transform the property into the beer equivalent of a Niagara County vineyard. We had the barn framed by a local contractor, hired a brew team to make the beer and got ready to open. Around that time, Brian’s back started giving him trouble. One day in October of 2017, he called to tell me that he was in the hospital. When I went to visit, I learned that Brian’s back issue wasn’t just a back issue: it was Stage 4 cancer.

I felt like I’d been hit with a cannonball. This was the man who had stood up at my wedding and, despite being as pale as a sheet of paper, delivered a speech entirely in Cantonese for my relatives. Now, with a brave face, Brian was telling me that he had between eight months and two years to live. By the following spring, he was fading away. In June of 2018, Brian spoke his last words to me from his bed: “Make it happen.” I promised him I would. The next day, he was gone.

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I was in shock. For the past two years, Brian and I had struggled and triumphed together, building a business on top of an old friendship. Is it still worth it? I thought. What do we do now? But I’d made a promise. Brian’s widow, Catherine, assumed his role, and we became business partners. Brian and I had known that the last stretch of final details—what colour the walls should be painted, what kind of decor we should buy—would take some time. Together, Catherine and I pushed forward. By March of 2020, we were ready to go.

Then the world shut down, and so did we—before we’d even had a chance to open. Panicked, we wrote a new business plan, this time based on selling cans of beer to-go. We had the beer, but we needed cans to sell them in. We went to the bank and said, “We haven’t sold any beer yet, but we desperately need beer cans. Can we get some money?” Fortunately, we got a loan.

With the help of the community, we pulled the plan off. Luckily for us, we’d purchased a second-hand canning machine (a mini assembly line that fills cans with beer and places seals on lids) the previous summer. We got it up and running and sat down with our staff, kids and spouses to stick labels on cans. Then we built a Shopify site so customers could buy our products online. We went live with curbside pickup in May of 2020, and we sold out immediately. As things slowly opened up, we became a go-to hangout in the area. With our wide-open farm space, people could socialize without worrying as much about Covid.

Quayle's Brewery in Coldwater, Ontario.
Courtesy of Quayle’s Brewery

In 2021, I bought a small townhouse in Orillia, about 15 minutes away from the brewery. I split my time between there and the city. The business has only continued to grow, and Catherine and I have invested all of our profits back into it. We’ve added a wedding venue, a beer garden and a skating rink, and we host spring and Christmas markets, comedy festivals, and a fall “Hoptober Fest” on the property. We need the extra attractions—we’re just 10 minutes away from the Mount St. Louis ski resort, but it’s still the middle of nowhere for a lot of people.

It’s been amazing to see a community form around us. All of our children have worked at the brewery, and my wife comes up there with me to dig, pitch and harvest hops. In the summers, we have a bunch of university students on staff who call me their “work dad.” And we’re keeping Brian’s memory alive: we named the brewery Quayle’s after a name that runs in his family, who hail from the Isle of Man. Every year on June 23, we release a beer called “Brian’s Choice” in his honour, with the proceeds going to men’s health research. The style of beer changes every year, but it’s always something Brian would have liked. 

I’m still working long hours, but my wife tells me the tension that built up in my marketing days is slowly dissipating. Seeing this place we created become a gathering spot for the community has lit a fire inside of me. It may not be a profitable operation right now, but it pays dividends in personal well-being. I’m doing what I dig, and I’m digging what I do.

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