Peter McAuslan was not a great student, and so-so athlete. There wasn’t a lot of early evidence that the easy-going and fun-loving young man would become the driving force in one of Canada’s first successful small and independent breweries. At age 40, he realised that he wasn’t enjoying his senior position at Dawson College – so he did something about it.

In 1988 at the age of 40, Peter and his wife Ellen started The McAuslan Brewing Company and introduced St. Ambroise beer to Montrealers.

“My grandfather came to Montreal in 1920 from Glasgow, Scotland when my father was still young – about ten years old. They lived in NDG on Prud’homme, and my grandfather worked as a plumber. My father started working in the office at CN when he was 15, and worked his way up through the company. He held a wide variety of jobs – from being responsible for all the spur lines in the prairies to being Donald Gordon’s assistant.”

“My mother was from Lachine, and that’s where we lived as I was growing up. My mom always made wine – dandelion wine was one of her favourites. Give her anything she could ferment and she could turn it into some kind of wine. She just turned 91 – so I guess it didn’t do her any harm.”

“I went to John Grant High School which was a relatively small school. The student population was culturally diverse.” Peter has fond memories of his days in high school. “We had some really good teachers – many who went on to significant jobs at the school board. They were a really important and positive influence on me. The Lachine Y was also an important part of my life, and again I had the benefit of the leaders and role models.” Peter continues; “You don’t think of it at the time, but the influences of Scouts, sports, good teachers, and other role models do have a positive effect on you – on how you carry yourself later in life.”

And good friends… “I work out 2 – 3 times a week with a guy who’s been my friend since we were 13 years old. One of my John Grant High buddies. ”

For a while, it looked as though Peter might make a career out of going to high school, but at 19 he finally graduated. “Then I went to the High School of Montreal for a year.” It was time for a break from school. Peter and a couple of buddies from Lachine headed west to Vancouver. “I got a job in a bank, working as a teller. It was our first time being away from home – three guys from Lachine and one from Vancouver.”

However, fun-loving Peter McAuslan knew that you can only have so much fun on an annual salary of $2,900 – which is what the banks were paying in the mid sixties. “We knew in the back of our minds that we’d have to go back to university some day.” Two of us began hitch-hiking back to Montreal in the spring of 1967. The Stanley Cup playoffs were on. “We watched hockey games in taverns all the way across the country.” A mother who made her own wine and now a national market research tour…
“We arrived back in Montreal just in time for the opening if Expo ’67. Peter has a glint in his eye and a mischievous grin; “It was a great summer to be 21 in Montreal.”

Peter was accepted into Sir George Williams University, and he graduated with a BA in 1972. He worked with the YMCA for several years, before he moved to Dawson College. Peter gradually worked his way up to be Secretary General. “At the time, home brewing was popular, and I was hacking around brewing beer for my friends.”

At the same time, Peter wasn’t getting much enjoyment from his job at Dawson. “I was more involved in conflict resolution than education. I wasn’t having much fun.” Peter’s wife Ellen worked as The Registrar at Dawson. The couple travelled to Europe and researched small breweries. “I was making beer, and my friends seemed to like it.” I was sure that we could make a success of a small brewery.”

“Some people thought we were nuts. I was now 40, with job security, 5 weeks of vacation – what was I thinking!” Peter put together a business plan, and begin to seek out investors. “A lot of my colleagues at Dawson were the original investors. I only had to speak with 3 or 4 people to get one investor – which I still think was very good. We put the whole thing together for about $800,000.”

Peter explains the disarmingly simple process of his and Ellen’s research. “While we were still working, we visited a friend’s small brewery in Portland. Allan Pugsley showed Ellen how to brew beer over the week-end. She was trained as a biologist and has a background in science. She looked at me and said “Yeah – I think I can do this’.”

The decision was made. At the age of 40 Peter said goodbye to security, benefits, and most importantly – a job he didn’t like. “Allan came up from Portland and helped us get set up. He made four batches with Ellen, and bid us farewell – we were on our own…. At the beginning there were just four of us – and three of us are still here.”

There is a saying that ‘luck’ is when opportunity meets preparedness. Peter and Ellen knew how to make beer; Peter still has the natural attributes of a successful salesman. There was something else. “We were one of the first small breweries in what has become a very popular beer category. We got off to a good start with St. Ambroise before there were too many other independent brands.”

“We figured how to make the stuff, how to package it, and then how to distribute it.

Peter continues; “We built it slowly, until we employed 40 – 50 people by 2000. Then in 2000, we struck a deal to brew Moosehead locally. That meant a huge investment in this new building, new equipment and a bigger payroll. From a small group of just four people, we’ve grown to a $20 million business in just under 20 years.”

Sons Todd and Taylor are involved in the business in a sales capacity. Todd is selling in The Plateau area of Montreal; while Taylor has set up a sales territory in the Maritimes with nearly $1million in revenues.

Even with the time demands of a growing business, Peter has made time to support and participate in cultural and community organizations. “All my years with The Y, and my educational experience taught me that social involvement is an important part of life.” Continuing, Peter explains his support of cultural activities; “I’ve always has an interest in the Arts. Research has subsequently shown that people who like our unique type of beer are also supporters of the Arts. So it also happens to have been a good business decision.”

“We outgrew our original building next door, and built this one to ramp up for the Moosehead production. We refurbished the old one, and have turned it into a cultural and performance space. I’d like to see performances going on over there 200 nights a year.”

Ever the promoter, Peter comments, “Of course we sell a little beer at the performances, but we hope that some of the people attending will buy St. Ambroise beer. We also sponsored the Olympic Swimming Trials here in Montreal. It’s not your traditional sporting event like hockey or football.”

“We opened a terrace at the end of our building, adjacent to the bike path alongside the Lachine Canal. It’s open for June, July and August, and last year we had 10,000 people stop by. Our attendance is growing by 20% per year.”

There’s room for environmental conservation in the beer business. “We changed all of our sales representatives’ vehicles to hybrids; use corn starch recyclable beer cups on our terrace; and of course we re-use the beer bottles. We’re also investigating the possibility of using solar energy. We have a very large roof – why not use it for solar panels?”

After 20 years, Peter McAuslan is still having fun. A sense of humour, a little bit of luck and a whole lot of determination have earned this Montrealer a strong measure of success. Cheers!

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