Two men toast pints of beer at Focal Brewing Co.

Taste of the TSW with Jeff Bray: Focal Brewing Co. 

Cover Image: Jeff Bray (left) and Brandon Bickle (right) toast with a pint of Focal Brewing Co. beer

Jeff Bray is the co-founder and festival director of the award-winning Cultivate Festival in Northumberland County. He’s also an instructor at Centennial College, where he teaches about food tourism, a former restauranteur, and a previous contributing writer to Watershed Magazine. We asked Jeff to give us his thoughts on a few of the unique Taste of the Trent-Severn products developed by businesses around Kawarthas Northumberland.

Focal is a portmanteau of focus and local, and it’s more than just a name—it’s the philosophy that makes Hastings’ latest brewery so exciting. Brandon Bickle and Matt Filion may have just opened the doors of Focal Brewing Co. in 2022, but the plans have been in motion for about 12 years. 

Brandon and Matt are more than just business partners. They’re best friends as well as cousins, and they’ve been home brewing together since 2011. Owning a brewery, to them, has always seemed inevitable. 

For years now, the two of them quietly worked away at a plan while they continued their day jobs—Matt as corporate brand manager, and Brandon as product manager and buyer at national and international brands. These skill sets were certainly transferable, and they couldn’t wait to transfer them.

Brandon started growing hops on his family farm between Port Hope and Cobourg nine years ago. He was selling to Ontario brewers in his downtime and learning the lay of the brewing land while he was at it.

They were beginning to home in on what they wanted to achieve—a craft product, celebrating locality—and Brandon’s hops would play a big role. The right location, to see the dream come to fruition, would be even more important.

The search was on.

It began in 2018, but after a couple of years and several failed attempts to get started on the family farm and in Port Hope, they grew frustrated with their lack of progress.

Up in Trent Hills, Brandon had recently bought a house in Hastings. It had a big barn/shop and a sprawling lawn. It afforded great visibility from the street and it was on Highway 35, a busy stretch that connects Peterborough to Campbellford and Warkworth. With a little work, this place could be it, and considering their luck elsewhere, Brandon put the question to Matt—why not just open up in his own backyard? Matt was in. 

After over a decade of dreaming, in 2022 Focal Brewing Co. was born.

Hastings was where they could see their vision coming to reality—brewing with a focus on local. Brandon’s hop farm was transplanted into the front yard of the new location and 90% of the hops they use are their own, home-grown hops. The hop vines have become the most recognizable feature of the property, standing over 15 feet tall, right at the road. That was just the first piece of the local puzzle. 

Brandon said that Focal has supported 41 local businesses since they started, from electricians to restaurants to grain farmers. Being a part of the community is in their DNA, and it’s why it was an easy decision to get involved with the Taste of the Trent-Severn Waterway.

While Focal may not be directly on the Trent, it still plays a major role in all of their beer. They decided early to have water delivered, as opposed to drilling and using a well. All the water for every one of their beers comes from the Trent (after a stop at the Campbellford Water Treatment Plant, of course). The Trent is in every sip of all Focal beers. Brandon explained that it’s limestone that makes the difference. This mineral in brewing water lowers the pH in the mashing process, which is desirable for brewing.

Riverside Wheat is the featured Taste of the TSW product. Described by its creators as a “summer-loving wheat beer with fresh orange zest and vanilla for a refreshing finish,” it’s a refreshing patio beer, just in time for patio season. 

Brewed in the spirit and style of a hefeweizen, Riverside pays homage to the culture and craft of the promised land for most beer drinkers—Germany. 

Focal’s love for Germany doesn’t stop there though. Focal Fest is an annual affair, bringing Oktoberfest vibes all the way to Hastings, lederhosen and all. This is exactly where you’d want to drink the Riverside Wheat. Keep your eyes peeled for Focal Fest in October. 

Events play a big role at Focal. The Patio Party kicks off summer every Victoria Day weekend and there’s an annual Cornhole Tournament in June, complete with local food vendors and live music. There’s rarely a time that something isn’t going on. Staying true to their focus on local philosophy, there’s often live music and food vendors popping up to celebrate whatever needs celebrating. In the winter, it’s all about Friday night trivia. Of course, you don’t need a special excuse to drop in on the taproom at 98 County Rd 35.

When asked about what was special about the area, there was no stopping Brandon, with food being the focus. Not only did he mention tons of mouth-watering options in Trent Hills, he’s in love with how Focal can include them in what he does and vice versa. 

You can find him pouring beer at IncrEdible Edibles Festival in downtown Campbellford. The doughnuts at Dooher’s are second to none, but Focal managed to not eat them all on the drive home, threw them into the beer mash and turned them into a Pastry Stout. K Okay Café & Roasters (formerly Our Lucky Stars), a super charming cafe and roastery down in Warkworth, roasts the beans for their Coffee Chocolate Porter. Over in downtown Hastings, McGillicafey’s Pub, right on the Trent Severn Waterway, is an institution. You can find Lock 18 Light Lager and the Trail Town Double IPA both in a can and on draught as their house beers. 

Not only do these great places exist, but they are all happy to work together. That’s what makes Trent Hills so special, and why Focal Brewing Co. is able to stay true to what’s important to them—focusing on local.

Read more of Jeff’s adventures along the Trent-Severn Waterway here

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