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Oct. 19, 2021 | Tuesday
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Hometown Brewer: Sam Maxbauer of Exchange Brewery
Paul Rakoczy, Lucas SkowroPaul Rakoczy, Lucas Skowronski-Schultz and Sam Maxbauer. Mike Lyons is also a member of Exchange’s brew team, not pictured here. (Brittany Carter/Niagara Now)

From the ground up, Sam Maxbauer has been at the helm of the Exchange Brewery’s brew team literally since before construction began.

The Exchange has been in operation for five years, and Maxbauer helped it become Niagara-on-the-Lake’s go-to for sour beers.

The 31-year-old’s previous six years in the craft beer industry in Michigan prepared him to take on the leadership role at the Queen Street brewery in NOTL.

“I helped design the building, all the brewing equipment. I started working kind of as a consultant and then, once the project was further along, became the head brewer. I was the first person hired,” Maxbauer says.

Through his membership in the Brewer’s Association, a trade group comprised of more than 7,200 brewers, he says he was on the lookout for a new project. With his love of sour beers and experimental brewing technologies, he was excited and eager to join Robin Ridesic, owner and CEO of Exchange, in her new venture.

“She (Ridesic) was looking to open a brewery focused on sour beers and I was looking to do a startup. It worked out really well,” he says.

He tackled the limited space while building the brewery with relative ease; it is shoe-horned into the former first telephone exchange building, built in 1880. The narrow, multi-level brewing floors provided a challenge, but Maxbauer says he just had to think about what was needed in the long run in terms of production.

“Here the space is such a premium that everything had to be dialled in as much as we can,” he says.

While he has no formal schooling in brewing – he worked as a music sound engineer before breaking into the beer business – he did work as an apprentice for six years under several different master brewers in Michigan. He spent years helping breweries renovate, grow and expand before Ridesic brought him into Canada to work for her.

Bringing Maxbauer into the country was an ordeal, Ridesic says, but it was well worth the effort. Immigration rejected the application initially, but eventually he was approved to come work for her in Canada, she says.

“It was no fun, let me tell you that. Basically, I was bringing him up a year before the brewery was opening so he could kind of design and install his brewery for the Exchange. I had to prove that no Canadian could do the job,” she says.

Ridesic says he came with the experience to hit the ground running with his specialization in sour beers.

“That, to the best of my knowledge, didn’t even in exist in Canada at the time,” she adds.

She says his skills really shone through in the production of sour beers.

During his time at Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales in Dexter, Mich., he gained valuable experience that set him on a path toward sour beer specialization.

“That was where I kind of got my more specialty experience. That was kind of what led me here,” he says.

Humble but self-assured, Maxbauer isn’t one to sing his own praises, Ridesic says, but she is happy to fill in the gaps.

“Sam is just a great all-around guy. He’s smart, he’s talented. He’s a nice guy. I feel I’m very lucky to have met him,” she says.

Above and beyond brewing sour beers, Maxbauer brought with him an interest in cultivating wild yeast, something he says no one else in the region has done. While it only has about a 50 per cent success rate, he says it’s a fun process to experiment with.

“As the beer is cooling down it’s pulling in basically anything that’s floating around in the air as kind of a negative pressure pulling things towards it. So, it’s pollen, it’s the wild yeast and bacteria that’s floating around. And whatever can survive in that beer media will flourish. Ideally, the nasty bacteria and things that you don’t want will die off within 24 hours,” he says. Basically, it’s a big Petri dish, he adds.

Ridesic says his ability to experiment and his drive to keep pushing forward make him a great partner in the brewery.

Though he originally hails from Traverse City, Mich., he says he feels right at home in NOTL and doesn’t plan on leaving any time soon.

Brewing is his passion. In his limited free time, when not walking with his girlfriend Megan Konstantonis and their rottweiller Shatzie, he’s experimenting with wild yeast for fun. He’s made a home for himself in NOTL – the perfect place for an experienced brewer in a budding craft beer industry, he says.