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Jul. 31, 2021 | Saturday
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Over a century later, the Grist carries on where Sleeman left off
Danielle and Robert Begin share an intimate laugh amid the opening day fluster of their new brewery, the Grist in St. Davids. (Evan Saunders)

The St. Davids brewing scene has grown with the long-awaited opening of Grist Craft Kitchen and Brewery on Four Mile Creek Road.

Proprietor Robert Begin will be welcoming diners and beer enthusiasts inside the building starting Friday, July 16.

“It’ll be fantastic,” Begin said of indoor dining as Ontario enters Step 3 of its reopening plan.

“We’ve got a lot to do,” he said.

The arrival of Step 3 could not have been better timed for the Grist. The brewery has a small patio but has yet to receive approval from the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake to use it – nor did Begin foresee a pandemic when construction began.

“It’s a small patio, yeah. We never forecasted we’d run into this.”

“And we had to get our occupancy first, which we didn’t even know beforehand. That takes two to three weeks.”

Being able to open the dining area on Friday enables Begin to circumvent the bureaucratic delays over the patio.

The restaurant had its opening day on July 9, serving takeout food and beer.

“We’re so flustered,” Begin said as the Grist got ready to serve its first customers.

That morning Begin was busy with his wife Danielle preparing all the food for the brewery's first day of sales, which looked a little different than the couple had expected.

“We don’t have the benefit of the typical soft opening where you can invite people to test everything out. So, we figured we might as well do it like this,” Begin said.

But things keep falling into place for the Grist. Its takeout-only opening allowed the team to prepare for the crowds that will arrive with Step 3.

That's enabled them to "make sure we’re able to keep things going and we feel comfortable with things before we actually open for full dining service,” said Begin.

The brewery has four beers available for purchase and Begin's favourite is the red cream ale.

“The thing about the red cream ale is that, with Sleeman’s having the first brewery around here, it’s kind of paying homage to them.”

The progenitor of the current Sleeman Breweries was John Sleeman, who founded the Stamford Spring Brewery in St. Davids in 1836. It closed in 1847.

“After 186 years, brewing is finally back in St. Davids,” the Grist’s website reads.

The brewery is connected to an old farm building that Begin has refurbished. Lots of material from the barn was recycled for the brewery's décor. Old barrels, rusted siding and wooden beams adorn the interior.

Begin thought that creating a great main building was the hard part but now that the restaurant is open his focus has completely changed.

“The pressure, believe it or not, is actually in offering the proper food and service. We always thought it was the building but now that it’s done it’s almost inconsequential,” he said.

The couple have been working on opening the brewery for three-and-a-half years. COVID-19 caused delays but was strangely beneficial.

The pandemic offered somewhat of a silver lining, he said. "If we had opened up when we wanted to it really would have impacted our bottom line,” Begin said.

“All of a sudden we would have had staffing issues. We would have had payroll and food waste.”

While he is excited about the prospect of the U.S. border reopening, he stressed that the Grist is not focused solely on tourism.

“I’ve always been a big supporter of making sure you take care of the locals,” he said.

“Tourism is fantastic but tourism in the middle of the winter won’t support you. So, you’ve got to make sure that you take care of those that take care of you.”

Part of that was making sure the Grist does not end up as another expensive fine dining spot in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

“We’re really trying to have a much more level price point. We want people to come three times a week, not three times a year.”

The couple used to own Garciolli’s Pizza on Mary Street in Old Town and Begin used to work opening wineries. They made the decision to invest the money from their past life in the new brewery.

“Danielle and I decided to blow every bit of our kids' inheritance” on the Grist, the website says.

“That’s not a joke,” Begin told The Lake Report.

With the opening of the brewery is just the first step in the growth of the business, he said,

“Once we get this done, we’re going to start the coffee shop and Italian ice creamery,” Begin said, gesturing to a vacant building on the lot.

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