Professor brewing up history in Norfolk County

Paul Mayne // Western News

Anatomy and Cell Biology professor Tim Wilson, along with wife Melanie Doerksen, recently opened their own craft brewery, Charlotteville Brewing Co., just yards from where the pair grew up. Doerksen was born just a few concessions over from the former community of Charlotteville (since amalgamated into Norfolk County), where the brewery gets its name.

Tim Wilson grew up on the family farm in Norfolk County, hopping through the Carolinian Forest looking for dinosaurs. More than four decades later, still no dinosaurs, but he is still hopping.

It’s been eight years since the Anatomy and Cell Biology professor, along with wife Melanie Doerksen, bought his parents’ farm and began growing hops to distribute to local craft brewers. More recently, they opened their own craft brewery, Charlotteville Brewing Co., just yards from where the pair grew up. Doerksen was born just a few concessions over from the former community of Charlotteville (since amalgamated into Norfolk County), where the brewery gets its name.

“My wife is the key person here. I’m just the janitor and the grass-cutter who fills in behind the scenes,” Wilson said. “She’s the front-of-the-house person, but also the back-of-the-house guru where she builds all of the beers. She has immense pride in what she does as the brewer and CEO of the company. And getting to boss me around – she loves that.”

Getting into the beer business was not always on tap. When the two began dating in the late 1990’s – Wilson had left university; Doerksen hadn’t started yet – they lived in France for four years “for an adventure.”

“We got exposed to a lot of vineyards, the culture, the wine. When we came back, I told my dad that we’re going to grow grapes here for wine. He was like, ‘Don’t be dumb. Grapes don’t grow in this area.’” laughed Wilson, who wisely stayed in school.

During the summer months of his undergrad time at the University of Waterloo, Wilson returned home to make money working with his uncle, who grew tobacco. The two threw around the idea of starting a tobacco farm share. But, at that time, the federal government began curbing tobacco production in southern Ontario. That idea, too, went out the window.

“Like my dad, my uncle said you better stay in school and that very next day I got the letter from Western saying, ‘Welcome, you’re doing your masters in Kinesiology,” said Wilson, who went on to also earn his PhD at Western.

Doerksen, who earned a culinary degree and trained in Italy, returned to the area as an instructor at Fanshawe College. Wilson began teaching in the Faculty of Health Sciences in 2006 before moving to the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry two years later.

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In 2010, Wilson’s dad began talking about selling the family farm. His three younger siblings weren’t interested. One sister purchased an acre in order to live next to the family home, where Wilson’s mom still lives, across the street from the brewery.

“None of the others really wanted anything to do with the farm – other than have a history. But Mel and I wanted to keep the tradition alive,” Wilson said. “That summer, we started growing hops – just grew hops and sold them to whoever wanted them.”

With thoughts of starting their own brewery, they traveled to various brewing conferences, expanding their interest in the industry. “It was always in the back of our minds,” Wilson said.

The pair eventually took their hops to Jon Downing, a brewmaster at the Niagara College Teaching Brewery, who helped them get started on their three main beers – Local 519, Hopsy Dazey and Velvet Devil. They have since added Fancy Pants – currently on tap at the Grad Club – and Wedgie Delight. A new pumpkin beer, Monster Mash, will be available soon.

“If you jump in and the water is deep, you just hope you can swim,” Wilson said of the experience. “The worst case is you go to dive deep and you hit the bottom. We dove in shallow and long. Everything became real very quickly.

While Doerksen quit her job at Fanshawe to take on the brewery full time, Wilson will still be spending the majority of his time teaching in the classroom.

“We wouldn’t have started this if it wasn’t a good business plan. If you brew it, and they drink it, you’ll make money. So, you need a good product and you need to have a story. We have the story down pat. And the product my wife makes is excellent.”

The brewery and farm even have a Western flavour.

Two “ancient brand-new structures” – barns from the late 1800s and early 1900s – were moved to the farm thanks to now-retired Western staffer Ian Jones. The brewery’s large cooler door once hung on the loading dock of the Grad Club, where Wilson worked as a student. And he also has the wooden swing doors from the Department of Anatomy in one of the barns, just waiting to be repurposed.

“Western history is now stored safely at a distance,” he said.

While they still have a presence in London, Wilson and Doerksen are enjoying being back home.

“We just didn’t buy this thing and set it here,” Wilson said. “The water is 20 feet below us; the hops are 300 feet away from us. We just purchase the grains, but that’s something we hope to do soon as well. We’d love to have one or two beers that are completely from the farm. I love the name Walking Distance. That might be it.”