DME-From PEI to Africa

And everywhere in between

Out of adversity comes opportunity.

That old Ben Franklin chestnut couldn’t be more true for Peter Toombs and Diversified Metal Engineering. DME is a big player in the world of brewing and is based here in Prince Edward Island. But the seeds of its creation came from a failed—if warmly remembered—experiment in local craft brewing.

“DME started 26 years ago, in 1991,” DME director of marketing and communications Whitney Hooper said. “It was founded by Peter Toombs, who is still our president and CEO today. Peter launched the company from his apartment with only a few people. Today, we have grown to 350 employees across three manufacturing facilities in Charlottetown, Abbotsford, BC, and Loris, South Carolina.

“DME was always in the brewing business,” she said. “Peter had been working for another stainless steel manufacturer before founding this company and worked with them to help build PEI’s first brewery at that time. When that company closed, Peter still wanted to work in brewing systems manufacturing, and so DME was created.”

Trent Hayes, Gahan brewmaster//Photo courtesy of Murphy Hospitality Group

The Island’s first modern brewery, The Island Brewing Company, was not exactly what one would call a success. The product was poor but the brains behind the business, local Charlottetown businessman Bill Rix, was nothing if not enthusiastic.

Rix got together a group of 20 investors with the goal of building a $1.8m brewery, which opened for business in 1986 in Charlottetown. The Island Brewing Company was the first brewery to operate on PEI since the last one closed 70 years earlier, due to prohibition. In the late 1800s there were as many as 15 brewers in Charlottetown alone. The company hired an English brewmaster who had previously worked with Bass Brewery there, and his first draft in Charlottetown, Old Abby, was a hit.

The company sold out of the first kegs in no time at all. Within days actually.

In 1987 the company invested in a bottling system and launched Red Rock Lager. This brew didn’t fare as well and the company went out of business in 1988. Wellington County Brewery in Guelph, Ontario bought all the equipment.

The company struggled due to a combination of factors. Craft brewing wasn’t really a thing in PEI at the time. The craft beer explosion had really only started in the mid to late 1970s with San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Company. Brewing craft beer in PEI in the 1980s was ambitious and ahead of its time. Many Islanders weren’t interested in locally brewed beer, so the market was small. Add to that the fact that provincial regulations prohibited the advertising of beer, and you have a recipe for failure.

Enter PEI Brewing Company and Murphy Hospitality Group’s Kevin Murphy.

DME needed a working brewery system to show to prospective clients that came to its corporate headquarters in PEI, and Murphy provided an opportunity for a proof of concept.

We are in the brewing business because of DME,” Murphy said. “Back in 1996, Peter . . .was wanting a local restaurateur to open a brewpub so they would have one of their systems in Charlottetown to showcase to prospective buyers. We opened a 3.5-BBL (barrel) system at The Lone Star Cafe on University Avenue. Three years later we opened the Gahan on Sydney Street with a seven-BBL system with 10 seven-BBL fermenters.”

From these beginnings has grown an international brewing system business.

“We have recently built a system for the first brewery in Ghana, Africa as well as Gothenburg, Sweden,” Hooper said. “We’ve built systems in India, China, the Philippines, and Korea. We have a lot of systems all over Australia, as well as all over Canada and the US. Chances are, almost anywhere in the world you’ll be able to find a DME system.”

The company has done a massive amount of work in the field worldwide.

Upstreet Brewery//Photo credit: Jessica L. Fitz

“At DME we’ve built 820 systems in 67 countries all together,” Hooper said. “Through the DME Group, which now also owns Newlands systems, we’re over 1,600 breweries around the world.  Quite an impact based out of our little Island.”

The projects they’ve worked on run the gamut of size. The smallest system they completed was a one-BBL system for the prestigious Siebel Institute of Brewing in Chicago. The largest: a 120-BBL system for Sharps Brewing in Cornwall, England.

DME is currently finishing up a flagship 40-BBL system for Sebago Brewing which features DME’s newest automation offering, a robust recipe-based package. And they are about to ship a pilot system to BrewDog HQ in Scotland.

“We’re always excited about new breweries locally, and have a few breweries in planning for PEI that we hope to see operational later in 2018,” she said.

The company has built every PEI brewery to date: Gahan, PEI Brewing Company, Upstreet, Moth Lane, Barnone, and most recently Copper Bottom.

“The most interesting was probably the first PEI Brewing Company system, which is still in the basement of the Gahan House,” she said. “During the renovations to that property the system had to be installed, and then the rest of the building essentially went up around it.”

Murphy recalls it being quite the operation.

“The Gahan House was formerly an old gentlemen’s rooming house that also was a convent from the 1920s to 1960s,” he said. “Yes, it was quite the renovation and install. Basically we had to remove five feet of the foundation on the west side to create an opening big enough so that a crane could hoist the tanks over the building and lower them down on their sides so we could take them into the basement . . . then stand them up and put them in place.

“We did this 10 times to get the tanks all in place then the Island stone foundation was reinstalled and this was the beginning of the Gahan on Sydney Street.”

After the brewery was installed, Gahan brewmaster Trent Hayes was the only ‘tenant’ in the former rooming house that first winter while MHG built the pub. It all opened for business and beer in June 2001.

DME has some very enthusiastic fans on the Island.

Ashley Condon and her husband Ken Spears, co-owners of Montague’s Copper Bottom Brewery, said they stand by the DME product.

“They were great to deal with,” Condon said. “You can tell they love what they do and they were so excited to be working with a local brewery on PEI as most of their systems get shipped off Island and across the world. They were total pros and made us feel like royalty when we’d go in to see the progress of our system or even just for a brief meeting.

“One thing I also noticed, besides it being the highest per capita of bearded men on PEI, that their staff were happy and smiling as you’d walk through the admin offices and metal shops.”

Ken Spears, Copper Bottom’s brewmaster, is busy keeping up with demand for the new brewery’s beer//Photo Credit: Rod Weatherbie

Condon said her husband, who had previously worked for years with Propeller Brewing in Halifax, was like a kid in a candy store.

“When Ken walked into the DME shop for the first time, it was like his version of Charlie’s Chocolate Factory.”

Murphy and the PEI Brewing Company also have high praise.

“I always refer to DME as a world-class brewery manufacturer right here on PEI,” he said. “It’s a great success story and how we have built the craft beer industry on PEI, one beer at a time.”

The PEI Brewing Company didn’t have any competition until 2015 when Upstreet Craft Brewing opened. Upstreet uses all DME systems as well.

This prompted Murphy to continue his business relationship with DME. After Upstreet launched, the PEI Brewing Company ordered additional brewing equipment for its locations on Walker Drive and Kensington Road in Charlottetown.

“We have two more systems on order at present: one for Moncton and one for Fredericton,” Murphy said. “By the end of 2018 we will have six systems in operation from DME. We have a 20-year relationship with DME and consider them a real partner in our brewing business. They have an amazing team of people that know the beer business.”

About Rod Weatherbie

Rod Weatherbie is a writer working in the hospitality industry. He spent a number of years in Toronto as a member of the financial press before returning to PEI. Rod has published one piece of short fiction, one book of poetry, and has had work published in Red Shift, the Antigonish Review, Mitre, and the Toronto Quarterly. He has also recently co-produced, co-directed, and acted in a stage production of old television shows.

He also likes writing about food. Go figure.

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