Joining us on the sunny, sprawling terrasse sandwiched between mostly empty, pre-pandemic office towers, Ethan Wills leans forward onto an orange metal chair and exhales. "Yeah, it's been quite a ride," he says, with the beginnings of a smile curling around the corner of his mouth.
A year since WILLS opened as a bar in Mile-Ex—having taken up residence in the large industrial space that once housed both the Brasserie Vieux-Montréal (BVM) and local favourite Alexandraplatz—the team is now gearing up for the highly-anticipated release of its beer with an official launch set for today, Friday, July 21.
But more on that later. First, a bit of history.
Like so many great stories these days, this dream started during the initial moments of the first pandemic lockdown. Ethan Wills, former co-owner and manager of Restaurant Lawrence in Mile End, took the rare opportunity to sit back (something, we understand, isn't always possible when you're at the helm of one of Montreal's most popular dining destinations) and evaluate his next move. With plans for his cousin Alex, a geochemist and volcanologist, set to return to Canada from overseas, a plan was quickly hatched to make something of their desire to brew beer in Montreal.
The concept was fairly straightforward. Inspired by what a number of microbreweries were doing in the Northeast USA, particularly in the state of Vermont, the Wills cousins wanted to bring a similar concept that would put Montreal on the beer map. New England IPAs—known for their hazy, juicy composure—exploded on the scene a couple of years ago, and the co-owners wanted to replicate a complex style of beer north of the border in the hopes of drawing aficionados to a new destination.
Ethan, a long-time resident of Mile-Ex, had his eye on the building that he now owns with Alex and several investors for quite some time. It wasn't long before an offer was made, the sale was done, and voilà—they were in business. The on-site bar, a great asset that came with the building, quickly became a central focus of the project. The pair figured, and rightly so, the existing bar space would act as a perfect extension of the brewing space in the back of the facility.
Following an interior makeover at the hands of Ethan's wife, the talented interior designer Annika Krausz, the bar opened in May 2022 to a warm reception. The first summer went well, earning the bar a nod in enRoute's 2022 list of best new patios across Canada, and the ongoing collaboration with the Nouveau Palais food truck gave everyone all kinds of warm and fuzzy feelings.
Yet, all the while, the dream to release its own line of beers continued to face challenges—and it would take another 14 months for their craft beer to see the light of day.
Naturally, when setting up a brewing facility, you need equipment... expensive equipment. The purchase of the BVM space came with nothing included—not that they minded—and that meant purchasing and installing equipment that required significant investment. That said, beer will be produced on a state-of-the-art four vessel brewing system, designed and fabricated by König Brewing Systems, a BC-based manufacturer.
Complications in obtaining a permit caused further delays—but that wasn't all bad, either. It gave the owners more time to experiment, test, and strategize on how to hit the market running. "Testing the system has been essential," noted Ethan. "We wanted to ensure everything was perfect before we welcomed people to try the beer."
Head brewer Ryan Lewell, formerly from Old Montreal's Brewskey, holds a diploma in brewery operations management and is unwavering in his commitment and dedicated approach to quality, never shying away from the extra steps that transform a good beer into an incredible beer. He's joined on the production side by brewer Aurélien Eblé, formerly of Avant-Garde brewery.
"We focus on an overarching stylistic ethos, where the beers are delicately crafted to show off their complexity, while staying approachable and enjoyable for everyone." – Ethan Wills
The team also has a deep appreciation for clean and precise lagers and other traditional beers, which are also expected to be offered on tap. Worth noting is that WILLS is currently set up as the exclusive Canadian distributor for Hill Farmstead, giving it the ability to import directly from brewery-to-brewery without having to pass through the SAQ's distribution centres.
Beyond serving its beer on tap, WILLS will also operate a bottle shop, providing the opportunity for visitors to buy beer to take home. With limited options within the Mile-Ex neighbourhood, the brewery aims to become a go-to destination as a purveyor of exceptional beer. Ultimately, their goal is to connect, share, and show appreciation for beer being made in the neighbourhood, something that serves as a guiding light for their business.
With a nod to breweries like Ayawan, Mellön, and Hill Farmstead as some of their favourite local and regional brews, WILLS is excited to bring its unique sensibility to Montreal's beer scene. Expect to see a guest tap or two made available for other breweries that share the approach and mindset in producing well-executed beers that vary in complexity and taste.
"The space will be primarily devoted to the brewery’s products, but we hope to also highlight others that were an inspiration to us in realizing this project." – Ethan Wills
For the upcoming release, WILLS has prepared four different products, including a pale ale and three different kinds of IPAs. Local artist Max Kaplun designed the logo, heavily inspired by '60s era graphic designs that draw parallels to posters from Expo 67. Merch—limited to a tote bag for now—is available in the shop, perfect for carrying home your very first order.
Clear your calendar, folks, and stop by @wills.beer tonight for exclusive releases, special guests on tap, and some tasty suds.