It's paradoxical, but the global economic crisis of 2008 may have been the best thing ever to have to happened to lawyer-turned-brewery-owner Dimitri van Kampen.
"I had lost all of my clients overnight. Lehman Brothers, Merill Lynch all went away and I'm sitting there, with no much to do, and I started thinking what I might've done with my life if I hadn't gotten into law," he says.
Mr. van Kampen, who refers to himself as a "refugee of the credit crunch," was always a beer hobbyist, but it was time spent in U.K. pubs that deepened his love affair with bold English ales.
"It was a real eye-opener for me about what beer could be, so I started thinking why can't I start a brewery?"
While researching the beer industry in Canada in 2009, he knew he'd have to do two things: create something unique and exciting, but more importantly, present a convincing business case to his wife.
That something unique was extreme beer, what he calls "the most exciting and fastest growing niche of the craft beer market of the U.S.," and it was enough to convince his wife to help him open Spearhead Brewery, which launched this year.
Brands like Dogfish Head and Stone Brewering Co., which are gaining incredible traction south of the border, are sources of inspiration for Mr. van Kampen. But these types of beers are still surprisingly difficult to find in Canada. And while more local craft brewers like Flying Monkeys Craft Brewery (whose Smashbomb Atomic IPA was recently rejected by the LCBO) have started popping up here and there, the market is still relatively untapped, and that's where Mr. van Kampen saw his opportunity.
Selecting the company's debut beer was not an easy decision and would inevitably set the tone. Mr. van Kampen says it was important for it to be not only original and exciting, but also relatively accessible to a wider market. In the end, the company went with the Hawaiian Pale Ale, a citrussey, hoppy ale with notes of pineapple. With its appeal to both younger and older generations, and connotations of surf culture and beach vacations, "it was really a no brainer," he admits. "I wanted to brew the beer that I wanted to drink, but I'm also a realist and knew that I had to make a beer that others wanted to drink."
While Spearhead is selling its Hawaiian Pale Ale to bars in southern Ontario in draught only, they have numerous recipes they're hoping to release in the next year. There are no drawing board plans to bottle in the near future, but it's certainly a long-term goal. Since the LCBO is Ontario's only outlet for craft brewers, timing is everything and it's important to be slow, methodical and patient. Those who jump the gun run risking it all.
"If you come out too soon, you could fall flat on your face because you have to meet minimum sales quotas at the LCBO in order to continue your listing there," says Mr. van Kampen.
It's a great time to be in the industry, he says, as Canadians begin to realize that beer can be just as complex and flavourful as wine.
And when it comes to pairing beer with certain rich, decadent foods, it can often "kick wine out of the park," he proclaims. "You cannot pair wine with chocolate, I don't care what anyone tells you. Chocolate, and cheese for that matter, coats your mouth and the wine just bounces right off of it. But beer, with its scrubbing bubbles will clean the palette. It's perfect for those types of food."
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