Tonight, Dimitri van Kampen and his team at Spearhead Brewing Company will see the results of their hard work. With a soft marketing lead-up to the official announcement of the brewery’s launch earlier this month, Spearhead has been building a following for the last few months without a single pint being poured. This evening, Spearhead’s first beer, Hawaiian Style Pale Ale, launches at barVolo, which van Kampen is hoping will be the kick-off for several more extreme beers.
As Ontario’s newest craft brewery, Spearhead has taken on the motto of “beer without boundaries.” Focusing on extreme beers, which is a phrase often associated with off-the-wall and high alcohol by volume brews, Spearhead is aiming to cater to as large an audience as possible with Hawaiian Style Pale Ale, a west coast pale ale with a mild infusion of pineapple. According to van Kampen, who is the president and founder of Spearhead Brewing, the beer isn’t a pineapple bomb, but instead is a hoppy west coast pale ale style that is meant to remind people of tropical climates.
How did van Kampen end up as a brewing entrepreneur? After all, van Kampen makes his living as a lawyer, not as a brewer. The story is both familiar and unique at the same time.
“I was working in London, England. I’m a lawyer by trade. I’m working in London, England, and I really, really enjoyed the real ale there,” van Kampen said. “It was a real eye-opener. Each time you had a pint, it could be completely different from the last time.”
Real ale opened up a new world of beer flavours to the beer lover, and when the economy fell apart and van Kampen found himself lacking in work to do, he started to think about what he wanted to do with his life. He joked that it’s a common thing to do amongst lawyers. Sitting around with colleagues and wondering what else he could have done with his life, van Kampen made the off-hand comment that he should have started a brewery.
“I went back to my office and I sat there and I was like ‘why can’t I do this?’” he said.
He may not have known it at the time, but he’d made the first step towards opening a craft brewery. He told his wife the idea, and she thought he was crazy, he noted (whose wife wouldn’t?). They returned to Canada shortly after, and van Kampen started working on a business plan for a brewery in March 2009, eventually bringing Martin Villeneuve (who would become Spearhead’s CFO) on board as a partner.
From the time van Kampen returned to Canada, he was brewing his own beer at home, concocting his own beer recipes and doing a lot of reading about brewing and its processes.
“The first recipe that I did was for an IPA, and it was kind of roughly, loosely based on the 90 Minute IPA by Dogfish Head,” he said. Hey, if you’re going to emulate another brewer’s beer, it might as well be one of the best, eh? Adding some “funky ingredients” to the IPA, van Kampen ended up with a beer he was happy with. What were those funky ingredients? It’s a secret for now, as van Kampen plans to turn that first homebrew into a commercial beer under the Spearhead banner. Beer lovers will have to wait to find out.
As the business plan for what would eventually become Spearhead Brewing Company continued to develop, van Kampen finally had a big break that would propel his brewery forward. Retired brewmaster Tomas Schmidt came to van Kampen’s and Villeneuve’s attention, and the Spearhead guys met with Schmidt in London, Ontario in 2010. Things went well at that meeting, and Schmidt, who is an award-winning brewer with more than 30 years of experience, agreed to come on board as the fledgling brewery’s brewmaster.
“He brings so much experience. He’s so experienced and he has so many qualifications that as a startup brewery you can only dream to have,” van Kampen said. “That was really the big break that we got. He’s really been able to take my wonky ideas and kind of translate them into something that makes commercial sense.”
Like van Kampen, Schmidt is also a homebrewer (it gives new meaning to the “taking work home with you” phrase, no?) and enjoys getting wild with his own recipes.
In speaking with van Kampen about his startup brewery, there were two things that really stood out. First, he has a passion for beer. That’s not exactly rare in the craft brewing community, but a little more rare is that van Kampen also has a very strong business head on his shoulders. Instead of talking only about passion and creativity, van Kampen (who still practices as a lawyer) talks a lot about business plans, commercial viability and the market. That’s a rare combination to find in a business owner, and hopefully it serves him well.
The name Spearhead was a difficult one to come up with. According to van Kampen, coming up with a name for the brewery that had the right kind of impact and message was a painful process, but he eventually came up with the name that sounded right for what he wanted to do. Alongside that came the motto “beer without boundaries.”
“I wanted to do something that was really different. I wanted to be at the cutting edge,” van Kampen said. “I wanted to be a little bit more risky. My imagination was really captured by Dogfish Head and the likes of Stone and Rogue, and those types of breweries in the States that are pushing the limits of what beer is.”
The business plan was based on brewing extreme beers (that are also real beers) and doing something different than others in the Canadian craft brewing industry.
“We don’t ever want to produce something that people expect,” van Kampen said.
And thus was born the pineapple-infused Hawaiian Style Pale Ale, which launches tonight at barVolo in Toronto. To van Kampen’s knowledge (and to your humble writer’s, as well), there are no pineapple-infused beers in Canada, so it’s certainly unique for the Great White North.
On Saturday, van Kampen and Schmidt will be give talks about extreme brewing and starting up a brewery at the Canadian Amateur Brewers Association‘s Great Canadian Homebrew Conference at the Rhino (the usual disclaimer regarding CABA applies: I am a board member). Naturally, the pineapple-infused west coast pale ale will be on hand for attendees to sample, and then the Spearhead team will follow the conference with a second launch party at the Rhino.
Starting Friday, June 17th, Hawaiian Style Pale Ale will be available at licensed establishments in Toronto and elsewhere in Ontario (mostly in the south, but as far north as cottage country). Check it out if you get the chance, and let us know what you think in the comments below.