An Interview With Dimitri van Kampen of Spearhead Brewing

Imagine you spend your days working as a lawyer and your evenings as the president and founder of a fledgling brewery (oh, and you’ve also got a sick, teething daughter). You’re two days away from launching your beer first beer at one of Toronto’s premier beer bars and after that you’ve got the next week and a half booked with events. These will take place across Ontario, sometimes with three or four events on one night. Every kind of promotional material imaginable is crammed into your basement. This is life right now for Dimitri van Kampen, president and founder of the Spearhead Brewing Company. He was kind enough to find time for a chat about Toronto’s newest microbrewery and their new Hawaiian Style Pale Ale.

A Year of Beer!: How did Spearhead come about?

Dimitri van Kampen: When I got back from England in about March 2009, just over two years ago, I came back and I had already started writing the business plan for Spearhead, although it wasn’t called Spearhead at that time. There was really no name for it. I knew it had to be something rebellious and something strong because I knew I wanted to do extreme beer as a concept and as a business plan. I didn’t feel there was any purpose in going out and being another craft brewer that makes a pretty good amber ale when there’s already a tonne of those brewers out there that are making terrific beer. I just wanted to do something that caused people to think differently about beer. A lot of people just don’t think about beer at all and they do think about wine – lots of people think about wine, lots of people think about things like vodka.

You’ll notice that the nose is different from most Ontario beers. What I wanted to achieve was those really great west coast-style, hoppy India pale ales and west coast pale ales that are so terriffic and you can’t get them in Canada, or this part of Canada. I found myself waiting for the next shipment of Liberty Ale at the LCBO or the next shipment of Dogfish Head when they had the 60 Minute in. I was looking forward to going down to the States and picking up things like…

AYOB!: Stone or…

DvK: Yeah, Stone or Sierra Nevada. All those great products. I just wanted to make the beer I like to drink. I created the initial recipe for this beer about nine months ago and then our brewmaster Tom Schmidt and our assistant brewmaster Stephen Rich had been working on the recipe and eventually went through nineteen different iterations and this is the final product. You get a lot of citrus right off the nose and then there’s this kind of tropical hint which is the Hawaiian style, the pineapple.

AYOB!: How is the pineapple added and to what part of the brewing process? Or is it a trade secret? [Ed. note: pineapple juice is used.]

DvK: No, no, it’s not a trade secret. Actually, I have to watch out because Tom is adamant that we don’t get too detailed on it. But what we do is add the pineapple toward the end of the boil. What we’re trying to achieve, instead of a fruit beer, is a beer that has a complex character. So a west coast pale ale that has something different to it, that has sort of an extreme quality to it apart from being west coasty and hoppy and super, super, super hopped. This is probably one of the most hopped beers in Ontario, even though it hasn’t got one of the highest IBUs. This is a 60 IBUs beer.

AYOB!: For Ontario though, for a flagship beer, it’s still pretty hoppy.

DvK: I think we’re at the upper echelon of hoppiness in Ontario. You’ve got 10 Bitter Years, you’ve got Smashbomb, but what I didn’t want was that so bitter beer. I wanted a beer that had a high IBU that had this incredible aroma. I was going for aroma and taste as opposed to bitterness. So we just dry-hopped the hell out of this thing. I think it’s probably one of the heaviest dry-hopped beers in Ontario. It was certainly something that they’d never seen at Cool. They were like, “Woah, that’s a lot of hops!” There’s a tonne of hops in this beer. It’s a very expensive beer to make because it’s a real beer as well, which means it’s naturally conditioned and carbonated it takes a lot more time. It’s approximately five weeks to get this from beginning to end. In a commercial setting it’s a relatively long time for a pale ale. We would like it to be a little bit longer even, but the reality of business is that, especially when you’re using someone elses facilities, you’re blocking the process for someone else. But we definitely stopped at nothing. We would never go below five weeks on this one. That’s just out of the question.

As I was saying, it’s not a fruit beer. It’s supposed to just be an added complexity to this already interesting, complex, flavoured beer. And there’s that tropical finish. We didn’t want, “Ooh, pineapple!” That’s not what we were going for at all. I think a lot of people are expecting that but that’s not what this is going to be and I hope that they’re not disappointed. I hope that they find something complex in it that is equally satisfying. The other thing I like about the beer is that it’s very dry at the end. It keeps your taste buds wanting a little more.

AYOB!: You keep going back for the next sip.

DvK: I didn’t want one of these beers where your palate is overwhelmed at the end and you’re not really interested in having a second one. It is 6.5% alcohol so it is relatively high on the alcohol scale in Ontario. This will hopefully be one of our beers that will give us a little bit of lift in the market and we can get some volume off this. Hopefully it will allow us to afford to make lots of other really great beers, because we’ve got lots of ideas up our sleeves.

AYOB!: Why did you choose to go unfiltered, unpasteurized, naturally carbonated?

DvK: When I was in England I discovered real ale. That whole concept that every different night you go out you could have a different beer experience with the same beer, even at the same bar. I was finding that people would say, “Wow, great pint.” “What are you talking about, great pint? Of course it’s great, it’s beer, whatever.” They’d be like, “No, great pint. Last night was horrible.” “Where were you last night?” “I was here. It must be a new keg.” They explained that this is actually alive, this beer, and every night it’s different. And the person who serves the beer and the person who taps the keg downstairs and the people who take care of the beer are just as important as the people who brew it because they can ruin a beer or make it better than what was intended  depending on how they treat it. When I started getting into real ale it was a real eyeopener because I had never tasted it in a pub in England. It’s completely different than getting a Fuller’s off the truck here, which is delicious but not quite the same as having any kind of cask conditioned ale. So when I got back it was, “Why can’t we do that here?”

If we do this, we may as well do it the way we want to do it and as another way to distinguish ourselves in the market and produce something that people may really get into. Most beer companies when they’re delivering their kegs they’re rolling down the street and tossing them and banging them. We have to instruct the people that work for us and we also have to instruct the bar owners that you can’t do that with our beer, you just ruin it. It will just foam and there will be sediment everywhere and the yeast will be kicked up through the beer. We try to explain to them that you just have to treat it like a baby. And so far, so good.

AYOB!:Did you talk to other breweries or bars when you made that decision? As you said, you’re putting a lot of power into the hands of the bars.

DvK: Yeah, you are but I think the people who bring this beer into their bar, when we have the discussion with them, so far they get it. So far so good, they’ve really gotten it and they’ve really bought into the whole concept. We’re lucky to have those partners working with us. To answer your question, I really didn’t do a lot of talking to other breweries about their experiences with real beer. I know that there are some that started out that way and decided to change their process because of logistics and equipment and what not. I think for us, we’re not doing this for a quick buck or anything like that, we’re doing this to build something really uniquely different and we’re going to stick by it. Hopefully we can continue to do this for as long as possible and I’m hoping that we can always overcome those challenges and continue to produce this kind of beer because that’s really what we want to do.

AYOB!: And you’re contract brewing at Cool?

DvK: Yes. Obviously everybody wants their own facility. To get your own facility cost millions of bucks and we made the conscious decision. Obviously that’s what we wanted to do and our goal is to eventually get there so what we need to do is get good sales going through licensed brewing. License brewing allows us the freedom to hire people now and get the beer out into the market and not have to wait. If we were going to get our own facility it could be another two years raising funds and getting zoning and dealing with leasehold improvements. It’s a lot of stuff to deal with so the license brewing model allowed us to hit the market a lot quicker and with a lot less risk, to be honest. There’s always risk and we’ve still got a lot of skin in the game but it’s a lot less risk than we would have. Our investors have a lot less risk this way, as well. That said, it’s a family business and we’ve got three families at the heart of this business that ponied up and are making this happen.

AYOB!: Do you lose some flexibility with contract brewing, in term of making a one-off or brewing a batch of a certain size or going by their schedule?

DvK: The people that we’re working with at Cool are great. They’re very flexible and are supporting us one-hundred-and-ten percent. Bobby and his team are fantastic, but obviously we’re using their equipment and there is a schedule and we have to fit into that, but they’re accommodating us as much as they can. So far it’s worked out really well. And the equipment is terrific – it’s one of the best kept secrets in Toronto. Most people don’t know about it, too.

AYOB!: Well, a lot of big brewers with great reputations have used them, like Michael Hancock and Mike Duggan. Why did you choose this style? Were there other recipes in contention?

DvK: It was a hard decision. We have many recipes that are all really unique and distinctive, really bold and flavourful and are going to be, I hope, a welcome addition to the scene when they come out and I hope people are excited about them as we are because we’re really pumped about where we’re going to go with this. The sky is the limit, really and truly. We’ve got some ideas that are going to really wow people, I think. It’s always hard to pick your one that you’re going to go first with and we spent a long time on it. We had some other ideas that were equally accessible. What we wanted to do was create a beer that was really full flavoured and had a lot of things that were exciting and distinctive and completely different than what’s on the market and I think we achieved that. I think that what we produced is a beer that’s extremely flavourful, that has a completely different flavour palate than most of the beers that are on offer right now. It’s far more aromatic than most of the beers. It’s got way more flavour and nose to it and yet keeping that bitterness at a reasonable level. What we wanted to do was create a beer that was a little accessible as well, that this beer can help fund the other beers. You don’t want to come out with a 12% beer that you’ll sell a thousand bottles of a year, you want to come out with a beer that you can make some money with and afford to pay the bills and keep the lights on so that you can go out there and create some of the more exciting products as well.

AYOB!: I referred to this earlier as your flagship beer. Would you consider it that or is it the first one out of the gate?

DvK: It’s the first one out of the gate. There are many ways to look at flagship and what that means. Some companies can create their own flagship and there’s a tonne of marketing dollars behind that – obviously we don’t have all that stuff. Other companies have flagships built for them where the public just votes with their wallets and chooses that beer as their big one and it therefore becomes the flagship beer. I think it’s early days to start speculating as to what our flagship will be but certainly this is the only beer we have right now available. We believe that this beer has the potential to be a flagship beer, if that’s an answer, but we’re not sure yet where we’re going to go with the company and where we’re going to go with this particular brand. We really like it a lot and we think it’s a great all season beer that’s delicious and refreshing in the summer and equally potent and got some spunk to it and a little bit of hoppiness that will take you through the winter months as well. It has all of the hallmarks of a good flagship beer, I think.

AYOB: I hate asking this when your first beer isn’t technically out yet, but can you give a hint about what’s coming down the line?

DvK: I can’t get into specifics, but I can say watch the space, it’s going to be really exciting. We are probably going to be one of the breweries in Ontario that are going to specialize in some of the more unique types of beers that are currently unavailable in Ontario and I think that there is a demand for that sort of thing. I think there is a demand for some of the more unique Belgian style ales and stuff like that.

AYOB!: Maybe then I’ll ask what some of your favourite styles are.

DvK: Well, the website doesn’t lie. When we put the stuff on the website we just said, “Put your favourite beers up there.” I love the hoppy west coast style ales. They’re easily my go to beer, because you can drink lots of them and they’re refreshing, within reason obviously. I love imperial stouts, I love Russian imperial stouts, all of the different Belgian style ales, the dubbels and the quads. I love barley wine and I love vintage ale. We want to brew the beer that we want to drink. We’re not going to brew beer that we don’t like, personally. That’s never going to happen. We just hope that we’re representing a certain percentage of the market that’s out there as well that also wants to do that, that will buy into it.

AYOB!: Also, in June you can’t come out with a barley wine or a quad. You might raise some eyebrows and you might not be making a second beer.

DvK: Yeah, that’s the thing. It is a business so we have to make sure that whatever beers we brew are uncompromising in quality, that goes without saying, and that they’re consistent and that’s why we have Tom working for us, who’s an unbelievably experienced and competent brewmaster who’s got over thirty years experience at an international level with process and quality control expertise. That was what we were looking for when we were looking for a brewmaster because one of the things that is huge for a brewery – quality goes without saying – is consistency. If somebody really likes your beer, they don’t want to go have it next week and have it taste completely different than the way it tasted last week. Maybe some people like that and that’s great, but I think the majority of people want beer that they like to want to have the same experience. That’s what they bought into last time and they want to have it again.

AYOB!: You mentioned that it has been a two-year process of starting Spearhead. What has that process been like for someone starting from outside the industry?

DvK: It’s a lot of work. One of the things is that when you have something you really believe in and you’re passionate about, it’s not really work. You just do it because you have to. I wanted to do this but it was full of challenges. It was a roller coaster ride, completely, and it still is, to a certain degree. A little less so now, which is good. You don’t sleep much if you’re going to start a business and you work a day job. Either you can function on no sleep or you can’t. So you do what you have to do. There have been a lot of challenges along the road. Getting investors in and working with people and trying to get partners and building a business plan – writing a business plan! I had never written a business plan before, but it turns out I was pretty good at writing it. People bought into that, which was great. It’s a lot of work – an incredible, incredible amount of work. I don’t even want to know what the sweat equity is in this company. The process can be very elating at times and very frustrating. You’re trying to convince people to love something as much as you do. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. It’s great when they do and sometimes it’s kind of frustrating when they don’t. Either you’re convinced of something or you’re not and you do what you believe is right.

AYOB!: I wanted to say that I love the glass. I’m surprised to see that you came right out of the box with a branded glass that goes so against the norm.

DvK: That’s what we’re all about. We are beer without boundaries. We’re not looking about how we can fit into the market at all. We’re not looking to find that space that we can nestle into. We’re looking for how we can stand out and go with things we can truly believe in. When we were picking the glass, we wanted something exactly along these lines. Something that would properly showcase all of the great things about great beer. A stemmed tulip is the perfect glass to drink a beer out of, any type of beer. You can drink a stout from this glass, a pilsner, a pale ale, a barley wine –  you can drink pretty much anything out of this glass and it will be delicious out of it. It may not be the perfect glass for that beer, but as a general all-around glass for beer, I can’t think of better beer glass. And there’s such a thing as love at first sight, so it was like, “Yeah, that’s the one.”

AYOB!: I was surprised when I saw it, because even for a tulip it’s unconventional.

DvK: It’s quite a powerful shape, it’s not your typical tulip. It’s a little stockier, it’s got a little balls to it.

AYOB!: It’s a little longer, but at the same time it fits with the brand.

DvK: It’s a bitching glass! There’s no turning back anymore. People want flavour, they want quality, they want something different, they want local, they want fresh, they want interesting ingredients, they want food pairing – it’s a much more savvy market now than it was perhaps twenty years ago. We like to think of ourselves as perhaps at the cusp of that and at the forefront of that. Spearhead is not the noun, it’s the verb. We’re trying to do something slightly different. We take our beer really, really seriously, but we don’t take ourselves seriously. We take our mission and what we’re trying to accomplish here really seriously but we’re a bunch of goofballs and we just have a good time. It’s supposed to be fun. At the end of the day, you start a beer company and you do this in your part time, you’re brewing in the basement and having a hoot on the weekends, that’s what it’s all about. It’s a really nice place to be.

My brief review of the Hawaiian Style Pale Ale: It has an incredible nose to it, with a lot of citrus, pineapple and pine notes. The head is gorgeous and fluffy, almost more like foamed milk than a typical beer head. The beer is initially very malty, with caramel, biscuit and the tropical fruit flavours, dominated by pineapple. Definitely a pale ale rather than a fruit beer. A little thin bodied, which could be a result of the fermenting process. The bitterness slowly creeps in at the end. At first it is very light, but it builds up strength over time. It was easy to forget this was a 6.5% beer because the alcohol is well hidden. Overall, a nice pale ale that will appeal to fans citrus and tropical flavours in their ales.

Want to try the Hawaiian Style Pale Ale? The official launch starts at 7p.m. tonight (Thursday June 16th) at barVolo (587 Yonge St). The Spearhead team will be at a number of events throughout the next week – check out their events page for dates and locations.


6 responses to “An Interview With Dimitri van Kampen of Spearhead Brewing

  1. Harry the Beer Lover

    “Real Ale” as defined by CAMRA is served on cask, not on draught. See
    To my knowledge, all the Spearhead beer is served on draught.

    Other brewers in Toronto that brew unfiltered naturally carbonated beers include: The Granite, House Ales (Volo), Cheshire Valley, Black Oak, Great Lakes, Kensington Brewing, and Durham (not in Toronto-proper), and others if I took the time to think of it.

    Lastly, Adrian from Black Oak won (I believe) “Best Named Beer” at Cask Days two years ago with his “Transvestite Tipple”, a pineapple pale ale. The timing of this “new” one seems a little too suspicious. Credit where credit is due, please.

    • All valid points that I encourage you to talk with Dimitri about, either at an event or by email.

      As far as I know, Spearhead beers will be served on draught.

      The Transvestite Tipple was at this past Cask Days as well. Having tried both, I can say that they are very different beers.

  2. Good interview, Mike!

  3. Nice one Mike. Sorry I won’t be there tonight for the launch. We’ll be pouring it at Castro’s soon.

  4. Looking forward to trying the product. Any word on LCBO/Beer Store distribution? I have small children and haven’t left the house in years.

    • Sorry, just in bars and restaurants for now. There is already a waiting list for kegs, so my guess is that it will be a while before cans or bottles come out

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