The 2008 market crash took its toll on almost everyone. For Spearhead Brewery founder Dimitri van Kampen, it had a silver lining. When his career as an international project finance lawyer in London, England, went up in smoke when the recession hit, he was forced to take a step back and reflect on what his next move should be. The result? Spearhead Brewery, a major player in Canada’s up and coming independent craft beer scene.
Dimitri started off our tasting with Spearhead’s flagship beer, the Hawaiian Pale Ale. For those curious about what makes it Hawaiian, the answer is quite straightforward: Dimitri adds pineapple juice to the mixture near the end of the fermentation process. Made in the style of a West Coast pale ale, the beer has a light citrusy aroma that comes from the Cascade hops added in quantities four times that of a beer like Heineken or Coors Light.
“I love West Coast pale ales, so when we were first brewing this on my stove at home, my buddy came over and we were like, what can we do to make this interesting? What would go well with the citrusy flavors of the Cascade hops that we use in the beer? I said, well, I’ve got some pineapple left over from breakfast; I think that might be nice. So we just put it in and that’s how it started,” says Dimitri.
This kind of spontaneity and experimentation is central to how Dimitri and his team work. Spearhead’s popular Moroccan Brown Ale, made with dates, figs, raisins, and cinnamon, came about through a similarly organic process. The unconventional ale won gold at Toronto’s Home Brewing Contest two years in a row, and since its launch under the Spearhead brand, has become a fan favourite. Their Globetrotters series was the same, the result of ideas being thrown around as the brand gradually evolved. Featuring the Moroccan Brown Ale, the India White Ale, the Belgian Stout, and the flagship Hawaiian Pale Ale, the series is a “beery adventure to [each] corner of the planet” that highlights ingredients that are iconic in each culture.
Even the idea for the company seems like the product of running with a sudden, natural inspiration. The idea popped into Dimitri’s head one night while drinking with friends and daydreaming about what they would have done if they hadn’t gone into law. “I said, my dad was Czech and my grandfather was Dutch – I should’ve just started a brewery! If there’s one thing I know, it’s beer!” Dimitri laughs.
But instead of fading away and becoming another “what if”, the idea stuck.
“It was like one of those cartoon thought bubbles sitting above my head, just lingering there…. I started researching it, and I found out that it was a really high growth industry and that it was an opportunity to be creative.”
Dimitri’s obvious passion for beer, plus a dedicated team of ten coworkers and his brewmaster Tom Schmidt, took care of the rest. Back then, very few other breweries were making pale ales like Dimitri’s Hawaiian. Since then, however, Ontario has seen an explosion of IPAs and craft beer in general. But the growing competition doesn’t seem to faze Dimitri in the slightest; Spearhead’s beers are so unique that the company doesn’t have to worry about fighting for shelf space. Their Beer Without Boundaries approach involves using unconventional ingredients and brewing methods to create beer that defies consumer expectations, which limits competition. The most unusual ingredient so far? Scotch bonnet peppers, which Dimitri added to their limited edition Jamaican Fire beer. (He’s also made an Oreo cookie porter, but decided not to put it on the market.)
“We’ve carved out a little niche for ourselves in making what we call Beer Without Boundaries… if every one of our beers is like that, we don’t really have any competitors. I don’t have to worry about the other Moroccan Brown Ales out there!”
In fact, Dimitri seems thrilled about the increasing number of craft breweries.
“There’s a lot of other brewers in the market who are making fantastic beers, and that’s good, we’re happy with that! We think it’s a great thing, because honestly, a rising tide floats all boats, and we’re part of the craft beer industry, and if all craft beers are doing well, then we’re doing well with it…. Everybody is in this business to help each other out.”
His confidence in the quality of his product also helps explain his nonchalance. Spearhead beer takes four to six weeks to make, compared to an average of ten days for other Ontario craft brews. The beer is unfiltered, naturally carbonated, and made using only the best natural ingredients, including pure malt rather than artificial sugars.
Spearhead just launched the Sam Roberts Band Session Ale, their collaborative effort with the Juno award-winning Canadian indie rock group. The beer was an instant success, winning Best Collaboration Beer at the Session Craft Beer Festival. Dimitri cites the band’s penchant for beer drinking as one of the factors in its success; although brewmaster Tom Schmidt created the beer, Spearhead left much of the conceptualization process up to the band.
“They just got behind it 110%,” says Dimitri of working with Sam Roberts Band. “They’re fantastic. I can’t say enough good things about them.”