On a recent late winter Friday, a guest and I found a gap in snow and work that allowed us to head to Toronto for some beery evaluations. When beer is the subject of “research” it’s hard not to smirk—as research is supposed to be austere and beer is fun and exciting, the opposite of work.
Venture capitalists looking for the next big thing look at three key points: (1) team, meaning a company whose founders have special skills; (2) technology, meaning a company that makes something difficult doable; and (3) market, meaning a company that addresses a large market opportunity.
Bellwoods Brewery—which opened in April 2012 in the hip Trinity-Bellwoods neighborhood of Toronto-—is a case in point and worthy of evaluation. We arrived at 10:30am with fresh palates and open minds. These are our findings.
Team: Bellwoods was co-founded by Mike Clark and Luke Pestl. Luke has a degree in Biochemical Engineering and got a job as brewer at Amsterdam Brewery where he worked for three years. Mike was waiting for a place in med school and also worked at Amsterdam. Both think being a brewer is about as cool as it gets. Their understanding of biochemistry, brewing skill, and passion is an auspicious combination. These guys got both heart and skillz. Check!
Technology: Dan Carey, brewer at New Glarus, often says that making good beer is fast and easy to learn but, making great beer is maddeningly difficult and takes a lifetime. Mike and Luke have crafted a steady offering of top notch brews that are much loved by critics and fans. Mike and Luke are just getting started and brewing in a tight space. Soon they will open a much larger second brewery nearby. Getting still better would seem to be a given—it’s all about the journey. Check!
Market: The constraints of the Canadian beer distribution system are well known. Yet craft beer in Ontario has sky rocketed in popularity. Making beer this good where it’s in such high demand has allowed Bellwoods to expand by many factors in only three years time. There is no end in sight. Check!
It’s All About the Beer. Ultimately, research is an empirical endeavor. And we tried those rigors with samplings of these and other of Bellwoods brews:
Stay Classy — 2.8% ABV—golden straw color — very complex flavors and aromas for such a small beer—hopped with Mosaic, Citra, and Galaxy. Has a pleasant lemony tartness. Excellent session beer.
Paper Tiger — 5% ABV — Pilsner dry hopped with Sterling and Ella hops varieties. Very light and easy drinking body with a much more citrusy hop aroma and flavor than a traditional pilsner.
Donkey Venom—9.5% ABV—chocolate brown in color, with dark fruits and roasted/porter notes and distinctive Belgian style barnyard and tart flavors—exquisite and very unique—high alcohol is well hidden.
Gotham—8% ABV—a black IPA that functions as an IPA yet has dark fruits and chocolate, light charred tobacco and roast flavors balanced with assertive hop and resinous qualities.
Bounty Hunter—10.3% ABV—strong porter brewed with coconut and vanilla—has notes of dark chocolate and a sunscreen/pipe-tobacco aspect that many love (though not my favorite combination).
Conclusions: While beer is fun, it is also worthy of serious inquiry. Beer involves quite a lot of know how. It has an air of entrepreneurial geek chic that draws in highly educated creative folks in ways usually reserved for Silicon Valley start-ups and über cool hipster cafes. And it addresses a large market opportunity in a convincing way. Drink up Toronto. And let’s hope—for Buffalo’s sake—that Bellwood’s expansion allows their elixir to flow to this side of the border now and again. In any case, we highly recommend you make the journey so that you can see and taste for yourself as Bellwoods really delivers.
The Public’s weekly beer column is produced in collaboration with the Buffalo Niagara Brewers Association.