Stephen Rich is excited.
When we meet at Bungalow, a bar near my house in our shared hometown of London, Ontario, Rich is clearly excited to tell me about his newest venture, Cowbell Brewing.
The meeting, back in July of last year, is the first of a handful and a culmination of a series of emails between me and Rich trying to find a time that works for both of us. It’s an exceedingly difficult task given that, even then, over a year before the brewery is slated to open, Rich, the brewery’s Brewmaster and Director of Brewing Operations, was splitting his time between Toronto and Blyth, where ground had just recently been broken to build the fledgling brewery, and the fact that I have a toddler and a full time job and often reject activities that involve interacting directly with other humans.
But Rich is undeterred.
The emails continue until finally we find a time when he is in town to visit family and I actually have a free evening. He really wants to tell me about Cowbell.
Indeed, Stephen Rich usually really wants to tell me–and anyone else who will listen–about a lot of things. He’s got a great beer you need to try, he knows a good beer festival in the state you’re travelling to, he wants you to come by his house, he’s got some cigars, you should meet his awesome dog.
The first couple times you meet Rich, your impression might the same one I had, namely, “Is this guy for real?”
Because enthusiasm like Rich’s is kind of rare in the world of Ontario craft beer. Brewers are passionate people, sure, but the sort of “everything-is-great-let-me-tell-you-about-it” spirit that Rich embodies seems practically put on at times. He’s like a perennially upbeat Jay Leno in an industry full of cynical, angry stand-up comics.
After working for an investment firm after university, Rich came onto the Ontario beer scene during a period of unemployment when he launched the blog “DefinitionAle.” From there he worked at Spearhead, then was the brewmaster at the Molson-owned Beer Academy / Six Pints, and then Sweetgrass Brewing Co.
One of the first things I heard about Stephen Rich was something of a minor controversy (among beer nerds, at least) when someone realized that, while he was working at Spearhead, he was also rating the company’s beers as perfect fives on the beer-rating app Untappd—which, yes, is kind of a dick move. But the first time I met him, by then in the middle of his Beer Academy stint, it kind of made sense. I didn’t get the vibe that Rich was an underhanded or sneaky guy, just someone who was really, really into beer and very happy to talk about it. His beer, your beer, the last beer you had, the next beer you’re going to try. Of course Stephen Rich was enthusiastic about the beer made by the company for which we worked. Stephen Rich, it seemed clear, is enthusiastic about all beer.
And so when I meet Rich last July, I am prepared for grandiose plans—the previous time we spoke he had big ideas for Sweetgrass Brewing to make the jump from contract brewing to bricks and mortar before he and that company ultimately parted ways—, but I wasn’t quite ready for the vision Rich laid out for Cowbell that night.
Over more than a couple pints, Rich detailed the vision for a sprawling destination brewery. There were plans to grow some of their own ingredients on site, there was talk of a a coolship, the possibility for cattle on site for some reason, and the size of the place seemed to defy all my expectations for a potential new brewery in Blyth, Ontario. Even for Stephen Rich, it all sounded very ambitious.
The second time Rich and I meet for beers, because yes, he wants to tell me more, he has brought along Steven and Grant Sparling, the father and son owners of Cowbell and two generations of the family that for three generations, owned Sparling’s Propane. That company, which was Ontario’s second largest propane retailer in Ontario, delivered more than 120 million litres of propane annually and was acquired by Parkland Fuel Corporation in 2013. The Sparlings also appear to own most of the real estate in the town of Blyth. I didn’t argue when they offered to pick up the tab.
Despite the free beer, my second meeting with Cowbell folks is perhaps even stranger than my first, in that, rather than temper Rich’s unbridled enthusiasm, Steven and Grant Sparling actually confirm everything he’s saying—and add on considerably more.
The Sparlings tell me about their desire to build North America’s first carbon-neutral brewery. They outlay their plans to track every delivery driver’s mileage and to plant trees to offset the carbon. They talk about being Canada’s first “closed loop” brewery that will actually pull all the water they use to brew from an in-house well, and then will process it onsite with a treatment facility they designed and built themselves. They speak passionately about their desire to build up Blyth and create jobs there. They detail plans to have children’s sports fields on the grounds of their multi-acre brewery, create a destination site with sustainable materials and wood shipped in from the west coast. It’s almost unbelievable and the more they talk, the more their idea seems totally fucking crazy. But also, the more they talk, the more it becomes clear that all three of them are deadly serious.
Now, in six years writing about craft beer, I have met with a lot of dudes (and yes, they’re almost all dudes) who have laid out grandiose plans for the brewery they’re building. I’ve learned that, if the talks are any further out than say, six months, it’s probably best to just consider what they’re saying “wish list” items and then check in again when the doors are about to open for a bit of a reality check. The meeting with the Sparlings is surreal for two reasons: first, I’ve never heard plans of this scale in Ontario before, and second, I leave the meeting certain that they are actually going to do it. At the end of the night, maybe sensing that what they’ve said is virtually unbelievable—or maybe just because they want to show it off—they actually even take me to Steven’s vehicle to show me a scale model of the place.
I press them on some things during our chat, but they have an answer for virtually everything I throw at them. Steven Sparling speaks almost as if reading talking points, he says things like this, off the cuff, with complete earnestness:
“We are building on a space that used to be a working cattle farm, and farmers are true stewards of the land. If you don’t care for the land, you don’t have a crop. You don’t have a crop, you don’t have a living. So in keeping with the history of the farm, we intend to be good stewards of the land as well. It’s been quite exciting.”
Grant, who is technically Cowbell’s General Manager and Vice-President, abandoned his initial plans to join the US Navy after college and, instead, wrote the business case for Cowbell, noting the untapped economic potential in Huron County and the fact that craft beer is the LCBO’s fastest growing category. Accordingly, shortly after graduation from Dartmouth, he started the program at BrewLab in Sunderland, England, graduating from the program as a brewer. Prior to Cowbell, Grant Sparling owned and operated “ThirstD,” a drink-delivery service at Dartmouth College, and was CEO of a pharmaceutical company called Medicine for a Better Tomorrow.
Did I mention he’s only 24 years old?
Interestingly, I’m not the only one who gets an opportunity to interrogate the Sparlings that evening. As it happens, Muskoka Brewery has taken their sales team on a pub crawl through London that evening and they happen to be at Bungalow and come by our table to chat. The group is mostly sales reps, but also includes Todd Lewin, then VP of Sales and Marketing and now president of the company. After I introduce Rich and the Sparlings, and explain they’re building a brewery in Blyth with a 50 hectolitre brewhouse, the team from Bracebridge politely peppers them and Rich with questions. It’s all very professional, but there is a sense that the established brewers are sniffing out a new player—and one that is aiming to be the fifth or sixth largest independent brewery in the province in less than a year. Steven Sparling is unflappable. It’s actually kind of awesome. We part ways and I can tell the Muskoka folks are thinking what I have been; namely, “Who the fuck are these guys?”
I tell the Sparlings they can probably expect more scrutiny like that and they obviously already know. Steven says something to the effect of “That’s fine,” but he says it in a way that suggests “Bring it on.” Steven’s got a kindly older dude vibe, like Wilfred Brimley in the Quaker Oats commercials, but I don’t imagine you run Ontario’s second largest propane retailer without a touch of ruthlessness and I get the sense there’s also a Wilfred-Brimley-from-the-movie-The-Firm side to him. He’s not deterred. When I tell them that no one does what they’re doing—no one ever starts a brewery on a scale like this, Grant Sparling says, “We’re aware that this is quite a privilege and it’s been years getting here. But we’re committed.”
Well, no shit.
A year later and Cowbell Brewery is about to open its doors to the public on August 7th. It’s abundantly clear they’ve done everything they said they were going to do. The brewery occupies a 111-acre plot of land. That is not a typo. The brewery sits on one hundred eleven acres of land that will one day soon include a working farm that grows ingredients for the beer. The building is a 26,000 square foot destination brewery that includes not just the aforementioned 50 hec brewhouse but also two restaurants, Henry’s Hall and Mil’s Verandah, with a capacity for 180 people. There’s also three event spaces: Thresher’s Hall, The Loft, and Cowbell Cellar, an event venue on the brewery floor with a private patio. There’s a bar and a “General Store” retail space with not only a growler filling station, but also, presumably, myriad swag. I’ve already seen Cowbell-branded cycling jerseys on instagram.
This is, to put it lightly, new territory for Ontario craft beer. No one has done anything like this before. The handful of independent breweries in the province that are this big or bigger—Muskoka, Great Lakes, Steam Whistle, Amsterdam, etc— all took years to get where they are. Cowbell has all this established before they open the doors.
Furthermore, Cowbell is in fact the world’s first closed loop brewing system by virtue of the fact that they draw their own water and then treat it to use it again, meaning they don’t use municipal resources for water. Cowbell is also North America’s first carbon neutral brewery thanks to the thousands of trees that have been planted on site in the lead up to their launch to offset their carbon footprint and a stringent audit process they pay a third party to undertake. Oh, and the beer is pretty good, too. They’ve already developed three of Rich’s recipes that were contract-brewed at Collective Arts in Hamilton—a Kolsch-style beer, a Red IPA, and a Hefeweizen—all of which were good and to my mind, have been consistently so.
It’s honestly hard not to write all this and not come off like I’m writing a press release for the company, but I’m literally just listing their achievements. I haven’t even mentioned that they will make their own craft sodas, they have their own nitro-infused cold brew, and everyone who serves beer there will receive Cicerone certification.
It’s fucking beer Disney World.
And therein, perhaps, lies the rub. Because Disney World isn’t “cool.” It’s not punk rock and indie in the way we we’ve come to frame the “craft vs. big guy” dichotomy. We’re largely used to our craft brewers being home brewers or people who quit their jobs to invest a modest sum and make a life change. Instead, Cowbell is something entirely new, but I think, is poised to change the conversation about beer in Ontario. Cowbell is big, sure, but it’s still ticking all the right boxes for most folks who prefer craft beer. The beer is well made and the plan is to make a rotating lineup of small batch beers (and they have resources to continue to make them well). They’ve built an environmentally friendly business in Ontarion and created 150 jobs doing it. And, perhaps most importantly, you can bet that when they start to flood Huron County and the surrounding area with local beer, more than a few Molson and Labatt taps will be taken over and more than a few locals will be converted to craft beer.
So no, the Sparlings and their Beer Disney World aren’t your typical Ontario craft beer startup, but the fact that the Sparlings have seen the potential for craft beer in Ontario to the tune of building this insanely ambitious company, and the fact that they’ve paid attention to doing it right, to me speaks volumes about where this industry is going.
It’s no wonder Stephen Rich is so excited. Any beer loving Ontarian ought to be, really.