With: Stephen Rich, Brewmaster, Director – Brewing Operations
From: Cowbell Brewing Co.
As part of the Renegade series at Beertown, we met up with Stephen Rich, Brewmaster Director – Brewing Operations, and got up-close and personal. Stephen is awesome at what he does and we are ecstatic to get his opinions on contemporary beer, where he comes from, what inspires his practice, and how Cowbell Brewing Co. is revolutionizing the way beer is made!
1. All-time favourite beer?
This is a challenging question that I’m sure every brewer gets constantly. I know I’m asked many times every year what my favourite beer or brewery is. Frankly, there is no simple answer to the question for me. Am I on my own or with friends? Is it blisteringly hot outside, or is there 3 feet of snow on the ground? Am I enjoying a ballgame or a cigar? Is there a feast of cheese and meat in front of me, or a bowl of Lamb Roganjosh? All of these factors affect what I would consider to be my favourite beer.
The reason I fell in love with beer in the first place is because of its ultimate diversity. No other beverage in the world can showcase the wide spectrum of flavour that beer can. Beer can be light and elegant, rich and warming, refreshing and bitter, or tart and brisk. Beer can even be cold or hot! There is no end to what flavours and sensations can exist in beer.
I love lots of different beers – with all honesty, I would not define one single brand as my favourite. BUT, my favourite beer style is Belgian Dark Strong Ale. Some fantastic classic examples include Gouden Carolus Cuvee van de Keizer Blauw, Rochefort 10, St. Bernardus ABT 12, Unibroue Terrible, and Chimay Blue. Also wonderful are some new world examples like Dogfish Head Raison D’Etre, Ommegang Adoration, and Allagash Grand Cru.
2. How did you learn the craft and what initially drew you to it?
I grew up in a family that revolved around the kitchen. Whether it was a big family gathering, my Mom preparing dinners and lunches, or just random tinkering – I was always intrigued and excited by cooking. When I moved to Toronto for school, I already had an appreciation for beer. I thought I was drinking the best beer in the world… I was not… haha… On a random night, I stepped into Beer Bistro at King and Yonge – I was served an American IPA, and German Weizenbock, and a Canadian Oatmeal Stout on Nitro… And so it began.
I fell for craft beer quickly, and decided to learn everything I could about its history, styles, food parings, and homebrewing. I learned to brew in my kitchen like so many professional brewers before me have. Brewing satisfies many of my inborn desires and character traits. It feeds the cook inside of me, allows me to be creative designing and engineering new flavours and sensations, and allows me to engage with people socially and show them how wonderful life can be – with the right beer in your hand ;)
3. What is the weirdest ingredient you have ever put into a beer?
I’ve never brewed with anything like pig feet, or gizzards… But, I am very fond of using what would traditionally be considered cooking and baking ingredients in beer. I have brewed or matured beers with mint, cinnamon, cardamom, vanilla, cocoa nibs, dark chocolate, graham crackers, pears, white grape juice, honey, nutmeg, fresh ginger, lemon peel, rum, coffee beans, cherries, figs, port, and much more. I’ve even created a recipe for a beer using caramelized onions… I will brew that one day…
4. Let’s talk about the facility in Blyth. We’ve heard you are building a 100% carbon neutral brewery – arguably the first of its kind in North America (though favourites like Sierra Nevada have certainly come close). How do you plan to pull this off? What inspired you to do so?
This is a big one. The Sparling Family is crystal clear in its objectives for this start-up in the country. The growing Cowbell team are remarkable, like-minded people in support of our community, and hopefully for breweries everywhere – this could be a game changer. Building a brewery is a challenging business that is constantly evolving in an ever-changing regulatory environment. We’re building a carbon neutral brewery not because we have to, but because we have the privilege to be able to, and it is the right thing to do.
Our carbon neutral platform has two primary facets – reduction and offset. The obvious variable tied to our carbon production is beer production. Every litre of beer anyone brews and sells will have a specific carbon footprint associated with it. Our first goal is to minimize that footprint as best as possible. The brewery has been designed with state of the art equipment that is energy and water efficient, as well as provides opportunities to recapture typically wasted energy. The beautiful building we are currently constructing may even be more advanced and carbon-friendly than this new brewing equipment! Our Project Architect, Jason Morgan from Allan Avis Architects has designed the building from the ground up to be as energy efficient as possible. Everything has been considered and specifically designed so we maximize our utility from every drop of energy we consume.
Finally, our offset program is comprehensive. Right now it is impossible to brew beer without any carbon production - what we can’t reduce we will offset. Within the 111 acres of land at the Cowbell Farm we’ve planted 12,000 trees – working with Golder & Associates, a global leader in carbon sequestration verification, we have estimated that these trees will completely offset the carbon footprint from all onsite beer production. Each year we will conduct thorough third party reviews of our carbon footprint and the literal offset created by these trees. We will plant additional trees as needed to keep up with our growth – as well will plant trees in other locations where our sales impact carbon production away from the brewery. ie. Sales reps will calculate their own carbon footprint in their territories and will plan trees in their regions annually to offset that footprint.
Our journey to zero will be a full team effort – it will take everyone’s cooperation to reduce our energy consumption, compost and recycle everywhere possible, and also help everyone interested in learning more about how they can help affect positive change do exactly that.
5. What’s the inspiration behind the development of brews @ Cowbell?
Absolutely anything can inspire the ingredients, process, flavours or sensations that come together to form a Cowbell beer. My first goal for every beer is to make sure that it is of maximum quality and ultimately delicious – regardless of style.
Cooking has always been a big part of my life, and often I consider my job as a brewer to be closely related to that of a chef. Sometimes an individual ingredient, be it a typical cooking or brewing ingredient, will spark an idea for a specific beer. It could be local fresh fruit that I think would complement a specific beer style well – or it could be a dish or type of cuisine that inspired the total package of flavours in a beer.
Availability to in-demand beer ingredients can also set my imagination on fire. Malt is generally easy enough to find right now (that’s a whole other story) – but sometimes a new, or newly rediscovered malt will encourage me to build a beer that shows off its unique sensations. Hops are the real trick – we contract purchase our hops 5 years out to ensure we always have the hops that we need for regularly produced beers so I know I can brew them consistently for years to come. Occasionally though a hop rep will offer me a small amount of some in-demand or experimental hop that may have just become available. I’ll almost always jump on the chance to get it, and we’ll figure out some amazing way to show it off in a beer.
My inspiration for beer flavours really doesn’t end. Events like weddings, festivals, or even just afternoons with a cigar will inspire me to create specific beers. Heritage can equally inspire me to create something true to history or nationality that I think could be exciting and fun. Even cars can inspire – imagine a classic car festival with a select set of unique cars, each paired with a beer made to embody that car’s exceptional character.
Beer can be anything you want it to be. It will never end ;)
6. Breweries use a lot of water. What is Cowbell planning to do to reduce their water intake? Do you have a target water-to-beer consumption ratio in mind?
Water usage is going to become a huge concern for industries everywhere and in brewing it will become both a cultural and business mandate. Right now one of the biggest unspoken and unfortunate truths is that brewers everywhere use too much water, and often don’t know it. Water usage across North American breweries is often 10:1 or higher. We have a comprehensive plan to reduce water usage and achieve a water to beer usage ratio of 4:1 – it starts with our building and equipment and ends with our brewers.
We have dug our own well at the Cowbell Farm, so 100% of the water we use in production will come from our own land. At the inlet to each major brewing process (brewhouse, cellar, and packaging) we are installing inline flow meters to digitally track and record water demand in each process area. This will allow us to both understand our water consumption and strategically and specifically improve it in each department.
The floors in the processing side of the building have all been sloped to drains that have been specifically placed based on the equipment and process that happens in that area. Along with the slopes, the Hexalith floor we are installing by Argelith has been spec’d for the right amount of grip, but also the maximum amount of sheer so that liquid easily sheets towards drains – minimizing the need to hose down floors.
We are placing squeegee stations with various types of floor squeegees for different purposes everywhere in the brewery – the easier we make it for our brewers to use a squeegee, the lower the probability they will take the easy route of hosing down the floors. This corresponds directly to training as well – a significant amount of water saving comes from best practices and precise standard operating procedures.
Our clean in place (CIP) systems have conductivity meters in-line so we can specifically dose our cleaning and sanitizing chemicals and not over dose – which reduces rinsing. This also ensures that we only rinse as much as we need to and no more. Other simple practices will help a lot too – like using a no-rinse sanitizer, and cleaning and sanitizing at specific schedules to reduce the need to re-clean or re-sanitize.
Our brewhouse has also been designed to achieve our goal of water reduction and reuse right from day one. Our brew kettle has a condenser on it to collect steam and condense it into water, for use when rinsing or cleaning tanks. The kettle also uses a new technology called rectification boiling – this allows us to reduce our energy use by up to 40%, and our water consumption by up to 15% during the brewing process.
We are installing a centrifuge – this machine spins finished beer at miraculous speeds to separate solids (yeast, hops, heavy proteins, etc) from liquid. This will allow us to get more finished beer out of every litre of raw beer produced – thus increasing our total water efficiency by up to 15% on certain beers.
The final, but perhaps most important thing we can do to help reduce our water consumption is to consider it a part of our total Quality Assurance Program. We will put the same effort into reducing water usage as we will into making higher quality beer – because we consider them to be one in the same outcome. Just like testing for ABV, IBUs and doing detailed sensory analysis on our beers, we will be reporting and evaluating out water usage and constantly looking for ways to improve it.
7. If there were a beer that you could brew with no regards to cost or production or sell-ability, what would it be and why?
This is a challenging question – because I thoroughly believe that every beer style and flavour can have a group of passionate people who love and cherish it. So to me, I’ll brew it all. Of course, as a team we will collectively work to ensure we are brewing beers that people love, and that support our overall business goals – but I really believe in brewing delicious flavor’s and letting our customers choose what they want to purchase the most from us – that will then drive our decisions of what we brew more of, and what we brew less of.
Without a doubt, profitability is a large concern for any brewer – but when you focus solely on cost and sale-ability you will quickly find yourself brewing beers that hundreds of other brewers already do, that are not aligned with your passions or goals for the business in the first place, and will cannibalize your business from the get-go.
I’ll brew easy and simple beers and big and complex beers. Our consumers will help us determine how much of each we should brew – as well as when some should make way for new ones to evolve in their place. I’ll never brew something without any consideration for cost or enjoyment – but we’ll never let anything stop us from brewing something that we think people are going to love.
(Photo of Stephen Rich and Grant Sparling, VP & General Manager of
8. Pick your all-time favourite food…what Cowbell brew would you pair with it?
BBQ is got to be my overall favorite type of cuisine – and all types. Texas, Carolina, Kansas City, you name it. Give me a plate with brisket, ribs, cornbread and beans and I’m a happy boy. Right now there is going to be a fresh pint of Doc Perdue’s Bobcat with it – our West Coast Red Ale.
The BBQ that I love is covered in sweet sauces, rich smoke flavours, and meat that would not be considered lean…. So, I need a quenching beer with enough bitterness to cut through the richness of the BBQ, but not so much to fatigue my pallet. Doc is 5.5%, so it is easy to enjoy a few pints – and 30 BUs – just the right amount of bitterness to refresh my pallet before the next bite and leave me wanting more. Light caramel and bready malt flavours in the beer will complement the meat nicely also, and a quick dry finish perfectly prepares you for more BBQ. MMMmmmm….
9. What’s your favourite music to listen to? Band? Why?
Much like beer, my music tastes change based on my setting. I’m a 90s boy, so all that NOFX, Green Day, Nirvana, Radiohead, Chilli Peppers, Metallica, Rage Against the Machine, and Sublime mix of rock, punk and some funk still keeps me going. I still like a lot of old school Hip Hop like House of Pain, Tribe Called Quest, Beastie Boys, Jurassic 5, De la Soul, Aceyalone, and Lyrics Born. But I also grew up with Jazz, Funk and Motown. I’ll never let go of Herbie Handcock, Coltrane, Josh Redman, Ray Charles, James Brown, Lou Reed, Aretha Franklin, and on and on. Beatles, Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder, Frank Sinatra, Neil Young, BTO, Black Sabbath, etc… I’ll rock it all.
10. Weirdest beer story…and go….
I’m not sure if I have a particularly weird beer story. Beer has been such a big party of my life for so long that all of its traditional and esoteric purposes have found their way into who I am. I have got to enjoy some beers that many people may consider weird…
Most known may be Samuel Adams Utopias – the 27% ABV beer served flat and at room temperature. I’ve had the great joy of sampling several different vintages of that wonderful beer.
I got to try two of Brewdog’s super high ABV beers also – the 32% Tactical Nuclear Penguin, and the once strongest beer in the world at 41% - Sink the Bismark.
One of my favourite beers, which I still have a few bottles of in my cellar is the now extinct from production Quelque Chose, by Unibroue. This 8% beer is a blend of Belgian Dark Strong Ale and Belgian Kriek (cherry beer) – and is traditionally served hot – like tea! Wow, it is amazing.
One of the kings of weird beers, as is their manicure – “off-centered ales” – Dogfish Head once made a beer with live lobsters. That was tastier than you might think…
11. What beers are you most excited to brew for Cowbell?
I am intensely excited to start brewing our beers in our own home. It is going to be a dream come true when we step into the completely customized building and brewhouse and start making beer for our friends and family. Wow. So, I am excited for all of our beers.
I am especially and most excited for our Anniversary Beer and Vintage Beer project. But, I can’t spill the beans quite yet. This is a special program that I have been dreaming of for many years, and I feel extremely privileged to be working with a team that supports my crazy vision. These beers will be the first of their kind in the world - to the best of my knowledge. Work on these beers has already begun, and you won’t see the first one until well into 2018. So stay tuned for more ;)
Photography & Interview Conducted by Cindy Perri
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