So many of us have our noses to the grindstone in the hopes of landing a decent job someday, that every now and then a “follow-your-passions” type of story is just the spark of motivation we need — especially when that passion is beer.
After graduating from Ryerson in 2008 with a finance degree, Stephen Rich landed a job at CI Investments, with lots of room to move up in the company.
Then came the stock market crash.
“Everything came down to a pretty immediate halt,” Rich said. “I trickled through it, but the more time I spent at CI, the more I realized that I was more passionate about craft beer.
“I remember sitting there at CI and thinking, ‘Why wait until I’m in my 30s or 40s when I have a mortgage and a family and all these responsibilities?’ So let’s take the leap now.”
Today, the 29-year-old is the Beer Academy’s head brewer.
After taking the bold step of leaving his nine-to-five job in the financial district, Rich invested his time with his new friends — hops, malt and yeast. He decided he would attempt to make his mark in the beer industry through his blog, “Definition Ale.”
With the help of employment insurance, Rich spent the next year and half blogging. He obtained his Cicerone Certificate from a program that certifies and educates beer professionals, and volunteered at breweries across Ontario. He sought guidance from industry experts like Mirella Amato, Ken Woods from Black Oak Brewing Co., and Ron Keefe from Granite Brewery.
As a devoted self-taught beer connoisseur, Rich said there were times he was obsessed with getting his hands on international craft beers. He would use all of his disposable income and said he tried over 1,000 beers in the first year.
“Some would say it was excessive, but honestly, I really believe (that) drinking such a variety of styles and different interpretations of styles by different breweries around the world has given me a very well-rounded concept of what beer is, what beer can be, and hopefully, how to create some of these flavours,” Rich said.
However, Rich isn’t just a taste tester. He’s a dedicated and creative brewer who pushes the boundaries of beer making any way he can.
“I like making beer with cooking-inspired ingredients. I use chocolate, vanilla, herbs and spices, and Belgian candy sugar, whether they’re a Belgian beer or not,” he said. “Two of my first home-brewed beers were a mint pale ale and a root beer made with sarsaparilla and ginger.”
Aside from the three core beers — a black lager, an India Pale Ale and a Kolsch-style blond ale — that are always ready to fill up pints at the Beer Academy, Rich helps to create a seasonal beer each month. For October, the obvious choice is pumpkin.
While most brewers use canned pumpkins when they introduce a pumpkin ale to their menu, Rich waits patiently for the sugar pumpkin harvest; this gives him only four weeks to hop on the Halloween bandwagon.
“To give it a nice spice character, we used roasted pumpkin right in the mash. We got our chef to make a nice spice mixture, toasted it off in the oven a little bit, and then threw it right into the end of the boil,” Rich said.
As ambitious as he may be, Rich understands that starting a brewery in Ontario’s thriving craft industry isn’t as original as it used to be.
But he’s not complaining — impressed with the craft beer scene in Toronto, Rich believes it’s these very bars and breweries that have helped people think of beer as more than just a “yellow fizzy beverage.”
Haven’t yet been to Beer Academy? Here are a few photos from our afternoon there to entice you!