By Amanda Brodhagen
Grant Sparling, chief development officer at Blyth Cowbell Brewing Co., originally had no plans of returning home to Huron County until his dad, Steve Sparling, pitched the idea of opening a destination craft brewery in the rural historic village of Blyth, Ontario.
“I am sure that there isn’t any young guy on the planet that would turn that offer down. I guess it was his way of getting me home,” Sparling said with a grin.
Interestingly, Sparling studied government with a focus on international relations and was planning on a career in the military. As a dual citizen, his goal was to join the U.S. Navy and pursue a career in naval special warfare. However, the opportunity to be a part of his family’s craft brewery venture was convincing enough to leave all that behind to start something new in his hometown.
In between school and Cowbell, Sparling attended brewing school in the United Kingdom and a took a three-month crash course on everything that he would need to know from raw ingredient sourcing, all the way to quality control. He has been able to apply what he learned to his current role.
“I am thrilled to be back home working on a project like this and be surrounded by a lot of young people who bring a tremendous amount of energy,” he said.
About 60 per cent of Cowbell's workforce comes from within Huron County and the majority are under the age of 35. While the clear majority of their labour comes from the region, there are a handful of people who commute from as far away as London, Ontario.
“We have tried to recruit as many young people as possible, and being a young person myself, offering an opportunity that is both dynamic and fun in an industry like craft beer was important to my family,” he explained.
“I sometimes think about my friend group in school. Most of them grew up in cities, some from rural areas but every single one of them now works in a city that is larger than one million people. A lot of young people think that they should go to the city to find opportunity and that it is the only place that they can go for job advancement,” he said.
Cowbell currently employs 150 people and is always looking for new talent. They have even hired an events team in Ottawa – identified as a significant craft beer market. Thanks to MP Ben Lobb, they have been able to recruit people who grew up in Huron County but now reside in the nation’s capital.
Sparling, who more recently won the inaugural Rural Ontario Leadership Award for Youth (25-years and under), played a pivotal role in the building’s architectural review, the construction management and the brewing equipment oversight in the early stages of Cowbell’s infancy. Today his responsibilities have shifted to future developments including equipment upgrades and planning for a large-scale entertainment space onsite. The municipality granted them a two-year temporary rezoning permit for events like concerts on the 111-acre property. Plans are underway to build a reinforced stage area for special events.
“Not many breweries have access to this much land, and that is one of the benefits of being in a rural area – we are not constrained,” he said.
Building “the barn”
The Sparling family together came up with the overall vision for the building, which they refer to as “the barn” because at one time the land where Cowbell stands today was a working farm with a barn.
“Our goal was to create a building that was true to who we are and where we are,” said Sparling. “We are situated in one of the most agriculturally productive areas in North America and the building needed to reflect what we are surrounded by and that is farmers, agriculture and historic timber framed barns.”
The family felt that a modern spin on a 19th Century historic bank barn would be best suited to pay tribute to the area. They incorporated old-barn techniques such as a stone-end wall like a traditional bank barn and the timber construction inside with wooden dowels.
In addition to the building, there were a lot of environmental considerations looked at for the overall vision of Cowbell. Sparling used this analogy to describe the environment.
“We believe that farmers are the true stewards of the land. If they don’t take care of the land they don’t have a crop, if they don’t have a crop they can’t make a living,” he said. “In that essence, it was important for us that we carry forward that same kind of commitment to the land.”
One of the environmental features was to create a carbon neutral program, making Cowbell the first brewery in North America to be able to make that claim. They also operate the world’s first closed-loop brewery system, where they take their brewing and processing water from a well onsite, brew with it, clean the tanks and all the water that is left from that process is treated onsite.
In the end, the family achieved their vision for the building – creating a structure with historical significance to the area and implementing as many environ-mentally friendly technologies as possible.
Before the build, the Sparling family toured over 100 breweries all over the world and spent a significant amount of time in the U.S. “Craft beer in Canada is still a relatively young industry compared to the U.S.,” he said.
Beer demand is growing
Ever since Cowbell opened its doors on August 5, 2017 business has been good, especially beer sales.
“The response to the beer has far exceeded our expectations,” he said. “Early on, our plans were to be in a handful of LBCOs and right now our beer is in over 800 locations across Ontario,” he said. The senior leadership team at the LCBO has even come to visit the farm.
No Cowbell beer is being sold outside of Ontario at this point, but there is significant interest says Sparling.
Due to the demand, the Sparlings are looking at adding additional fermenter capacity to make sure that production does not plateau.
Cowbell has a selection of beers to choose from. Sparling says that when it comes to trends, sour beer is gaining a lot of popularity, but they still don’t have the same broad appeal as IPAs (India Pale Ales).
The core range of beer that Cowbell offers is their Six-founder Series as well as Shindig. Those seven beers are what makes up their year-round offerings.
“Our goal was to create a variety of flavours that would appeal to a variety of drinkers,” he said.
In addition to the seven, they also offer their Renegade Series which is a “totally unique twist with crazy ingredients”, their Monthly Small Batch Series, which allow the brewery to experiment. For example, this past Christmas they offered an Eggnog Belgium beer.
“This series aims to challenge the perspective of what beer can be,” he said.
Sourcing local food
Sparling said that when his family initially toured numerous breweries, the breweries did not offer food and he remembered that they were always looking for a place to eat.
“It is tough to ask people to sit down and enjoy a couple of your beers without having some food to offset it as well,” he said.
In the village of Blyth with a population of just over 1,000 people, people have to drive there and the Sparlings felt that it would be important to offer food as well.
The ingredients to make the beer are sourced globally. Barley is imported from Germany and hops from different regions, so when it came to the restaurant, they wanted to source as much as they could from their backyard.
“It has been incredibly easy to find fantastic local suppliers,” he said.
About 75 per cent of the food comes from within Huron County from more established places like Hayters and Metzger’s to Mennonites who deliver fresh produce by horse and buggy.
“It has been an exciting journey working with folks locally, supporting them and giving them some publicity by putting their name on the menu; as well as supplying our guests with the finest and freshest local food,” he said.
Giving back to the community
Sparling recalls the story of his grandfather who moved to Blyth with only two suits and $40 in his pocket. He lived in a boarding house and got a job at the bank.
“He was really good with numbers,” he said. “His dream was to always open a hardware store so he borrowed every penny that he could and opened a hardware. He worked until he was 88 years old, and was able to build a number of businesses including Sparling’s Propane,’ he said.
Along the way, Sparling said that he always felt a lot of community support for his businesses. Continuing in the community spirit tradition, Cowbell created the Greener Pastures Community Fund which donates five cents from the sale of every can and pint to the four children's hospitals in Ontario as well as to the soon-to-be Canadian Centre for Rural Creativity – an arts and culture initiative facility that will be built in Blyth in the next couple of years. ◊