See? Sometimes beer is good for you

In Arts & Life /

By Natalie Alcoba

Ken Woods kicked back his fair share of pints in his days at Ryerson.

He drank so much beer, in fact, that turning one of his favourite pastimes into a full-time business was a natural step.  The product of his studies in alcohol is Black Oak microbrewery.

A dream 10 years in the making, Woods, along with a business partner John Gagliardi, launched their own brew in November, 1999, specializing in two ales — pale and nut brown.

This past Canada Day, they introduced a third beer — Premium Lager.

At Black Oak’s headquarters in Oakville, Woods appears content as king of his beerdom.  He rubs his goatee and a glint appears in his eyes as he leads the way from the front entrance to the back, where the cylindrical brewing tanks are stored.

“One of the really interesting things of owning your own microbrewery,” he says, “[is] all of your alcohol expenses are deductible — ‘cause it’s a research thing.”

The company’s 462-square-metre facility contains one 17-hectolitre (or 100 litre) brew house, where the grains are combined to produce “raw” beer, four 34 hectolitre unitanks for fermentation, which takes 10 to 12 days, and one 34 hectolitre tank, where the beer is prepared for packaging.

“The advantage of having a micro-brewery is that we can distribute to all different locations,” Woods says, winding his way through used and unused six-pack boxes in the production area of the brewery.

They use five different varieties of hops and malts, and brew in reverse osmosis water, giving them more control over the quality of their final product.  The company’s slogan, “World Class beer, brewed in your own backyard,” is reflected in their recipe’s ingredients.  Gagliardi, a certified brewmaster, designed all the recipes while homebrewing in his garage.

Ten years ago, Woods, 36, was introduced to Gagliardi, 34, who was working as a photographer with a mutual friend.  Together they developed a business plan for Black Oak.

Toronto-born Woods originally wanted to be an engineer, but attended Carleton University in Ottawa because of his lack of math skills.  There he earned a bachelor of science degree.

Quickly realizing that a degree in science wasn’t going to get him the kind of job that satisfied his soul — or taste buds — Woods began taking part-time courses at Ryerson’s school of business management.

Within his first year he became a full-time student in addition to working down the road at Denison’s Brewing Company Restaurants at 75 Victoria St.

That’s where he realized he wanted to work in the beer industry.  And the courses he was taking at Ryerson at the time helped him understand the work that would be involved.

“It’s those little bits of knowledge,” he says.  “They may not be on a test, but if you can retain that stuff, you can use it and take [it] forth into your business.  That’s what is worth the most.”

Woods is now a certified management accountant responsible for the business aspect of the company, including banking, beer payment, cash flow and marketing.

But he is the first to admit the road to success is long, hard, and sometimes as flat as stale beer.

He and Gagliardi are the only staff members — brewing, packaging, and distributing takes six to seven work days a week, nine to 14 hours a day.

“It’s a lot of work, but the nicest thing is when somebody says ‘I really like your beer,’” Woods says.  “But we’re also in this business to try to make some money.  It’s our time and our effort, and right now we’re not even pulling off any salary from the company.”

Black Oak is modeled after other successful microbreweries such as Creemore Spring.  Glancing at the pile of used kegs sitting in the back corner of the brewery, Woods admits he dreams of having a higher demand for his product.

“Creemore has amazing distribution,” he says.  “There’s a waiting list for their beer — I’d love to have that for Black Oak.”

But Ryerson history professor Ron Stagg, who has been tasting wine and beer as a hobby for 15 years, said after sampling two f the three Black Oak brews the beer isn’t distinct enough to create such a high demand.

“The whole point of a microbrewery,” he says, “is to make a beer that tastes different from Molson’s or Labatt’s.

Assorted flavours of Black Oak can be found at some watering holes, including Kelsey’s in Oakville and The Bow & Arrow Pub at 1954 Yonge St. in Toronto.  It’s also available at your local LCBO.

Woods and Gagliardi will continue to distribute their beer to stores from St. Catharines to Ajax, and are planning to extend their product distribution to Whitby by Christmas.

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