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Friday, August 14, 2009

A Tribute to Jim Brickman

I wrote the following article for my 'Burtch on Beer' column for the Spring issue of TAPS: Canada's Beer Magazine. Since the article appeared in print, Brick brewery has filed suit against Brickman, suing him for $1 million, which Brickman has recently responded too.

Pioneer Rides Into the Sunset
TAPS: Canada's Beer Magazine
Spring 2009 Issue
Page 33

It was a cold winter day. The line-up extended from the back door of the historic furniture factory that sat in the shadow of the now-demolished Labatt Brewery. It was December 18, 1984, and the people of Kitchener/Waterloo had turned out in droves to get their hands on the first microbrewed beer to enter the Ontario market in more than 35 years. Jim Brickman became Ontario's first modern craft brewer when he opened the Brick Brewing Company on that December morning.

Within a couple of hours the beer was sold out, and it was then that Brickman realized people were ready for change, thus beginning the turn of the tide for Ontario's craft brewing industry. Little did Brickman know at the time, but he would go on to revolutionize the way people in Ontario thought about beer, while opening up a market that had been left ignored for years.

On December 11, 2008, almost 24 years to the day of opening the door to the public for the first time, Brickman announced his retirement as Executive Chairman of Brick Brewing. “It was definitely sad to hear,” stated Ken Woods, President of the Black Oak Brewing Company. “Jim was the inspiration for many of us in the Ontario brewing industry. He was always very supportive, very helpful, always willing to extend a hand. Jim laid the groundwork for where we are today, and I for one am very thankful for that.”

Let's take a retrospective look at the man who started it all.

Brickman's journey didn't start in 1984 with the opening of the brewery. No, it started five years earlier in 1979. With no brewing experience behind him (Brickman worked in packaged good marketing), he noticed how the US micro scene was slowly gaining public acceptance, and he felt that the province of Ontario was ready for some new flavourful products. Brickman embarked on a brewery crawl (for lack of a better term), visiting more than 60 breweries in many countries to educate himself in his new venture, and to taste the many different styles and flavours on the international market. He would often tell people that he opened a brewery to satisfy his own palate, as he himself was tired of all the similar products on the market.

It was tough in the early days, but Brickman had passion, commitment, and a strong desire to persevere. After two years of fairly successful sales, Brickman listed his small brewing company on the Toronto Stock Exchange, becoming the first Canadian craft brewery to do so. It raised enough capital to expand his capacity, enough to cement his goal of giving the citizens of Ontario the opportunity to try something other than the beers brewed by the national giants.

“Jim is a true beer lover who challenged Ontario's beer industry by stepping up to brew the type of beer(s) he wanted to brew! This has inspired many other brewers to indulge their entrepreneurial passions to brew a variety of premium, high quality beers based on their individual interpretations of brewing styles,” stated Lisa Dunbar, the Sr. Marketing Manager of the Ontario Craft Brewer's Association (OCB), and friend of Brickman's.

The first beer produced and sold was Brick Premium Lager; a distinct German style lager that possessed qualities that set it apart from the lagers produced by Molson and Labatt's. Other styles soon followed, like the popular Waterloo Dark, and Red Baron beers. Brick's most notable beer produced under Brickman's watchful eye was their Brick Anniversary Bock, a beer that still generates a lot of discussion to this day even though it has not been brewed for many years.

The 90's were a period of growth for Brick as they focused on their discount Laker brand, which they acquired from Molson. (You remember that tagline - “Make her a Laker it's a buck a beer.”) They also purchased the rights to brands from the defunct Conners Brewery, and the Formosa Springs brands from the Northern Algonquin Brewing Company. Then a couple of years ago Brick discontinued a number of their mainstream brands and went back to their traditional roots with the release of three beers under the J.R. Brickman Founders Series.

Brickman was also a leader in innovation. They were the first and are the only brewery outside Germany to brew and distribute the world recognized Andechs Spezial Hell Lager. In 2002, Brickman announced that Brick would bring back the much-beloved stubby bottle, and it would be 50s and 60s icon Red Cap Ale in the bottle. “Both the stubby and Red Cap have earned a place in Canadian brewing history, so we felt it was a natural fit to bring them back together for a whole new generation of beer drinkers, and for those of us who remember our stubby days,” Brickman was quoted as saying in a press release highlighting the stubby's re-birth.

Bringing back the stubby and taking on the Beer Store for many years (the Beer Store threatened to discontinue supplying Brick with long-neck industry bottles, because the Beer Store claimed that the Red Cap stubby bottle broke the brewery's existing listing deal), was the spark that other craft brewers needed to experiment with different bottle sizes themselves. Brickman was fighting for an equal playing field, standing up for all other small breweries.

When the OCB came together in the early 2000s, Brickman was a natural fit as their unofficial spokesperson, and he served as a role model for the newer brewers and brewery owners. “If you visit the OCB website, you will see that we describe Jim as one of the “Pioneers of Craft Brewing” here in Ontario. This is 100 percent true, but also slightly understated. Jim's contribution to the evolution of our industry has spanned over 20 years, and his leadership will continue to have an influence on craft brewers as we proceed into the future. I think that you would be hard-pressed to find an OCB member (and there are 29 of them) that couldn't share a story or two about Jim Brickman and how he has impacted their own existence in the craft brewing industry,” proclaimed Dunbar.

Ron Keefe (another Ontario brewing pioneer, and owner of the Granite - Toronto location and OCB member) said, “We'll miss him in the OCB. He was a great spokesperson in the media for us.”

So now as Brick enters their 25th year in the business, they do so without the man who started it all. After retiring as Executive Chairman, Brickman ended his run with Brick as he officially resigned from the Board of Directors on February 11, 2009. It won't be the same at Brick without the passionate mustached beer-guy behind the bar.

The Ontario brewing community will miss a partner, a friend, an innovator and an inspiration. Grand River Brewmaster Rob Creighton had this to say about Brickman; “Jim is a colourful individual, extremely passionate about beer, and the first to see the potential in the craft market. His guidance has helped the little guys compete on the regional level with some success.”

In the 24 years Brickman served as owner, spokesperson, and face of the brewery, his beers won an astounding number of Gold Medals in the Monde Selection for Quality Competition in Brussels. 24 Gold Medals to be exact, and the most ever for a craft brewery in North America. The brewery has also racked up many Ontario and Canadian Brewing Awards, and Red Cap recently won a Bronze medal in the Golden or Blonde category at the prestigious World Cup of Beer.

Brickman always says, “Behind every Brick beer is a Brick man.” Indeed there is, Jim.

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