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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Archives: Black Oak 10th Anniversary

The following story appeared in the Winter 2009/10 issue of TAPS The Beer Magazine (pg. 58) and is being republished with permission.  A subscription to TAPS can be purchased by clicking on the link above or by calling (416) 536-9070.  TAPS is independently owned and operated and publishes four issues a year along with four online newsletters.
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It was a day that Ken Woods won’t soon forget.  On a cold and windy day back on November 18th, Woods leaned back in his office chair and went over all the obstacles he has survived during the last ten years of his life as the owner of the Black Oak Brewing Company.  It may have looked something similar to this.

Back in 1999, a 34 year old Woods was sitting in an office surrounded by dull-grey cubicles working away as a Chartered Accountant for a large company in Toronto.  The daily grind of crunching numbers was finally catching up to him.  He felt trapped.  His mind began to wander.  He started envisioning the day of opening his own brewery, selling premium craft ales to the citizens of Ontario, and doing so without going belly up like so many others before him had unfortunately experienced.

From 1989 to his departure in 1999, Woods had worked as a server at the now-defunct Denison’s Brewpub in Toronto while attending Ryerson University working towards that CA position, and he fell head-over-heels in love with beer.  He loved its aroma, its taste, the lifestyle it encompassed, all the different styles, and it was during these years that Woods knew that one day opening a brewery would be atop a list of life goals.  He also had the benefit of working under legendary brewmaster and Denison’s Brewing Co. owner, Michael Hancock, who only helped fuel the fire in Wood’s belly, providing his extensive knowledge and expertise on a daily basis. 

Woods read all the books, applied his hospitality attributes, and used his valuable accounting skills and went to work developing a business plan.  The original plan was to give Toronto another brewpub, but those plans didn’t pan out, Woods explained during a recent chat at a popular Toronto pub.  “The start up cost was more than I was comfortable with, so I started looking at the brewery route.  The new plan was to produce one brand, grow it through sales and marketing efforts, and eventually introduce new styles into the fold once the brewery recognition was there.”   However, it didn’t work out that way.

“We opened our brewery in an industrial area of Oakville, ON and had a very, very tough time getting accounts out there,” stated Woods.  “We developed the Pale Ale and started off with that as our core brand.  From there the idea was to grow it before slowly incorporating other beers into our portfolio, but, not long after, with sales well below where we wanted them to be, we (partners) decided to develop and release the Nut Brown.  Maybe a little too early, if you want to look back on it.”

Not long after the Nut Brown was released did Black Oak announce that a Lager would be added to their portfolio of brands.  Little did Woods know, at the time, that it would be short lived.  The lager, while produced with great ingredients and receiving 2 stars in Stephen Beaumont’s Great Canadian Beer Guide, failed to win over the buck-a-beer crowd that was gaining market share at the time.  “The lager died with that and we went back to focusing on the two signature beers.”

Woods, who is not a brewer, became the face of his company early on like no other craft brewery owner in Ontario.  You’re likely to find him at events pouring samples and discussing the merits of his products.  You will often read about him in a newspaper article voicing his opinion about the state of craft brewing, watching him hand deliver kegs to publicans, giving tours at the brewery, and even personally delivering kegs to customers with who stock up their home bars.  The man works hard, 80 hours a week, at least, and while it’s tough work, he loves it and his customers are grateful for it.   With that dedication and persistence, Woods has built the Black Oak name into a very respected and reputable brewery who aren’t afraid to brew up a batch of beer for the beer geeks, while still winning over new beer drinkers with their Pale Ale.  A member of the Canadian forum on BeerAdvocate recently posed the following question to his beer drinking brethren: Is Black Oak Ontario’s Most Consistent Brewery?  The Ontario Craft Brewers Association (OCB) is probably proud to hear that.

You see, the OCB has helped tremendously with Black Oak’s survival as they played a key role in ensuring Woods and Black Oak made it to see their 10th anniversary.  As Woods puts it, the OCB was very helpful with securing much needed grants and additional government funding to help with developing the small breweries industry.  “I can remember looking at the bank statement one day and I seriously considered throwing in the towel,” claimed Woods.  “It was back in 2002 and we were going through all the ups and downs a small business can experience.  But I’m not a quitter and I felt reassured with all the work that the OCB were doing with the provincial government of the day.”  Woods is very committed to the association to this day and the brewery remains one of the twenty five throughout the province who work together to lobby the provincial government for changes in the industry, something that Woods believes is very beneficial to small breweries.

Woods and company have been through a lot in their 10 years, with the largest challenge taking place earlier in the year.  A brewery move to Etobicoke with much more capacity has been the most significant hurdle since brewing commenced in Oakville in ’99.   The new-found space has room for contract brewers, has lead to an increase in the number of full-time staff, and has made it easier to produce a handful of new seasonals.  Black Oak Brewmaster, Adrian Popowycz, who is highly regarded among his peers, stated in a conversation last year that the new brewery would be much more conducive to work in as a brewer, and it seems he has taken advantage of his space brewing more medal winning beers including some at this years Canadian Brewing Awards.

Right now the only two Black Oak products available for mainstream retail are the Pale Ale and the Nut Brown, which are sold through the LCBO, but Woods explains that he hopes to have his different seasonals in stores next year.  Armed with an arsenal of terrific offerings ranging from their Nutcracker Porter, to Summer Saison, to the popular Double Chocolate Cherry Stout and the recently developed Oaktoberfest Marzen, Black Oak is a force to be reckoned with in this department and it seems that this the direction Black Oak is heading in.

Fast forward to today, how does a brewery celebrate a milestone such as this?  Brew an anniversary beer of course.  Woods let it be known that Black Oak would be releasing a ‘new’ beer solely for 10th anniversary celebrations, but what he wouldn’t let slip was what style the beer was actually going to be.  “That’s a surprise,” said Woods, who couldn’t be persuaded to spill the beans.  “You’ll have to wait until the 18th, but I can tell you that it’s a strong ale that we’ll be calling 10 Bitter Years.”  It should also be pointed out that Woods is known among other brewers as a bit of a joker with a great sense of humour.

With only days leading up to the big day, a poster on Bar Towel.com notified readers that a particular Toronto establishment had tapped a keg and the beer inside was simply amazing; “Had a couple pints each of the 10 Bitter Years. Oh MY GOD - maybe it's the beer talking, but this is hands down the best Ontario brewed beer I have ever had.”  

And I think I’ll end on that note.

Congratulations Ken, and the rest of the Black Oak team!

A Couple of Things You Might Not Know About Black Oak or Ken Woods
·      Woods stated that he pretty much wrote the business plan while drinking Wellington’s Arkell Best Bitter

·      Where did the name Black Oak come from - Oak is Woods’ family tree, and he liked the look of the black oak leaf

·      Paul Dickey, the top BJCP judge in Canada, serves as an Associate Brewer with Black Oak and it was him who designed the Summer Saison and Nutcracker Porter.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Looking at the state of Ontario Craft brewing, I'm curious how many of them were homebrewers before going into business.

Teena in Toronto said...

Great beer ... nice guy!

Congrats, Ken!

onebeeratatime said...

I have to agree with the Bar Towel comment on 10 Bitter Years. It may just be the best beer brewed in Ontario.

dizi izle said...

thank you

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