Ryan Stokes and Bruce Pepper believe every town or small city could support its own brewery. Enough to do something about it. Like open one.
But with 32 years of teaching experience between them, it’s an oblique turn to go from school teacher to brew master. Stokes is a grade 7-8 science teacher at Stratford Central Public School who moved here with his Stratford born-and-raised wife in 2002. Pepper, originally from Hanover, is a music teacher, also at Stratford Central, and currently on leave to focus on their joint venture, Black Swan Brewery.
“We just had a casual chat after my first teachers meeting at Central in 2009,” says Pepper. “We discovered we were both into home brewing and began trading notes on what we had tried and learned.”
“I was still using home kits and Bruce had reached the point of brewing from scratch, so he was way ahead of me,” Stokes recalls. “The idea of starting a microbrewery was a pipe dream but we started getting serious about it in the fall of 2013.”
So with a mix of their own money and financing from Perth Community Futures and the Business Development Bank of Canada, they began demolition and renovation of their 144 Downie Street premises in March 2014. They started their first brew September 20th and made their first delivery to Mercer Hall restaurant October 15th. “We opened our doors to the public November 26th and there was a line out the door,” says Stokes. “We had no idea people would be this supportive.”
Pepper is on leave from teaching to maintain the brew master duties. “It is a big time commitment,” he admits. “Like stirring the mash with a canoe paddle at midnight, being back at 4AM to do a tank transfer that takes half a day, that kind of thing. But our wives have been amazingly supportive, and Meghan [Marshall] at Perth Community Futures was a huge encouragement, including when we started to question ourselves.”
Going from 5-gallon home batches to their 1000-litre tanks was an intimidating leap in scale too. “We found that having a support network is as important as your own drive to create a business,” says Stokes.
Pepper agrees. “We drove up to Ottawa and the owners of Beyond the Pale Brewery spent four hours telling us everything they knew – and we still call if there’s a question. It’s a very cooperative culture among craft brewers.”
“We are also getting lots of local support among the restaurants in Stratford, like Monforte and The Bruce Hotel,” says Stokes. “Ryan O’Donnell of the Stratford Chefs League right away started using our Porter in ice cream – so the local collaboration and experimentation are a big part of the fun.”
Less than a year in, Black Swan already has distribution into London, St. Marys, Mitchell, Baden and Kitchener-Waterloo, and it would be tempting to expand quickly. “But we want to make sure we do it well here first,” says Pepper.
Black Swan has a core of three beer products, plus one-offs and seasonal brews, sold in the store by the glass and in 32 oz. and 64 oz. jugs. “Our beer is a bit more expensive because it has to be,” says Stokes. “But people want new experiences and don’t mind paying for something different. Especially the beer aficionados.”