Cheers to Spearhead Brewing Company

By Emily Coppella

Finding the right beverage for everyone

Spearhead Brewing Company was simply meant to serve Kingston. They’ve been a powerful figure on the Kingston beer scene for years, offering monthly beer releases in their taproom and hosting a variety of events. Everything from their tanks, piping, and cleaning systems were built right here in Kingston, with Kingston engineering and labour. While Spearhead has become vital to Kingston as a beer destination, they’ve since expanded to supply LCBOs across the province. So, when we spoke with Josh Haytor—an early investor turned president of Spearhead Brewing Company—we had to ask about how the idea for the brewery was born in 2011 but raised in Kingston.

“It started out with a group of folks that wanted to do things a little bit differently, wanted to make traditional-style beers with unconventional types of ingredients. Our flagship beer, our first beer, was our Hawaiian Style Pale Ale. Back then, a beer with pineapple in it was just unheard of.”

Hawaiian Style Pale Ale

At the beginning of Spearhead’s journey, the Hawaiian Style Pale Ale was made on a small scale. Everything changed in 2011 after the Spearhead team heard that a legendary brewer, Tomas Schmidt, had just retired from Labatt Brewing Company in London, Ontario. Tomas had become a local legend after spending nearly 30 years working all over the world for Labatt, helping to bring numerous iconic brands, including Cerveza Cristal and Kokanee, to the Ontario market. The Spearhead team decided to visit Tomas, a true brew master, and ask if he was really done with brewing, or just moving on from “big” beer.

Tomas decided that he wasn’t quite done with brewing. So, he joined the Spearhead team and has been involved with every recipe since. His son, Jacob, received his formal education in brewing in Sunderland, England; he is now Spearhead’s head brewer. While the team began as contract brewers (renting out other breweries in order to brew their own batches), Josh remembers that by the time he joined in 2014, their success was evident, and creating their own brick-and-mortar brewery was necessary to keep up with demand. Josh went into every vacant building available in the Greater Toronto Area before expanding the search for a building as far as Lake Huron. The buildings simply weren’t the right fit.

Spearhead Brewery
Spearhead Brewery

The Spearhead team reached out to Richard Ward, an early investor and now CEO of the brewery, who had a design and manufacturing business in Kingston called Pure Ingenuity. The team was interested in having brewery equipment designed by Richard’s company. During a meeting, Richard and the team also began brainstorming location ideas. Mid-conversation, one of Richard’s tenants phoned him to let him know he would be ending his lease. The soon-to-be-vacant building was right across the street, so he invited the team to view it.

“He says, ‘Let’s go for a walk. My tenant is out at the end of the lease, let’s have a look and see if it’s a good fit. It was a perfect fit. This was an old New York Air Brake building. We started construction right away. It was like it was meant to be.”

Spearhead has been brewing their strong staple of “core brands” ever since. This is beer that’s made consistently, so it’s always available.

“Our idea was to have a very solid spectrum, so we have our Decoy Lager, a light lager for those who like the lighter beers, we’ve got our Amber of the North, which is just a solid amber beer, a very British-style red. Jacob actually came up with the idea for that recipe while he was back in school in England. Of course, we have our Hawaiian Style, which is a hoppy IPA, and our Big Kahuna, an imperial IPA which is a big, heavy-hitting version of the Hawaiian. Then we’ve got our New England IPA.”

Amber of the North red ale
Amber of the North – British-style red ale

Along with their spectrum of staples, the brewery puts out a brand-new beer each month. Creating the recipes is a communal effort that involves the sales, marketing, and brew team in order to brainstorm flavours. Some past brews include the Cherry Blossom Green Tea Saison (a light Saison brewed with Bancha leaf and Sakura blossom, with herbaceous and floral aromatics, and notes of fruit and honey) and their Oatmeal Cream Ale (a twist on the classic North American beer style made with a blend of flaked oats and barley, with a crisp, soft malt flavour). Sometimes one-off brews (such as the New England IPA) are so popular that they become core brands.

Queen of Wheat, their latest core brand, began a little bit differently.

Queen of Wheat
Queen of Wheat

Queen of Wheat is a Belgian-style wheat beer that pairs hops and wheat yeast with a touch of peach for a zesty, citrusy beverage. It was also the first beer with a drag queen on the can in the LCBO ever. In February 2020, Spearhead decided to throw an anti-Valentine’s Day party, inviting a host of performers including local drag queen, Rowena Whey, who organized and headlined the show. Entitled, “Love’s A Drag,” the event was unforgettable.

“It was the first all-ages drag show that had been done in Kingston and that’s where it really became important because at the front row there were some parents that had brought their teenagers and they’d been brought out very specifically for their parents to be able to show them that this was okay. You can be who you are. The interaction between Rowena, the other performers, and these young people was amazing. It was right then that I thought: we need to do something to help here, to help with education, to help with something.”

Spearhead already had plans to release a wheat beer, but they asked if Rowena would want to be part of the process. She was thrilled and suggested they collaborate with the Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity (CCGSD), an organization that does significant education work. After consulting with Rowena about flavours, hiring an illustrator to put her image on the can, and deciding to donate some of the proceeds from the product to the CCGSD, the Spearhead team had its newest creation: Queen of Wheat.

“We tossed around a whole bunch of names for the beer but after looking at the image of Rowena on the can, we were like: ‘Alright, this is the Queen. The Queen of Wheat.’”

And Queen of Wheat has proven to be beer royalty. It won gold for Wheat Beer – Belgium Style (Wit) in Canada at the 2022 Canadian Brewing Awards.

Every initiative at Spearhead has been rooted in their original vision to be curious and help find the right beverage for everyone—even if it’s not beer. Their taproom serves liquor, wine, cider, and Akwa, their non-alcoholic, zero sugar, hop-infused sparkling water. Josh loves the Kingston taproom because you can see people from every walk of life sitting together, enjoying a beverage.

Couple enjoying brews at Spearhead
A couple enjoying the patio at Spearhead Brewery

“Our mantra has always been beer without boundaries. Just make good beer and hopefully people enjoy it. One of the things that we have going for us is we honestly believe that the right beverage is out there for everybody, we just need to find it. And that’s why we’re constantly innovating and making new stuff.”

While Kingston boasts many breweries that could be viewed as competition, Spearhead embraces the thriving local beer scene.

“All the breweries kind of do their own thing—they have very different styles of brewing, which is great. Really, when you look at it, it’s all of us against the big guys, so the more breweries in Kingston, the more Kingston becomes a brewing-centric travel stop. I said when we moved into town, ‘Kingston was the first capital of Canada. I’ll be damned if it doesn’t become our first capital of beer.’”

Spearhead music on the patio
Live music at Spearhead Brewery’s patio