John Sproull wanted a small craft brewery and ended up with basically an entire restaurant.
“We had a bunch of different ideas, and our vision kind of changed,” he explains, giving a tour of the back rooms at Spark Beer on Somerset Street. “A small brew house is what we’ve always wanted, but to include a relatively large tasting room — this building allowed us to do it.”
Chances are you’ve seen the building he’s talking about: with its bright red tiling, nestled beside the equally recognizable Yangtze Chinese restaurant, it is one of those buildings that defines the look of Ottawa’s Chinatown neighbourhood.
Spark Beer is the latest chapter for the space, which has been home to sushi kitchens and small travel agencies alike. The idea — the dream, really — had been brewing, excuse the phrase, in Sproull’s mind for the last five years or so. Slowly he and his co-owner-slash-wife Andrea Gormley began amassing the brewing equipment about two years ago, and have been working on securing, and then renovating, the Somerset Street.
It is also deceptively large, from the outside. As Sproull and his co-owner-slash-wife Andrea Gormley settled into the space their business plans expanded to fill the space. A small dozen-seat brewhouse became a full-fledged craft beer bar, with a retail fridge; eventually, they plan to start making pizzas in the large pizza oven currently stored in the back, at which point they’ll adjust to being more of a restaurant than they initially planned. (That they were initially going to share the space with another company that eventually dropped out also gave them more room than they initially thought.)
"It’s been crazy,” Sproull says, of the bar’s first six weeks. The bar opened in early January — welcome news for any Chinatown locals mourning the closure of Bar Robo, wondering where to get their craft beer fix. Rather than a carefully managed opening, one day in early January they simply opened their doors, and have been learning and adapting ever since.
Spark is happy to cut a bit against the trends that have dominated craft beer over the last few years. Rather than the big, hoppy IPAs that have dominated tap rooms, Sproull prefers lighter European brews, fruity sours, and traditional styles.
He’s also happy to stay small for now, and carve a path outside the traditional LCBO path that many craft brewers have taken in recent years.
“I think being hyperlocal is kind of the new thing. We’re not in this to make West Coast IPAs to can and sell at the LCBO. There’s no shelf space anymore, and the LCBO takes 30 per cent,” Sproull says. “We’re Chinatown’s brewery — that, to me, is the cool part of this. That’s where things are going, it’s the neighbourhood bar. I think at some point we’ll look at growing, but for now, this is sustaining us.”
Rather than try to build out their brand that way, Spark sells bottles out of a small fridge right in its taproom.
“It’s kind of suicide, if you come into the market with the idea of being the best IPA,” he says. “Five years ago you couldn’t find an IPA on the shelf of the LCBO, and now that’s all it is.”
This kind of thinking seems to underwrite most of how Sproull sees Spark Beer and its place in the wider beer world. As he talks, he offers pieces of what might be called a philosophical outlook on beer. “Don’t just add hops for the sake of it,” he says at one point; “I’m very smitten with Belgium,” he says at another. He’s got a lot of thoughts about stouts.
The more you talk to him, the more you realize that this thinking really distinguishes Spark Beer. If nothing else, Spark offers a refreshing and novel spin on craft beer — the kind of craft beer bar you might hit if you’re just feeling a little tired of craft beer.
“Our beers are going to be ever-changing,” says Sproull. “Different styles, different hops…It keeps you engaged, keeps me interested. And, it’ll keep the beer nerds coming back.”