Bandit Brewery: Crafted Beer
Like all good ideas, Bandit Brewery was conceived over a pint of beer. And, rather appropriately, so too was the friendship between owners Shehzad Hamza and Stephane Dubois; thematically, they also met at a brewery. You can say that the unlikely pair are the epitome of the Canadian Dream; immigrants who came, conquered, and quit their corporate jobs to establish a craft brew startup.
We sat with Shehzad and Stephane in the stylishly hipster living room of their Roncesvalles micro-brewery, complete with coffee table made of shipping pallets (which Shehzad informs me he built himself). You would think that the two had been friends since childhood, our conversation peppered with jokes and jabs at each other’s expense followed by frequent laughter. Yet the two only met in 2012 through a mutual friend, who also happens to be the designer behind Bandit’s lovable mascot and clever bottle labels. Stephane, who is native to France, moved to Toronto not very long before that. Shehzad, of Indian descent, grew up in Dubai and studied university in the U.S. before moving to Toronto 8 years ago.
Stephane was a mechanical engineer working in the construction industry, while Shehzad worked as a reporting and analytics manager for a manufacturing company. Their love for beer became the foundation for their friendship. They visited breweries together; went on beer tours to the U.S.; and Stephane, a veteran homebrewer, taught Shehzad how to make beer. Fueled by passion for the brew and boredom from their jobs, the only logical step was to open a brewery together.
I surmised that it must’ve been difficult to transition from home brewing to large-scale brewing and asked them to take us through the process. I expected accounts of failures and triumphs of epic proportions, or perhaps a dramatic re-imagining of their epiphanous moments.
“It took time, it wasn’t that difficult,” replied Stephane, who applied his engineering skills to convert the former auto body garage. “It’s almost easier than homebrewing actually. Just the bags are heavier and you have more bags of grain,” he continued with a contagious chuckle. “There’s no real story there,” declared Shehzad. “We had a quick meeting and said ‘Yeah, that sounds good’. We always said ‘What’s the worst that can happen? I can deal with that. So I should probably do it’.”
“You can become an alcoholic,” Stephane chimed in.
“While being bankrupt,” quipped Shehzad.
And here we were laughing again. No pomp, no circumstance. Because as much as a labour of love can take immense effort and dedication, it is often no labour at all.
“What’s more interesting than money or any of this other stuff is this concept of learning,” continued Shehzad. “And I think always finding new things and learning about new things, even if you don’t know how to do them, that’s always interesting to me. The idea that I didn’t know how to do any of this stuff is great. [...] Now you have to learn finance and HR and legal, not by choice. You have to. And that’s interesting too, ‘cause you learn so much of various aspects.”
It was a refreshing perspective.
All too often, we are inspired by the glamorized struggle of the underdog who puts up a tough fight to come out winning against all odds. But the opposite is equally inspiring and remarkable; the ability for real people to come together, embrace their challenges, and approach them as opportunities to their accomplishments. It was a quiet and simple affirmation that, indeed, anything is possible.
The twinkle-lit treasure, inspired by German beer gardens, opened in the Spring of 2016. “Talking about Germany and the beer gardens, it’s a very social and it’s a very welcoming atmosphere,” says Shehzad. “You had families, old people, young people … It was more about the experience of coming together over a product rather than the product itself. That’s very interesting to us, which is what we wanted to build here as well.”
It was important that the space be open and inviting. Something that the charming décor achieves so effortlessly. Shehzad confessed that in the beginning, he found the culture of craft beer rather intimidating. In answer to that, Bandit’s space is intended not only for beer aficionados to come together, but to make beer accessible to all, regardless of experience or taste.
“If somebody says: ‘Oh, I like Coors Light’, we have something very similar to Coors Light. That’s a Pilsner and it’s very hoppy, it’s a lot better than Coors Light. So he could enjoy himself as well,” explains Stephane. “We have a wide variety of products to be accessible to many kinds of people with different tastes and different knowledge about craft beer.”
“If you come in and the first beer you have is an IPA, for someone that’s only drank, let’s say, pilsners or lagers their whole life, it’s a shock to the system,” Shehzad elaborates. “They’ll say: ‘It’s disgusting. It’s bitter. I hate this. I hate craft beer.’ [...] But, if you have that variety [...] you can slowly get them to start appreciating all the beers. I’ve seen that a few times and that’s really cool; to widen people’s horizons.”
Stephane and Shehzad may not take themselves too seriously, but they do take their beer very seriously - though without pretension. The two and their small team of brewers are constantly experimenting and improving their brews. After a year-and-a-half in, Bandit is still growing. Even recipes for their signature beers may be tweaked based on feedback.
“We are a team of brewers and we collaborate,” says Stephane. “We don’t have a brew master. It’s more like a discussion on what we want to make. Some of us are responsible for some products, we discuss the product and the recipes, and we review the product. We talk to people, we hear people’s feedback and then we tweak the recipe to improve it. It’s a very collaborative work, making beer. [...] And it’s more enjoyable to have more discussions, more interaction.”
“It’s more arguments, too,” reveals Shehzad. “Me and him, we have different tastes. So, he’s usually like, ‘this sucks’ and I’m like, ‘this is great’. But then it comes back to, there’s a whole team. So you can’t just say ‘it sucks’. You have to qualify what you like, what you don’t like. And then you go through that. We write down the notes, what everyone says. We look at that and we say ‘ok, how can we improve the product?’. Coming up with new things, same thing. We all kind of discuss what we’d like to brew and we try it.”
Bandit’s collaborative culture extends beyond the brewery and is shared by the West End’s other neighbourhood brewers. Shehzad and Stephane regularly visit other brewers and receive visits from them as well. They’ve helped each other with supply shortages and often send customers to try other local brews depending on what they’re looking for. There’s enough customers to go around; thanks to the growth of craft breweries in the city, people are more and more interested in sampling a variety of beers often on the same night, than committing their loyalty to only one.
More recently, the team has been expanding on their barrel-aged beer program, experimenting with different types of barrels - including bourbon and wine. Stephane explained that given the intensely strong flavour of beer straight from a barrel, their barrel-aged beers are always blended.
Their first barrel-aged beer, The Hibernator, was released last year. With a capacity for only 200 litres per barrel, The Hibernator was available in limited distribution, exclusively in bottle format. They intend to re-release The Hibernator annually with a new blend. The Hibernator 2017 is slated for December. Today, their barrel program has grown to 12 barrels, with a couple more varieties waiting to be sampled.
We lingered well past our interview with Stephane and Shehzad. They gave us a full tour of the brewery and we continued to hang around long after, chatting over a pint. Stephane and Shehzad are the kind of guys you’d want to drink with; funny and animated before the beer, and even more-so afterwards.
If it sounds like Bandit Brewery is all about a couple of beer nerds brewing the beer they want and doing whatever they like, maybe it is. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s arguably the secret to their success and to great beer. Stephane and Shehzad have created something meaningful for themselves and for their community, where work and play collide, rather than exist in mutual exclusivity.
A lot can happen over a pint of beer, especially for curious minds with the courage to just go for it.
Words by Kimberley Kwo. Photos by Abhishek Dekate.
Don’t miss Bandit Brewery’s Oktoberfest this Saturday, October 16. The celebration will feature German music, food, and beer, complete with lederhosen! Bandit will be releasing 2 new beers, which will be available in Steins, with donations of $2.00 for every Stein sold going to Parkdale Project Read.
Visit their Facebook event page for more information.