Kenny Richards is a searcher. That interrogative spirit has led the Atlantic Beach native and Episcopal School graduate down a rabbit hole (or ten). There were a few years of rambling surf travel across multiple continents. A field study in the Ecuadorian Amazon with Kichwa Indians. An extended stay on Maui, where he worked on an organic farm. Then there were years pursuing answers to some of the deepest questions of all, as he earned a Master’s degree from UC Boulder, then a PhD in religious studies at UNC Chapel Hill.
It was during those years, buried in the rigors of academia, that Richards came across a recipe for alcoholic ginger beer.
“I was studying Colonial history as a side project during grad school,” he says of his discovery. “I decided to try to make it, myself. It took some time, but I ended up developing a recipe I really liked and just thought was delicious.”
Years later, PhD in hand, Richards was well-positioned for a career in academia. Of course, he had more questions, still. And he thought, just maybe, the answers lie within that beverage recipe from 18th century.
“I was on track for academic success. Still, the academic job market is horrendous. [My wife and I] looked down that path. There was a lot of anxiety and insecurity,” Richards says of the impasse at which he’d arrived. “One day the light bulb went on. We made this radical decision to uproot to Vermont and just go for it.”
Today, what started with Richards tinkering with his ginger beer recipes in a rented out brewing space in Burlington, VT, has grown into Halyard Brewing Co., a nine-employee craft brewing operation specializing in alcoholic ginger beer. With six unique recipes, Halyard distributes three of its most popular beers throughout Vermont and Florida, including to more than 30 restaurants, bars, and retail operations here in Northeast Florida.
Meanwhile, in ginger beer, Richards seems to found just the right conduit to channel his need for inquisition.
“Beer is barley, malt, hops and yeast. Out of those four you can brew everything from stouts to lagers,” Richards explains. “Ginger beer is cane sugar, molasses, ginger, water and yeast. With those ingredients we’ve only just scratched the surface. We can explode the category. We’ve made barrel-aged dark ginger beers. We’ve made Belgian style ginger beers. We’re pushing the limits. It’s really exciting.”
Alcoholic ginger beer was first brewed by the English in the colonial spice trade, Richards explains. The beverage was incredibly popular until prohibition, after which it survived as a non-alcoholic soda.
While alcoholic ginger beer remains popular in places like New Zealand, today, if Americans recognize ginger beer at all, it’s likely that they do so in its non-alcoholic form, as a mixer in a brass-cupped Moscow Mule, or similar beverage. This dearth of awareness is what excites Richards the most. “Because it’s been forgotten, I get to define the palate. We get to introduce it to people.”
Just as Richards idiosyncratic experience has helped him define the flavors of his product, so too has that experience come to define the brand. He’s the first to admit that through Halyard — which derives its name from the term for the rope used to raise and lower a sail — he’s “projecting [his] own dreams and love of that lifestyle on the brand.”
A lifelong waterman, Richards grew up fishing, hunting, sailing, and surfing. He learned to surf behind his family’s oceanfront house deep in Atlantic Beach and won a collegiate longboarding title. To say Richards is as comfortable walking the nose of an under 10-foot log as he is tacking or jibing a sailboat, wouldn’t be hyperbole.
But the brand is also deeply rooted in Vermont, Richards says. The city of Burlington, where Richards now calls home, is renowned for its food and drink scene, and known widely as a community committed to social responsibility. Halyard uses organic and free trade ingredients — an economically challenging undertaking — yet offers its beers at a price point that’s affordable to the consumer. The brand is also heavily involved in variety of fundraising efforts for non-profit organizations based both in Vermont. In addition 3 percent of sales of Halyard’s new Volcano Juice shandy goes to Healing Winds, a non-profit that offers the therapeutic experience of sailing to people suffering from cancer.
Despite living more than 1,000 miles from his hometown, through Halyard Richards plans to stay inextricably linked to the Sunshine State. In August, Lakeland’s Brew Hub will begin brewing Halyard recipes right here in Florida.
Moving forward it seems for Richards, the incessant searcher, Halyard — both the brand and its ginger beer offerings — will remain a vehicle for extensive interrogation.
“Creating a brand can be this authentic enterprise, where you find an avenue to express culture and build relationships over time,” Richards says. “I love doing that through the avenue of an alcoholic beverage. What a great way to do that!”
This article originally appeared in Void Magazine Vol. 09, Issue 3, The Drink Issue.