It looks and smells like beer, but it's not really

For a craft beer connoisseur, it was the worst kind of news.

Ted Fleming went in for what was supposed to be a regular visit to the doctor's office. Instead he was diagnosed with Crohn's disease, a sometimes painful bowel condition the impacts the body's ability to digest food.

Fleming had to be hospitalized and eventually made a number of lifestyle changes, including one very tough, but for him necessary, change: his beloved beer had to go.

"I really missed my beer. I missed the taste," he admitted.

He tried the non-alcoholic stuff, made by the big beer companies, and quickly concluded it wouldn't do.

So he set out to make his own brew and by this September, he hopes it'll be on grocery store shelves across the province.

"It's kind of crazy, I certainly wouldn't have seen this would be my path," said Fleming, now 40, who previously worked as an engineer.

"It's funny such a negative thing like a diagnosis of Crohn's disease would lead to something so positive. It's hard not to look at that in a special light."

For the love of beer

The idea to brew his own non-alcoholic beer was sparked in part, by a community Fleming helped to foster online.

Tired of the few choices available, he began sourcing the best "near beer" from all over the world and selling it on his website.

Fans are people like himself, who make a change for medical reasons, as well as pregnant women, designated drivers, people who don't drink for religious reasons or those looking for a healthier alternative to beer.

"People just want to participate and share in socializing and drinking with their friends," said Fleming.

"When I started the business, I didn't understand that was what we were doing, but as we went on, that became an important part."

His online store quickly expanded from "near beer" to non-alcoholic wine, cider, and even whiskey and tequila.

And then, enough people seemed to be asking Fleming the same question, when would he make his own?

That's when he came up with Partake Brewing.

The next big thing

But going from an idea — even a solid one — to a finished product ready for store shelves can be daunting, even for experienced entrepreneurs.

That's where Food Starter came in.

"Entrepreneurs often have very lopsided skill sets and they need to know all about a very complicated business," said Food Starter's executive director Dana McCauley.

"I help people with fantastic ideas figure out how to bring them to market, commercialize them, and become the next big thing."

Since 2015, Food Starter has teamed up with 150 companies and launched 80 product lines.

Entrepreneurs get access to shared production spaces, saving them from costly rent while they perfect their product.

"When I first heard about Partake it had a totally different name — which I can't even remember what it was. I just remember going, 'that name is not going to work," laughs McCauley. She says what drew her to the non-alcoholic beer was Ted himself.

"He really had incredible empathy for his target market, because he is the target market," she said.

"That's what it's all about for small businesses — finding a market niche that a big player hasn't started in."

And while Partake's launch may be weeks away, she's got high hopes.

"Until the last 10 years, I would've said it was impossible for Partake to crack the beer market, even with a such a specialized product.

"But the interest in craft beer, the interest in local, and the interest in small batch brewing really set the stage for a company like Partake to have success."

Big dreams

While the hope is to end up in store shelves across Ontario this fall, Fleming wants to see his beverage go coast to coast.

He recently made an appearance CBC's Dragons' Den but is sworn to secrecy on whether he got a deal. His pitch is expected to air on the show's upcoming season.

"I love drinking my own beer, and I can't wait for other people to enjoy it as well," said Fleming.

"If you can go into a store and point to someone and say, 'I created that,' and created the camaraderie that will happen around my beer, that's a fantastic feeling."