As Whistler gets set to welcome its now-annual beer festival, it's clear that the passion for brew is driving the event to even greater success.
The Whistler Village Beer Festival (WVBF) came out of nowhere on the edge of Whistler's crowded summer event calendar last year, and with the inaugural event selling out its remaining tickets within an hour of opening on a hot and sunny September Saturday, both curious tourists and furious locals – who left their ticket purchases to the 11th hour – were apologetically turned away by the hundreds.
"We were really humbled by how well it went last year," says Harrison Stoker, who masterminded the event along with Liam Peyton.
Says Peyton: "This town is reliant on so many big festivals and other global brands coming through. To be able to home grow something which we're passionate about, that was the best feeling."
With now one successful WVBF under their belts, Peyton and Stoker have their eyes set on pushing the event into a week-long affair and becoming the "Crankworx" of beer festivals in North America and beyond. But aspirations aside, the core of the festival will always be about the beer, so don't expect to see ciders or spirits alongside brewers any time soon.
"One thing that's important to us is sticking to our guns, says Stoker.
"It's for the love of beer. We have to stay true to that, and the hardest thing to do sometimes is keeping it simple."
Adds Peyton: "We want to be the premier beer festival in North America. Not the biggest — Denver has 40,000 people attend, but this is Whistler, not Denver. In the next five years we want to be the most talked about, coolest, sought out beer festival."
Will the WVBF outgrow its new expanded boundaries at Olympic Plaza?
"We're shooting for festival grounds open for more days before we start building sky bridges (into Lot 4), but that doesn't mean we haven't talked about it," laughs Stoker.
If you build it...
The inaugural 2013 event saw 2,000 attendees and 34 breweries (down from the scheduled 45) exhibiting their best beers, with the only complaint from ticket holders being the congestion under the pavilion at Olympic Plaza, where majority of the stalls were located. The 2014 event has expanded the footprint of the grounds two-fold to the outer edge of Olympic Plaza with brewers stationed around the perimeter fencing as well under the main pavilion. Good thing, too, because the flow of beer has almost doubled this year from 34 to 63 breweries.
Physical boundaries are not the only ones getting pushed this year. WVBF will be allowed to bring in local food trucks such as Dups Burritos,Whistler Wood Fired Pizza and The Pie Company (which will be serving Australian-style meat pies made with Deep Cove Brewery's Smooth Criminal Stout). Food trucks are normally banned from operating on RMOW land under bylaw, but an exemption has been granted for several local food truck businesses to sell snacks on WVBF grounds to keep 2,500 beer drinkers' appetites in check before the bell is rung for last call.
"Our vision last year was more about supporting local venues and not taking business away from them," says Stoker.
"But we realized really quickly that if you're drinking beer, you need to have food. It's just meeting peoples needs."
Another question that was raised last year was where people could buy the beer they were tasting to take home with them. For the first time at any festival in B.C., a portable liquor license has been issued — operated by Nesters Liquor Store — allowing patrons to buy off-sales and take home bottles of their favourite beers of the day. The concept of a pop-up liquor store in Whistler would have been laughable a few years ago, but it's an encouraging sign that the province is emerging from the shackles of archaic liquor laws. The support from the RMOW, RCMP and Tourism Whistler has also helped streamline the paper trail of licenses and permits.
Pride of place
As appreciative as Peyton and Stoker are of these new permissions and the resulting precedents they will set, their real pride stems from getting craft beer off the ground in Whistler. But ordering a decent pint of ale in Whistler hasn't always been so easy.
"These craft beer reps would drop off these fascinating samples, but we knew it just wasn't going to budge," recalls Peyton of his earlier years of working at the Longhorn.
"There was no way it was going to make it to our taps. It was heartbreaking."
"It wasn't even a conversation that you could have three or four years ago with most venues in town," adds Stoker.
"It needed a change. Whistler is such an international destination, especially being in the Pacific North West, our value for beer and food up here looked (awful) to people coming up here from Seattle, Portland or California. People were getting here and saying 'All you serve is nachos and lager? Give me a break!' Today in Whistler you can walk around and at least half of the venues have craft beer in them. It may not all be directly due to the festival, but the WVBF blew the lid off the old-school idea of cozying up to the big (breweries) and living in their womb. For the first time ever, craft beer is running through Whistler's veins. With all these venues opening up, they've got a real craft beer focus and I feel like we contributed to that paradigm shift."
The three gastro pubs that have opened in Whistler recently; The Beacon, Brickworks and Stonesedge, are all serving craft beer exclusively, with most of those taps sporting labels from B.C. breweries.
"The principle reason that we've chosen to deliver a largely B.C. craft beer menu is simply that we have an opportunity here in Whistler to access guests not only locally, but from around the world," said John Holden, general manager of The Beacon Pub and Eatery.
"That was the fundamental thinking when we began fleshing out the vision (of The Beacon), particularly with regard to our draught beer program. We're certainly privileged in B.C. to be augmented by a tremendously skilled group of people who are creating craft beer."
Says Derrick Franche, the brewmaster at Whistler's Brewhouse for the last three years, "We want to build a foundation of people enjoying good beer."
"As people get older, you get a little wiser about the type of choices you make, the food that you eat, the beer that you drink. Now I think (pubs and bars) are starting to realize that you can up-sell beer. It doesn't necessarily have to be a $4.50 pint, you can charge $6.75 and people are still going to line up at the door. It's encouraging to see that a lot of these new places are attaching their name to craft."
Franche has a small, but loyal, following of beer enthusiasts and home brewers that attend his monthly cask nights, has won awards for his San Diego-style 5 Rings IPA and was described by Thirsty Writer Joe Wiebe as "one of B.C.'s hidden treasures when it comes to brewing." Franche will be showcasing his IPA and one of his signature aged cask beers this weekend at the WVBF.
With the unprecedented growth in the craft brewing industry province-wide, more and more career opportunities are opening up for those with a passion for the amber nectar — and not just for the coverall-wearing, alchemists-of-the-kettle either.
"People are much more aware and want to know about what they're putting in their bodies, what they're buying, who makes it and how it's made," says Ken Beattie, beer educator and executive director of the BC Craft Brewers Guild.
"Craft brewers really focus on the product, it's not about lifestyle necessarily, like going to a hockey game and all the things that the big beer companies do through their advertising. The star of the show is always the beer."
After 25 years in the beer industry working for giants such as Molson and Sleeman, Beattie now travels around B.C. for his company Eureka Beer Guide teaching seminars to sales and marketing staff at craft breweries. Participants learn about the intricacies of beer, its potential of pairing with gourmet foods and can even pursue a certification known as Prud'homme, a program developed by Ontario's "beer professor," Roger Mittag. Beattie first took one of Mittag's seminars during his tenure at Sleeman.
"I literally had the 'Eureka!' moment, I had no idea about what I'd been selling for 20 years," recalls Beattie.
"I could sell you sizzle all day long, but I didn't know a lot about the steak. That's now been flipped around. "
With craft beer's market share of all beer sales in B.C. — both packaged and draught — growing from nine per cent in 2009 to 21 per cent in 2014, Beattie expects to see continued growth of jobs in the industry be it for brewers, salespeople and marketers, or spin-off jobs in manufacturing and farming.
"People are making equipment for the breweries in Abbotsford or Kelowna, people are growing hops up in Pemberton and selling them to the local breweries," says Beattie.
"B.C. has historically been one of the greatest hop growing regions in the world and we're coming back to that. The B.C. brewers would use their hops if there was a bigger supply of them."
For long-time Whistlerite Kevin Winter, a decade of bartending and home brewing led to a career in the beer industry after "landing a job at the end of a mop" at the Whistler Brewing Co. (WBC). Winter worked his way up to being a full-time brewer and attended brewing courses at the Sibel Institute of Technology in Chicago before making the move down to Mission Springs Brewpub, where he now resides as head brewer. Winter has helped grow Mission Springs from being a traditional brewpub — where all beer sales were on site — to being distributed on taps at 30 bars and restaurants throughout the Lower Mainland and the Sea to Sky corridor.
"I think the desire to be a brewmaster evolved over the years," says Winter over the phone from Mission. "It grew with the love of craft beer, with the home brewing and friends actually wanting to drink your beer. When I first got the job at WBC it became a realization that this is something that can happen. If you put enough effort into it, I think it's a fun industry that many more folks are going to see themselves getting into."
This year Winter reaped the rewards of his brewing efforts by picking up a gold medal at the 2014 Canadian Brewery Awards for his Trailblazer Pilsner. He will be returning to the WVBF to showcase Mission Springs' Blue Collar Pale Ale, Cherry Bomb Belgian-style Pale Ale and back by popular demand, the very summery Lemon Ginger Radler.
"Every time we go to the kettle, we change something," says Winter.
"We're a small enough brewery that change is a good thing for us. We're always evolving and always looking to create the best pint. You're always trying to create new recipes where you can draw that consumer in. That's our goal as brewers, to keep it fresh, exciting and flavourful. Beers that keep the interest piqued at all time."
For the love of beer
While the BC Liquor Control and Licensing Branch (LCLB) has been instrumental in helping grow B.C.'s wine industry to what it is today, it has yet to invest as heavily in the flourishing craft beer industry. But one step at a time, things are getting better. October's Craft Beer Month is being promoted in all B.C. Liquor Stores, but brewers would like to see a similar emphasis on tourism that the wine industry has been employing for decades.
"The government liquor stores have probably played the most instrumental role in growing B.C. wine in the 80s to being world-renowned today," says Beattie
"We would like them to use that template for us. The recommendation is to work with craft beers and craft ciders and at some point B.C. distilleries, to model the (BC Vintners Quality Alliance) success. It's a huge lever for the economy of B.C., not only for (the product), but the food (and travel) tourism that comes with it."
The WVBF is the perfect example of a how a tourism-driven town can capitalize on the fruits of regional, national and international brewers. While the four-hour main event on Saturday afternoon is by far the biggest draw, there are dozens of additional events from Thursday to Sunday with everything from industry-only gatherings for brewers, cask showdowns, food-pairing events and after parties being held at partnering venues. This year also has a series of seminars conducted by Beattie and Joe Wiebe, where attendees participate in an interactive class — including beer samples — while learning about the history and culture of beer in B.C. and worldwide.
"Everybody wants an excuse to come to Whistler, and we just need to give them that excuse," says Joey Gibbons, the president-owner of the Gibbons Hospitality Group, which funds the WVBF.
"Whistler does such a good job for so many brands. People come and have an awesome time, so they relate that experience back to what they're consuming."
The experience of brewers themselves while in Whistler is just as important to Gibbons, who believes showing them a good time here will lead to more corporate bookings in the long term. The brewers will also be attracted to the opportunity to secure a sales contract of their beer in Whistler's venues.
"We did away with the idea of awarding medals and trophies that would otherwise collect dust in a brewery or an office," says Stoker.
"With our Best in Fest structure, we're awarding draught contracts."
Last year the Best in Fest was won by Central City Brewing's Red Racer IPA, which awarded the Surrey company with draught taps at six Whistler bars and pubs. The win prompted Central City Brewing to promote its sales and marketing rep from regional to provincial responsibilities. This year there are 10 venues that will participate in the Best in Fest, with prizes for first, second and third place.
"It's a real catalyst for change," says Stoker.
"The breweries, beyond attending the most scenic venue for a beer festival, are so enthusiastic about coming up because there's a real opportunity for their business to grow. Seeing craft breweries grow from people having a great time drinking their beer in the mountains, it couldn't get better."