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BC beer goes boon

With about 100 craft breweries across the province, and many more to come, the industry's growth is nowhere close to slowing down



Brent Mills, the head brewer of Four Winds Brewing, is having a stellar year. Why, you ask? His beer is officially Canada's best.

In June, Four Winds — the Ladner-based brewery that Mills founded with his dad and brother in 2013 — won Brewery of the Year at the Canadian Brewing Awards — by far the most coveted brewing prize in the country. They're now regarded nationwide as one of the most exciting new craft breweries in Canada's booming beer industry.

At home, they're brewing heroes. They can't make their beer fast enough — the locals are gulping it down by the growler-full.

So yeah. A good year. Now, he's sitting at one of 13 craft breweries to set up shop within city limits in the past two years.

"Vancouver is just crazy for craft beer," Mills says, sipping from a glass of saison at Main Street Brewing in Vancouver.

To prove his point, he does a quick calculation on his iPhone. In the two years since Four Winds set up shop, they've grown 820 per cent. They've expanded their brewery several times to meet demand, and they still can't make enough beer.

He laughs, amused by those numbers. He says, "I would love to see the sales figures for macro beers, for Vancouver in particular, and how far they've plummeted in the past few years. We're not the only (craft brewery) doing this good."

B.C. is the fastest growing craft beer market in Canada, and one of the fastest in North America. There are 97 craft breweries and brewpubs open in over 50 communities across B.C. at press time for this issue — over half of which have opened since 2012. There are 15 more set to be open in the next six months, and those are just the ones we know about — they're opening so fast, it's very difficult to keep track.

With this has come a boom in beer festivals — including the Whistler Village Beer Festival, which is in its third year this week — and other beer culture experiences. And, of course, there's a surge in craft beer sales.

Right now, craft beer — defined by the Province of B.C. as any brewery producing fewer than 160,000 hectolitres — is 21 per cent of the beer market, up from nine per cent in 2009. Liquor store counter sales for breweries producing fewer than 15,000 hectolitres (including Four Winds) are up 50 per cent over last year. For breweries producing between 15,000 to 160,000 hectolitres, sales are up 19 per cent.

These are impressive numbers because, on the whole, beer as a segment of the provincial alcohol market has been trending downward the last five years, as consumers have been choosing wine and spirits instead. This means that producers of macro beer — Molson, Labatt's and Budweiser, for example — are taking the hit.

This is one of the most appealing aspects of craft beer — the David-versus-Goliath narrative. For too long, consumers have been forced to drink tasteless, fizzy lager because that's all that was available. Now, for the first time in modern history, we have options — tasty, locally produced options that are eating into the conglomerates' bottom line. Craft beer is as much about taste and quality as it is a rebellion against corporate influence and mass production of lousy beer.

But taste and quality is important. A recent Deloitte study, published earlier this year exploring the B.C. craft beer and distillery industry found that consumers are "willing to spend more money on a small quantity of really good stuff." There's a desire to experiment with new flavours and to support local and sustainable products.

"This time in the world is a pinnacle of flavour," Mills says. "If you look at every aspect of things you, um, put in your mouth" — he laughs — "they're progressing at a rapid pace, as far as restaurants go — beer, wine, spirits, coffee, anything. It's a gastronomical explosion."

But taste, it seems, is only a very small part of it. There's a cultural movement associated with craft beer that's taken root, particularly lately in Vancouver, a city that, for millennials especially, has been void of authentic and meaningful cultural spaces. For the first time in at least a generation, craft beer culture offers locals a homegrown movement that disparate groups of intelligent, creative, like-minded strangers (and also kind of nerdy) can band together.

"You know what we're really capitalizing on? The fact that the City of Vancouver didn't allow for neighbourhood bars," says Chris Bjerrisgaard, co-founder of Vancouver Craft Beer Week, B.C.'s largest beer festival, and marketing manager for Parallel 49 Brewing. "(Breweries have) become the replacement for the neighbourhood pub. There's social atmosphere and things that have been missing from the bar culture in British Columbia that you're finding in tasting rooms. It's a benefit because we're Trojan horse-ing good beer into people's lives with that missing piece.

"We got into it because of the Go Local movement and that whole culture. We've stayed in it because of entrepreneurial, punk-rock-ish, small business hipsterism, if you want to call it that. We have nerd iconoclasts in it that get to stroke their beards and be better than everyone else, like it was with music before you could just download everything. It's checking all the boxes."

For craft beer fans, brand loyalty means little. Craft beer culture piggybacks on all counter-culture movements before it, and for many, it's as much about flavour and intoxication as it is about campaigning against corporate ownership of what we put in our bodies. It's about experimenting. It's about knowing your brewer, knowing the ingredients. It's about community, and with B.C.'s largest city on board with the industry, it's exploding province-wide.

• • •

It took a long time to get here, but Dave and Leslie Fenn saw the potential. The year was 1992. Dave was working as a policy analyst in Victoria, while his sister, Leslie, was working the family business doing resource management. Dave had noticed some craft breweries cropping all over the Pacific Northwest throughout the '80s. Oregon and Washington were exploding, but B.C.'s prohibitive liquor laws prevented the local industry from taking off the same way.

There were several to open in Victoria, and a smattering across the rest of B.C. The Fenns followed suit. They quit their jobs and by 1995, had set up the Howe Sound Brewing Company in Squamish. 

"We thought we were great visionaries," Leslie says. "We really thought — everyone thought — what was happening in the U.S. was coming north."

It took a while. The province made it very difficult to acquire a licence as a brewery, so they started as a brewpub, which meant they could only sell their beer on-premises. Squamish provided cheap land, but the town was a small mill town, working through a depression. Business was slow.

But, again, they saw the potential. A second wave of craft breweries swept the province, throughout the '90s, with close to a dozen new businesses opening.

"That's why we hung in there," Leslie says. "No one ever knows, but we had a feeling that things would really take off. We were just early."

It wasn't until 2002, when the Fenns helped lobby the government to change "archaic" laws preventing brewpubs from distributing their beer. The change made a huge impact on small breweries, allowing them to compete in a market dominated by InBev, Miller-Coors and Heineken. It helped Howe Sound reach the capacity where, by 2007, they were brewing 12, 000 litres per month, the point at which the Liquor Distribution Board would give them a Stock Keeping Unit (SKU). From there, business skyrocketed, and Fenn gives a lot of that credit to the province changing the laws around beer production.

In the past year, the province has made some positive changes to the liquor laws to aid the alcohol industries — changes to festival licensing, allowing beer at farmers' markets, a relaxing of beer-garden permits, amongst other changes. These have been small steps to reversing restrictive liquor laws, long criticized by the public and the media. Now, it's in the midst of revamping the liquor wholesale pricing model — a profoundly complex task that was announced earlier this year.

Critics in the media and the brewing industry have dismissed these latest changes as another bungle by the BC Liberals that put the health of their coffers before the health of the liquor industry.

But Ken Beattie, executive director of the BC Craft Brewers Guild (BCCBG), has a more tempered attitude, noting that an overhaul of a regulatory system like this is always going to be a work in progress. These are complicated issues that he says are going to take some time to get right.

"I'll give them their due here," Beattie says. "It is a massive undertaking to change that policy, and they're not going to get it right the first time out of the chute. They've been very good, honestly, at looking at some things that maybe don't work."

The BCCBG is primarily concerned with providing opportunities for the craft industry to grow. At the same time, more craft breweries are cropping up and fighting for increasingly limited shelf space at private retailers and government-run liquor stores. For some observers, it seems that this rapid increase of breweries could lead to a "craft beer bubble."

Beattie says that's unlikely.

"If we're at 20 or 22 per cent, that's still 78 per cent of the population of BC choosing something else. That's an opportunity. That's not bubble bursting, that's opportunity," he says. "When that number gets to 50 per cent, 50-50, then there might be some slow down."

There have certainly been some hiccups along the way. Earlier this year, R&B brewing — one of Vancouver's first craft breweries — hit financial trouble and nearly shut down before Howe Sound Brewing bought them up. Abbotsford nano-brewery Surlie Brewing shut down earlier this summer, and the rumour mill's always churning with news that this brewery's for sale or this one's shutting down.

But that's normal in any industry. Vancouver has an abundance of restaurants. Is there a restaurant bubble? No. Some breweries will close, the good ones will stay open, and more will open — but not at the same rate they have been. Beattie says the number of new breweries will taper off in the coming years, and the communities will be able to support them.

"There's still so many people that haven't tried craft beer," Beattie says, "or don't know what a growler is. They say, 'I don't try those types of beer.' I mean, 'Those types of beers?' There's so many ISAs and fruit-based beers now that beer's even more accessible now."

For the first time in the modern beer industry, the consumer has a direct relationship with the product they're putting in their body. They can smell, see, taste where it's made.

There's some novelty involved. For some of these breweries, taste and quality of product actually have very little to do with their success. A lot of these breweries are succeeding purely because they're local. A recent article in Entrepreneur found that failure rates for new U.S. craft breweries are "near zero," and it's a similar situation here.

That won't be the case for long — the industry's honeymoon period can only last so long — but for now, the going is great.

"People are going for the experience," Bjerrisgaard says. "They're not sure about the product yet, because they haven't tried enough of the product. They haven't spent the time. It's more about the experience of sitting in a tasting room."

"It's culture. That's all this comes down to."

Best in fests a big score for breweries

Most beer festivals have some version of a "best in show" contest, where the crowd votes on its favourite brewery or beer. Normally, the winners get a ribbon or a trophy, and some bragging rights.

Not so with at Whistler Village Beer Festival. Here, the Best in Fest winners land one-year dr aft accounts at three popular village locations: The Longhorn Saloon, Dubh Linn Gate and the Garibaldi Lift Co. This means beer sales, folks, in the largest resort in B.C.

For last year's winners, Vancouver's Parallel 49 Brewing, it's meant a 500 per cent spike in beer sales in Whistler.

"The biggest thing for us is getting a foot in the door with the largest draught account (the Longhorn Saloon), which has been locked down by macro (beer)," says P49 sales manager Jeff Hurkett.

This has helped them land other draught accounts not associated with the Best in Fest prize, which has helped them boost their profile resort-wide.

Will they win again this year? It's hard to say. Tastes change from year to year. But Hurkett says the competition has less to do with the beer and more about the vibe and atmosphere of the brewery's booth. He says Parallel 49 staff hustled to ensure people voted for them last year.

Still, competition is stiff. Whistler Brewing has an advantage for being local (they placed second in 2014). Four Winds Brewing also has a shot after winning Brewery of the Year at the Canadian Brewing Awards earlier this year. It's really anyone's guess.

Whistler village beer festival: what not to miss

The Whistler Village Beer Festival is on its way to becoming on of the premier beer festivals on the West Coast. With a variety of events and participation from the most exciting B.C. breweries (never mind the stunning surrounding beauty), the festival is fostering the sort of intimate, free-spirited experience most beer festivals are lacking.

And let's face it: Whistler Village is made for an event like this. Here's what you absolutely have to check out:

Best in Fest / The Veterans Cask

Five of B.C.'s best breweries compete in a cask contest. Tickets include five tasting tokens, sampling mug and a ballot for you to vote for the winner.

Thursday, 7pm, Westin Whistler Resort

BC Craft Brewers Guild Welcome BBQ

Want to meet the people behind the craft beer industry? Here's your chance. The casual meet and greet includes beer samples and a plate of BBQ.

Friday, 3pm, Longhorn Saloon

Master Crafters

An expert panel of B.C. and American craft brewing superstars, hosted by Joe Wiebe, author of Craft Beer Revolution. Panel includes Sean Hoyne (Hoyne Brewing), Brent Mills (Four Winds Co.), Iain Hill (Strange Fellows Brewing Co.), Jamie Floyd (Ninkasi Brewing), Kim Jordan (New Belgium) and Dick Cantwell (formerly of Elysian Brewing).

Friday, 8pm, Westin Whistler Resort

The Main Event

This is what it's all about, folks. Dozens of the best craft breweries from across North America, huddled together in Whistler Olympic Plaza. Try new beer, indulge in old favourites, make some new friends — what else is there to do?

Saturday / Sunday, 1pm, Whistler Olympic Plaza

Best in Fest Awards

The winner of the Best in Fest awards will be announced. Expect much consumption and merriment, particularly from the winner, who'll earn a year-long draught contract throughout Whistler Village.

Sunday, 8pm, The Longhorn Saloon

All tickets are available at wl.ticketzone.com/WhistlerVillageBeerFest

Stephen Smysnuik is the editor of The Growler, a quarterly craft beer guide featuring profiles of every B.C. brewery, along with features covering the expanding beer culture. Pick up a copy at all craft breweries, or visit them at www.thegrowler.ca