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Get Stuffed

Boom, Bust and Bee

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Whistler Brewing is the latest acquisition in a trend where small breweries are merging, buying in or selling out to survive

"It’s sad. Almost too sad. Next week will be the last week we brew in Whistler," says Li, the brewmeister of the Whistler Brewing Company.

After almost 12 years in operation on Alpha Lake Road, the stakeholders in the company have signed a letter of intent to sell all the shares and assets of Whistler Brewing to Alberta’s Big Rock Brewery.

The name will live on, but instead of being brewed in Whistler, Whistler Brewing beers will be brewed at the Bear Brewing Company facility in Kamloops under a licensing agreement with Big Rock. The same goes for Bowen Island beers, which Whistler Brewing has been making for the past two years since the two companies merged.

"We have no choice," says Li. "Big Rock is a public company, it’s a good company. We have a hard time here surviving – everything is so expensive. If we make beer in Kamloops with Bear then according to the management team we should be able to save some money."

It’s a reality pill that the whole micro-brew industry is having to swallow under today’s economic pressures. In the late ’80s and early ’90s microbreweries sprang up all over the map, and seemed poised to steal significant market share from Canada’s big two breweries, Molson and Labatt – tastes had changed, people were drinking less and willing to spend a little more on something different.

The next generation of beer drinkers was shaping up to be a promising herd of consumers. They were well-educated, well-travelled, more adventurous, and somewhat revolutionary – drinking an established brand was akin to conformity. They sought out little known bands, decorated their rooms with rare memorabilia, ate at exotic restaurants, and brought microbrew beers to the party.

The big breweries actually lost market share during this period, and attempted to recapture lost consumers by launching a selection of utterly forgettable microbrew-style beers that you would have to go to a museum to find. Do the names Molson Copper and Red Dog ring a bell?

After those ploys failed, the companies reinvested in sales and marketing to build customer loyalty and bought out their biggest competitors. In the West, Labatt owns Kootenay and Kokanee labels. In the East, Molson owns Moosehead.

Sleeman Breweries of Guelph, Ontario recently became the number three brewery in Canada with their acquisition of Upper Canada Brewing, and Okanagan Springs (which had previously taken over the Shaftebury label). In B.C. alone, prior to Whistler Brewing’s takeover by Big Rock, 17 emerging microbreweries and brew pubs have been forced to close, join forces with other companies, or sell out.

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