Beer is all about your own perceptions, the tastes you enjoy — bitter, sweet, fruity or whatever," says Kevin Winter. "So we like exploring different tastes, finding things people might not have thought they'd like."
Casually dressed in a T-shirt, shorts and deck shoes, Kevin is indistinguishable from the local crowd milling in the tasting room of Coast Mountain Brewing (CMB) on a Thursday afternoon. Growing up in North Vancouver, skiing Whistler his whole life, then living here for decades, he certainly fits the bill. But he's not just another local. Only 10 months into operation, his dream project — this brewery — is a nascent Whistler institution. A grassroots story as compelling as its improbable time frame.
Kevin and wife Angie had been brewing beers in their Pemberton home for five years when Kevin started a job at Whistler Brewing Company mopping floors, moving soon onto the kettle, a typical arc for budding brewers. "Brewing all the different beers there was a great education," he reflects of an experience that ignited the path ahead.
With aspirations to continue learning and explore other beer styles, he started an online brewing program out of Chicago. "That eventually brought me to Chicago, more courses, and my brewer's ticket."
Meanwhile, he was now working at Mission Springs Brewpub in the Fraser Valley. "We were able to take a fledgling brewery to national recognition by winning some medals. It opened our eyes to the world brewing scene and Angie and I started thinking for real about starting our own."
The worm, in fact, turned over Christmas 2014. When his younger brother asked when he was going to start his own operation, Kevin's first response was that it was still too big of a deal and too expensive. But it got him to put pen to paper to work out the real costs. Farming the idea around while developing a business plan, he and Angie also realized that Whistler — to which they longed to return — could work. "We'd been in the hospitality industry here for close to two decades. We began to meet people who were interested in the idea, investors showed up, and the ball started rolling."
As an additional aid to lift-off they ran a "Founder's Program," successfully implemented elsewhere. In this model individuals provide capital funding in exchange for product and a few perks down the road. So, for instance, friends chipped in on a $500 CMB Founders Card for my birthday that came with a vacuum-flask growler (keeps contents cold and more carbonated) and was redeemable for $500 worth of beer plus discounts on merchandise — i.e. you got your money back and more. Not only did it help CMB with sky-high start-up costs, but it also proved an amazing marketing tool, sewing karma up and down the valley. "We immediately had loyal customers drinking beer, getting the word out, wearing our schwag," says Kevin, who basically went from mopping the floor of a brewery to running his own in five years.
To say CMB was an instant hit would be understatement. Opening in September 2016, the Function Junction venue was packed from Day 1. And not just because it was small, homey and welcoming. The product — all of it — was exceptional. Taste sensations. People dropped by for post-work pints. Regulars appeared overnight. Line-ups for growlers wound around the room.
"Response from the community was overwhelming. None of us was ready for what happened," recalls Kevin. "We started with one employee and pretty soon we needed two, then two and a manager."
It's also telling that two weeks after opening, CMB won Best of Fest at the Whistler Village Beer Festival. "That was huge. It helped us hit the ground running," notes Kevin. "The prize was draft contracts. One year each at the Dubh Linn Gate, GLC and Longhorn. We had to say thanks but no thanks to the Longhorn — I used to manage the place and knew we couldn't meet the capacity needed — but Gibbons graciously let us slide the contract over to the more manageable Firerock."
As a small community brewer that prides itself on a premium product and innovation, CMB initially targeted high-end bars and places that appealed to their sensibilities. They were welcomed with open arms — and without having to play any of the price-politics larger breweries do to have a place at the taps.
"21 Steps was the first place to take a keg and now we're in about 25 restaurants and bars," he says, adding that increased availability in town might take pressure off the always-packed tasting room. "I don't like hearing people say they didn't come in because it looked too busy, but now a place like Hunter Gather has our full line so you can go there as well. It's been a great landing pad for us in the village."
Though the new kid in town changed its name twice (The Beer Studio, Sea-to-Sky Brewing) en route to opening, Coast Mountain Brewing has found a place on every Whistlerite's lips — and many a refrigerator shelf.
Next Week: A look at the brewing life under the OddJob marquee.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.