The Next Wave in BC Craft Beer
It was just over three years ago when I started this blog out of frustration over the lack of craft beer coverage in the mainstream media – virtually none. In fact, they were reporting the decline of beer in favour of wine when I knew it was a generalization that completely overlooked the ferment that was happening in BC amongst the microbreweries and brewpubs. Clearly, the MSM had no idea, given their wine obsession. At the time, craft beer in Vancouver seemed like an underground subculture whose workings were known to a select few. I had started getting the word out through CAMRA Vancouver’s newsletter, but needed a means for discussing issues and covering events in more depth than e-mail. The B.C. Beer Blog was born.
Looking back, it’s interesting to see the changes that were already starting to happen. After Dix’s Summer Caskival #5, I noted how a nascent beer culture seemed to be forming. Beer events were becoming less of a sausage fest with more women being drawn in to sample beer made with passion and bolder flavours. Cask ale was spreading beyond Dix, to be taken up by The Whip, some of the other Mark James brewpubs, the Alibi Room, and The Irish Heather. Food pairing was being given more serious consideration with some excellent meals, such as Garrett Oliver’s brewmaster’s dinner at Boneta and The Whip’s Feast of Five Firkins, setting the benchmark for what could be done.
Since the inaugural Vancouver Craft Beer Week in May 2010, we seem to have hit a critical mass where craft beer finally returned to the mainstream media. Now we are seeing more regular coverage with quality writing from people who actually know beer, rather than wine writers throwing beer lovers an occasional mangled bone. This has spurred a growth in craft beer sales that brewers and import agents have responded to which, in turn, has driven further sales with the growing availability of creative flavours and style innovations. Now, any craft brewery that wants to stay in the game has to have an IPA, must offer seasonal releases, and should give their brewer the opportunity to experiment with casks.
The next wave in craft beer is transforming the foothold into a beachhead. More hospitality establishments are hopping onto the craft beer bandwagon (money talks!), giving patrons genuine choice, not just a selection of the most heavily-advertised lager, Sleeman, and Guinness. Probably two of the most welcome recent developments in Vancouver are the Donnelly Group’s rollout of craft beer through their various properties and Earls offering of Howe Sound and Phillips in BC. We’re also seeing a spread to the suburbs, like the Hop and Vine in Burnaby, Kingfishers in Maple Ridge, the Pumphouse Pub in Richmond, and Hog Shack in Steveston. New breweries in BC are popping up in smaller towns, like Tofino Brewing and the two underway in Oliver and Powell River. This, along with the mind-numbing level of taxation people supinely accept, has re-invigorated homebrewers, who are also getting organized. I see the next generation of Gary Lohins and Jason Meyers emerging.
Of course, one way to measure the impact of this is to analyze the sales trends in the LDB’s Quarterly Market Review – craft beer has consistently been one of the leading growth segments. Another gauge, that I’ve mentioned before, is to monitor the results of The Georgia Straight‘s Best of Vancouver and Golden Plate awards. The latest poll has seen some noteworthy changes. All the BC beer category winners were microbreweries. Best Canadian Beer Brewed Outside B.C. was Alexander Keith’s, but the runners up were Big Rock, Unibroue, and Steam Whistle; no Molson, Moosehead, or Sleeman! This may have also been the first time that an IPA was a winner – Red Racer IPA in third place for Best Locally Brewed Beer. Oddly, there was no change in the brands winning Best Imported Beer, only their order switched. This is somewhat surprising, given the significant increase in available American craft beer brands – to the extent that we’ve seen Sierra Nevada return to liquor store shelves here. But Straight readers still prefer Belgian, Dutch, Irish, and Mexican industrial beer over microbrew!
While this leaves much cause for optimism, now is not the time to rest on our laurels. I think it is as Churchill said: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
We have emerged from the doldrums that we found ourselves adrift in because people without a passion for craft beer gained control over many of our post-industrial breweries. All of a sudden, rather than leading the market, they became driven by the market. And when you strive for mass appeal, you head down the same road the industrial brewers have chosen – offer a product that offends the least number of people, AKA the lowest common denominator. Taking a risk amounts to offering a dark beer, but better to let someone else stick their neck out first and prove the market. Product innovation, if there is any, stays in the safe zone of sweet and smooth, like adding honey or maple syrup to the top-selling styles. Avoid the word, “bitter”, even though it’s a necessary part of brewing and an actual beer style; it’s the kiss of death. Don’t call beer styles by their proper names, especially if they are foreign. People don’t buy beer they can’t pronounce (myth!). So, eventually, we find ourselves with a beer scene that is about as exciting as a rest home at nap time.
What caused the change since I started this blog? People with a passion for craft beer got re-energized, organized, and took the lead again. They shared their enthusiasm for the diversity of beer, guided people to the places that embraced it, and shone a spotlight on our local brewers who were languishing in obscurity from the media’s lack of interest. Brewers and publicans responded to this renewed public enthusiasm. All of a sudden, there were stories to tell again. This left the last piece of the puzzle to be tackled – getting the media’s attention and making them realize that something more than just a fad was afoot. Post 2010 Vancouver Craft Beer Week, mission accomplished.
Nevertheless, just as we fell into the “nothing ventured, nothing gained” way of doing business before, we could easily find ourselves there again. The cobwebs and dust of this Barkerville of beer period have not been fully swept away. We still have brewpubs promoting cocktails more than their own beer, or selling industrial lager in competition with that brewed in-house, the very antithesis of what they should stand for. How many hotels showcase our local brews? Why is it that government liquor stores give over so much floor space to a handful of beer brands with the highest visibility, many of whose SKUs only differ by their packaging, while BC craft brewers typically find they can’t even get all of their brands, representing completely different styles of beer, even listed in BCL stores?
Carrying forward the next wave of craft beer means continuing and building on what got us to where we are right now, which is working towards a co-ordinated collective effort. This is not an easy thing to do, given our celebration of individualism, but it is not beyond our ability if we recognize what can be accomplished with teamwork. If we mutually support the efforts of all on the craft beer team, that investment of time and money returns greater dividends than if done outside the synergies of the group. If you truly love craft beer, think of what you can do to further the cause, to inform more people about the diversity of beer, or just spark their curiosity. Every little bit helps, even something as simple as buying an industrial beer drinker sitting next to you a craft beer or sharing an event on Facebook.
Some day, I would like to see “food and wine” and “wine and cheese” fall out of common usage. Given what we’ve accomplished since I started this blog, together, I believe we can make it happen.
Photos courtesy of Brian K. Smith.