B.C. Beer Blog

The who, what, where, when, why, and how of B.C. craft beer

The Next Wave in BC Craft Beer

with 4 comments

Patrons enjoying the Driftwood beer dinner at Hapa Umi.

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.

Launch of VCBW with Mayor Robertson at the Alibi Room

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.

The 2011 VCBW Brewery Creek Beer Festival at the Beatty Street Drill Hall.

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.

Women and Beer participants enjoying craft beer made by women.

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?

BC brewers who created the 2011 VCBW Collaboration Ale

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.

4 Responses

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  1. Someone’s had a busy day in the blogosphere. I’m still looking for full time employment. I answered your challenge, in more ways than one. I wrote who knows how many words on opening an establishment that brews craft beer in BC, alas it costs close to three quarters of a million dollars and is still a heavily regulated industry so even if one had the money getting the license and the location is a significant challenge.

    The answer to your question was differentiation. The enemy isn’t Labatts and Molson or even Sleemans, none of those companies are even Canadian anymore. They are faceless foreign corporate entities. The enemy is ignorance. My mom actually got talked into having a Belgian fruit beer at Incindio’s not too long ago. I’ve never seen my mom order a beer in my entire life, she wanted a peach cider, but the waiter convinced her to try a light fruit infused beer with her pizza and she liked it. Sampling can be an effective sales tool.

    I identified distribution as the biggest challenge facing craft breweries in BC and elsewhere. The other challenge they face is educating consumers that there are a lot of different styles of beers to choose from. I don’t think heavily hopped IPAs are the answer and I don’t think fruit beers are the answer either. One big appeal of craft beer is freshness and I also like buying local. People who drink Labatts and Molson and now Sleemans are sending the profits Holland, Belgium, or Japan. A Canadian consumer can purchase shares on an international exchange to participate in the corporate profits but I think a better way to support the local economy and local jobs is to support local brewers.

    Brewing was historically a localized industry and still is in some European countries, however post-war the North American brewing industry saw a high level of consolidation which has now continued on an international level due to economies of scale and the huge amount of branding undertaken by the largest brands. Sales of many of the big brands have actually been declining as has per capita beer consumption. Consumers are buying more foreign beers and more craft beers, but for this trend to continue a greater level of education and consumer sophistication may be required.


    September 26, 2011 at 2:28 pm

    • You are exactly right, Muskie. Ignorance is the enemy. Because once people have tasted a flavourful beer made with strictly natural ingredients using traditional methods and served at the proper temperature, they immediately notice the difference. And if, like your mother, it happens to be a style that they particularly enjoy, they will never go back to industrial beer.

      Women are the secret weapon of craft beer because, to them, it tastes good and can be sophisticated, which Budweiser and Molson Canadian can’t. It’s why the latter are associated with boorish male behaviour. And as bastions of chauvinism, it’s why when those corporations try to appeal to females, they attempt to do so from a stereotypical sexist point of view that will founder: http://ht.ly/6FEW0.

      So, to reiterate what I’ve said above in a nutshell, working as a team to educate the unaware is what will carry the next wave of craft beer.


      September 26, 2011 at 7:13 pm

  2. Looks like a pretty cool event. I wish I could have been up there to experience this event. BC is coming on huge!


    October 17, 2011 at 12:28 pm

  3. […] it will be enough for them to stay in business for another 20 years; maybe not. Fortunately, the new craft beer enthusiasm spreading out from the large urban centres seems to be changing this. Some establishments are […]

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