Saturday, January 22, 2011

Last Call with WanderingPaddy - There's a Storm Brewing on Commercial Drive: Part One

I was introduced to James Walton, owner and head brewer of Storm Brewing, in 1996 by the manager of one of my haunts on Commercial Drive. Storm was one of the few microbreweries in Vancouver at the time producing craft beer and trying to carve out a niche in the local beer market which was then dominated by the big, national breweries. Since that time, I have had the privilege of getting to know James as both a friend and an employer. He introduced me to craft beer and changed the course of my life forever by doing so. I recently caught up with James, convalescing at home after his recent car crash and chatted about old times, craft beer and the state of the Vancouver beer scene, past and present. The result is a two-part story, the first part focusing on the beginnings of Storm Brewing and how it developed and the second part, which will be out before the end of the month, focusing on the unique character that is James. I hope you enjoy it.
As an added bonus, I have been given permission to utilize photos taken by Wendy D Photography at Storm Brewing this past summer. For more photos of Storm and Wendy D Photography, please click on the links supplied. I hope you enjoy the stories and photos.
Back in April, 2001, I went to see Shane MacGowan and the Popes play at the Commodore Ballroom. The opening act, a local group called The Real MacKenzies, were forced to play an extra-long set that night and when MacGowan and The Popes hit the stage, over an hour late, MacGowan was falling-down drunk. The concert was legendary and despite being incoherent, while slurring in between songs and hardly able to walk, MacGowan delivered an amazing performance with his signature rasp and growl.
I was working for Storm Brewing at the time and the next day, while at work, I was chatting with Storm's owner/brewer James Walton. Upon hearing about the concert and MacGowan's extremely inebriated state, James told me he had supplied a keg of "fortified" Storm Highland Scottish Ale to The Real MacKenzies to enjoy backstage. Apparently MacGowan discovered the keg and, as he is known to do, proceeded to drink himself into oblivion and fell down some stairs before going on stage.
I am not sure if this is a true story or not. Being of Irish decent, I never let the facts get in the way of a good tale. But a believable story it is. Talk to anyone who knows James, or who has been associated with Storm and they will be able to tell you a colourful story or two. I know I have enough to fill a book, but due their adult nature and my desire to to protect the guilty (especially myself), I will leave said stories unpublished. They are legendary tales and make no mistake, James Walton and Storm Brewing are legends in Vancouver beer scene.
James Walton, mastermind behind Storm Brewing
photo by Wendy D Photography
Not often in your life do you come across such an innovative, generous and, yes, colourful person as James Walton. He is unique and his brewery truly reflects that. Everything about Storm Brewing screams James, from the brewery's McGiver-like construction, to the innovative and interesting brews produced, to the fact that at the brewery's 10th anniversary party sushi was served on a platter that consisted of a beautiful and very naked woman. His philosophy and business model are definitely not the norm. For James, being a brewery owner and craft brewer is part of a lifestyle, not a job. 
So how did James come to be the owner of Storm Brewing and become one of Vancouver's most iconic brewers?  As it turns out, it was not originally his idea.
Storm Brewing - like no other brewery
photo by Wendy D Photography
Back in 1994, James, who studied industrial mycology on his way to obtaining a degree in biology, was working as the Night Manager for Stanley Pharmaceuticals. He was married at the time and his life looked similar to that of tens of thousands of other Canadian thirtysomething males.
"I was bored with my job and looking for something entrepreneurial to do and my ex-wife, of all people, suggested a brewery," said James.
Being an avid home brewer since age 15 and a lover of good beer, the idea of having access to unlimited amounts of beer he liked was irresistible. So, with no formal training in brewing and limited business experience, James started making preparations to create Storm.  
After finding and leasing the space at 310 Commercial Drive, where the brewery is still located, James drew up the plans for what would become Storm.
"I specifically picked that (north end of Commercial Drive) because it was close to Shaftebury," said James, referring to the now closed Shaftebury Brewery, which was located just around the corner and who were making in-roads into the beer market with their craft beers at the time.
"I thought it would be a good idea to have my brewery close to them so if I got desparate, I could get help if I needed.
"After I signed the lease, I figured out how much money I thought I would need and made a list of what else I would need and scribbled it down on the back of a napkin. Then I started scouring the scrap yards." 
More examples of James's
handiwork and unique design
photo by WendyD Photography
Having grown up on a farm, James was handy with a welder and had a working knowledge of machinery. He also had an idea of what he needed to construct to move large volumes of liquids, due to his work with Stanley, so he proceeded to piece together the brewery himself.  To this day Storm has that homemade, patched-together appearance. It looks like it was created by a mad scientist, but there is a  definite method to the madness and, despite how it looks, the brewery has been producing unique, quality craft beer for over 15 years.
As if fated, Stanley Pharmaceutic had a massive layoff about a month after James started work on the brewery and he saw his opportunity to give Storm his undivided attention. He took part of Stanley with him, stating his "payout" from the company included a stainless steel tank and an industrial scale, both of which were incorporated into the brewery and remain there today.
The first beer Storm produced was Red Sky Alt, which James still believes is one of the best beers he has ever produced. The Red Sky recipe was one he had played around with as a home brewer.
"It was a delicious, one of the best (beers) I've ever drank," said James of the Red Sky. "I don't know how many five-gallon batches I made. I made batches and batches, getting the recipe just right." 
Once he was satisfied the recipe had been perfected, James began to produce brewery-scale batches and Storm Brewing was officially launched in June, 2005.
Storm's Black Plague Stout recipe
photo by WendyD Photography
James is one of the truly independent brewers. Except for his wife, with whom he split with three months after Storm launched, James has had no partners and no financial ties. In other words, he has had complete control of the brewery and the beers produced. All Storm's recipes, except for the Highland Scottish Ale, which was designed by former Storm employee David McNulty, have been designed and created by James and many of the early ones were his home brew recipes which he "tweaked" to work on a larger scale. His experience as a home brewer helped guide him in the early days. 
"It is the same thing but bigger, " said James when asked how brewing at Storm was different than brewing at home. "Basically, anyone can make beer if they want to. It's really not that difficult. The trick is to keep it interesting and fun."  
The Vancouver beer market at the time was just beginning to accept to craft beer and James had to be persistent and endure a lot of rejection to find his niche. "I was so attached to my beer," he said. "The rejection was devastating and I couldn't handle it so I had to get a friend to help (with sales)".  James was told over and over, in the early days of the brewery, beers like Red Sky, Hurricane IPA and his now award-winning fruit lambics were unsellable and sometimes, undrinkable, but he knew there were others like him in Vancouver who loved craft beer and would pay to drink it if available. Slowly James found places willing to put Storm on tap and his beers soon developed an almost cult-like following. 
Storm's distinctive tap handles found
everywhere from underground
events to Vancouver's finest restaurants
photo by WendyD Photography
In today's Vancouver craft beer market, it is still tough for breweries to find space for their taps, but for completely different reasons. Craft beer taps are found everywhere and as a result a few local breweries, who produce craft beer, have ramped up their production and are aggressively selling their brands to grab bigger and bigger shares of the market. Business can be cutthroat as beer reps vie for sales. Despite this explosion in craft beer sales and the fierce competition, Storm has have managed to hold their share of the market without having a dedicated sales representative or marketing scheme. Storm is advertised mainly by word-of-mouth and by reputation. I don't know how many local art shows, fund raisers and community events, both underground and mainstream, I have gone to where I have spied the distinctive Storm tap handles behind the bar. James has been a staunch supporter of his community and the arts since Storm's inception and this generosity and support, in the form of supplying beer,  has helped spread the word and exposed a very eclectic cross-section of Vancouverites to Storm beer.
As well as resisting advertising, James has resisted expansion as well. According to James, he has had a few offers from those interested in buying Storm, but he has turned them away without a second thought. He has also resisted increasing his tap presence in local bars and restaurants so that he can maintain control of the beer which he believes would be compromised by increasing production and growing the size of the brewery. 
"It is a feeding frenzy now," said James about the Vancouver craft beer market, "but it has never been about the market share for me. I don't worry too much about what the other (breweries) are doing. I have about 35 taps around the city and have been consistently around that (number) for over ten years. It is right about where I want to be."
I can recall coming back to the brewery one day, proud I had found a few solid leads for new clients. Instead of being excited about doing more business, James looked at me seriously and said, "it is not about the quantity of work Paddy, it is about the quality of life while you are working, " at which point he poured me a beer and lead me onto the loading dock to enjoy the sunshine. He never asked about the leads again and I never brought the subject up again.
Such is James and Storm Brewing. As I said, he is a unique man, with a unique business plan. He is also the best employer I have ever worked for and not just because of the free beer.
Check back next week for Part Two of the story where I will focus more on James, the individual and how his personality has shaped Storm and the beers produced there. 
In the meantime, check out Storm's website to find out about Storm's tasty offerings and where you can find them on tap. To give you a head start,  you will find Storm beer, including the brewery's award-winning and unbelievably different Insane Fruit Lambic, at The Alibi Room, located at Main and Alexander and St Augustine's, on Commercial Drive at the corner of N Grandview Hwy. If you have never tried it, you better do so soon as rumor has it, supplies will run out before summer.
photo by WendyD Photography

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