Tuesday, January 29, 2013

How A Craft Brewery Inspired a Small Town

Sometimes those of us who live in the Greater Vancouver and South Vancouver Island areas take it for granted we can get craft beer almost everywhere these days. I am more often than not pleasantly surprised to find at least one or two good beers on offer as a result of the craft beer craze. It seems that most licensees in these areas have finally clued in that craft beer drinkers have money, will spend it and will specifically seek out and support licensees that offer good beer.

But for the majority of BC beer drinkers the reality is that fizzy, almost-tasteless, macro-brewery lagers, not to be confused with small-batch, craft lagers, still rule the roost and despite the fact that domestic craft beer sales are increasing constantly in the province and now have approximately 15% of the market share, the majority of those craft beer sales are concentrated in the Greater Vancouver and Victoria areas. The boundaries of the craft beer-friendly areas are expanding slowly but most rural and isolated areas are still devoid of good beer and when I head out of town I still carry my small vial of hop oil with me just in case I find myself in a craft-beer-free zone.

A few years back, good friends of mine, Bernie and Debbie, moved to one such community where commercially produced craft beer was virtually non-existent. Powell River, due to its geography, is a difficult place for small craft breweries to distribute to therefore few, if any, had attempted to break into the market in the area known as the Upper Sunshine Coast. The big breweries were uncontested except for a few craft beer offerings in the liquor stores.

To give you a little bit of a back story, Bernie and Debbie are from from England and Bernie, an early supporter and member of CAMRA UK in the 1970's, is an avid real ale lover and has been drinking real ale for, well, lets just says decades. When Bernie first moved from England to Squamish seven years ago, he baffled the realtor when he said he wanted pubfront property, not oceanfront or lakefront property like everyone else. He made the same request and got the same baffled expression from the realtor when moving to scenic Powell River a few years ago but he and Debbie managed to find a beautiful home just down the road from a wee neighbourhood pub called the Red Lion.

Unfortunately, this pub, like all pubs in Powell River at that time, had no real ale or craft beer. To help make the beer that was on offer palatable, Bernie used to have a small whisk on a lanyard which he took to the pub and he would vigorously whisk his fizzy lager to get rid of some of the unnecessary carbonation, much to the amusement of the pub staff and other patrons. The practice, which Bernie started when he could not find craft beer options in Squamish, caught on with some as they found Bernie's small trick actually helped make the beer more drinkable.  

Last year, Bernie and other craft beer lovers who live in the Powell River area were able to put their whisks away when Townsite Brewing opened their doors and began supplying the area with a locally- brewed, craft beer alternatives to mainstream lagers. Townsite made their first keg deliveries in March, 2012 and in less than a year they have changed the local beer scene. Townsite beer is virtually everywhere. Locals like Bernie and his friends have embraced the craft beer option with open arms.

One story that is told in the Red Lion Pub that illustrates how much some of the locals have taken to craft beer is that one evening when Bernie and his friends were having a few jars the keg of Townsite beer blew. The pub owner told them they would have no more Townsite on tap until delivery the next day. Whiskless and in horror that they might have to switch to a less desirable macro-lager, Bernie's pal Don took matters into his own hands, phoned up the brewery to see if they could help out and about 10 minutes later a keg of Townsite Suncoast arrived prompting Bernie and Don to get on their hands and knees to bow down and worship the arriving keg as it was wheeled into the pub.

This immediate acceptance of craft beer in Powell River has even surprised Townsite owner Karen Skadsheim who had some idea that craft beer was well overdue on the Upper Sunshine Coast, but who admittedly may have under-estimated just how much locals desired options in regards to beer.

"I have to confess that I was surprised at how quickly people around here took to it," wrote Skadsheim in an email to VEBB.  "I knew there were craft beer lovers in Powell River, but I fully expected a learning curve for most folks and sure, lots of people didn't know what craft beer was but as soon as you explained it and gave them a taste, they were converted. We got a lot of people, often, it must be said, women, who said 'I don't like beer, but I like this'."

I saw first-hand how excited locals are about having access to good beer when I went up to Powell River a few weekends ago to visit Bernie, Debbie and attend the Craft Beer Tap Takeover at the Red Lion. The event was sold out as local craft beer lovers paid $10 a ticket to get in to sample beers from Driftwood, Howe Sound, Parallel 49, Tofino Brewing and of course Townsite. It was a great event and most of the kegs were drained that night by the enthusiastic crowd who were ready to party. There were many who had never heard of the out-of-town breweries and a few who didn't find the craft beers to their liking, prompting them to switch to mainstream lagers, but I can say that I have seen that here in craft-beer crazy Vancouver at the Railway Club where, during a CAMRA Vancouver Harvestfest,  I saw a few Railway regulars ignore the cask beers on offer and go straight to their usual bottles of mainstream swill.

There is no accounting for good taste, or lack thereof, I guess.

Even more impressive than the sold out Tap Takeover was the fact that the next night the Invitational Brewers' Dinner, a food-beer pairing event featuring some of the same breweries, sold 54 tickets, at $50 a pop, exceeding their capacity of 50 people. I know this is commonplace here in Vancouver but you have to remember that there was virtually no craft beer, if any, in Powell River only one year ago and events such as the tap takeovers and beer-food pairing dinners are definitely not the norm and how they would be accepted was an unknown to organizers.

According to the Sunshine Coast-Powell River NDP MLA Nicholas Simons, Townsite Brewing has done more than just offer great beer to locals. While we were guests chatting about craft beer and liquor laws on CJMP FM Community Radio's "Every Day is Like Sunday" radio show, Simons told me off-air that the brewery's success has been "an inspiration" to many in the Powell River business community and has shown others that a small, unique business can succeed, flourish and grow in area. He stated residents are "proud" of the brewery and how they have been able to become an integral member of the community while putting Powell River on the craft beer map.

One way Townsite have endeared themselves to locals has been their practice of donating $1 for every growler sold to different charitable organizations in the area.

"Because growlers are such a local thing, we decided to keep some of that money helping the community," wrote Skadsheim.  "I am very proud to say that in just eight months of growler sales, we've given more than $6000 to help groups like The Powell River Food Security Project, The ORCA Bus, Skookum Food Cooperative, CJMP Community Radio, The Bruce Denniston Bone Marrow Society and many others," wrote Skadsheim.  

The success of the growler sales and the amount of money Townsite has been able to donate to charities is also a bit of a shock to Skadsheim.

"As with craft beer in general, I thought growlers would be a learning curve and sure, not many knew what  they were before we opened our doors but as soon as we explained growlers, everyone said 'What a great idea!  I'll take two'," she said. Luckily for her she had read an article by Joe Wiebe which mentioned the success of the Tofino Brewery's growler sales so she doubled her order of growlers before starting sales.   

All of this community pride and acceptance of craft beer warms my heart as I am looking to locate my family up in Powell River sooner than later. Knowing that I will not have to take a supply of hop oil with me, or not have to purchase a small whisk, makes the decision to head to a small town that much more easier. 

And knowing there are a growing number of craft beer enthusiasts and characters like Bernie up there means I will not have to look far to find like-minded people and stay wired into the BC craft beer community. I think the community of Powell River is ready to expand to craft beers from other breweries as the local beer lovers are obviously showing a desire to branch out and deserve access to more of the great beers brewed here in BC. Townsite has blazed the trail and established themselves as the local favourites, who the locals will support loyally, now it is ready for others to follow. Who knows, you may even see a CAMRA Powell River branch pop up before the end of the year with yours truly in the mix if my family does indeed relocate there.

You know I won't be able to resist...   


  1. We're ready for you, Paddy. Make the move to Powell River, the mill town that refused to shut down!

  2. Hey Paddy,

    We should probably also mention in these types of blog write-ups about the people that actually make these events happen, like Chloe Smith Brewery Manager and Michelle Zutz Director of sales. If we always focus on one person ie. Karen Scadsheim then we loose the whole picture when it comes to getting the word out about the work everyone at Townsite Brewery does, and we cannot forget the brew master who makes this incredible beer possible!! Last I heard Karen didnt brew beer. Anyway just thought I would give my two cents since this is a blog lol

  3. Hey Steve, thanks for mentioning those folks. Of course Townsite's success is dependent on many dedicated, hard-working and talented people as was the success of the tap Takeover and the Brewers' Invitational Dinner. My omission of all involved was not meant as a slight. In the interest of brevity, it is sometimes necessary to quote just one or two people when in fact many would be appropriate to focus on and highlight.

    cheers and thanks for the comments which are always welcomed here

  4. I make a lot of road trips in search of good mountain biking, and always seek out the local craft breweries, be it Salmon Arm, Ottawa or Sedona for example. Nothing comes close to the quality produced by brewmaster Cedric right here in Powell River. His wet hop Time Warp was the ultimate so far. The whole team involved is awesome. Gotta love this town.

  5. Oh yeah, Paddy, forgot to mention that hops grow very well up here so, what's keeping you?

  6. Well, I hope that Townsite will continue to put those hops to good use as my family and I will be arriving in June!