Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Reports & Ramblings From a Beer-Addled Mind #5

Craft Beer Month Just Around the Corner

Although its announcement came without much fanfare and without the knowledge of a great deal of people involved in the BC craft beer industry, hospitality industry and consuming craft beer, October has been officially declared B.C. Craft Beer Month by the Province of British Columbia in a proclamation signed by Attorney General, Barry Penner.

What this means to lovers of craft beer here in BC is not quite known at this time, but, if Craft Beer Month lives up to its billing on the proclamation, "the month of October will feature a celebration of craft beer by British Columbia's craft breweries with beer tastings, beer maker dinners, craft beer festivals, brewery tours, beer and cheese pairings taking place throughout the province," and will raise the awareness of the importance of the craft beer industry in BC and the advantages of supporting that industry which benefits both the consumer, by producing a unique, quality products and to the economy of the province as a whole by providing jobs in all sectors and boosting the economy.

This is a time for BC craft breweries & brew pubs to strut their stuff and shine the spotlight on themselves and could prove to be a lot of fun for those of us out there who love craft beer. It is also the time for those pubs, taphouses, restaurants and cafes that feature BC craft beers to celebrate supporting our local craft beer industry by creating events in their establishments to add to the celebrations. 

Let's hope the word spreads and those who have a vested interest in the craft beer industry in BC participate in BC Craft Beer Month and make this the celebration it can be. Although CAMRA has a few tricks up its sleeve, the Craft Beer Month celebrations will depend heavily on whether the breweries and licensees can get organized and creative to promote craft beer and raise awareness amongst the public above and beyond the usual craft beer community. I know of a few establishments that have some plans to highlight BC craft beers and I hope more get on board and join in the fun.

Stay tuned in the next few months to find out when and where BC Craft Beer Month celebrations will be taking place.

Too Hop To Handle - A Little Info on What is in Store

This Saturday local Hopheads who managed to snag a ticket to CAMRA Vancouver's  Too Hop To Handle festival will be doing their happy dance as they make their way to St. Augustine's Craft Brew House and Kitchen.

The event, which is sold out earlier this week, will feature hoppy offerings, many of the one-of-a-kind variety, from 14 breweries - 13 from BC and one from Seattle, Washington - which will challenge even the most hardcore and adventurous IPA drinkers. Three of the brews being offered clock in at over 90 IBU's, with one measuring 92 IBU's and 8% ABV, another upping the ante at 100 IBU's and 9% ABV and another pushing the limits completly, hitting an unbelievable 151 IBU's at 9% ABV!

If those numbers having your taste buds running for cover, don't fret as many of the offerings are not pushing the limits as the ones listed above and run in the range from 5.5%-7.7% ABV and 50-70 IBU's. With the number of beers available being lower than many festivals, having at least one 5 oz taster of each, over the course of the day, should be manageable. St Augustine's chef, Dion Ouellet. will also be creating some fare to pair with the hop bomb of choice and help absorb the alcohol for those trying to do the complete circuit.

Breweries participating are Red Racer/Central City, Howe Sound, Big River Brew Pub, Lighthouse Brewing Company, Big Ridge Brewing, Phillips, Russell, Storm, Dead Frog, R&B, Crannog, High Mountain Brewing (Whistler BrewHouse), Elysian and Spinnakers, who are making a rare trip over from the Island!

CAMRA Vancouver will also be there, setting up a booth to sign up new members and sell CAMRA swag. If you aren't already a member, bring along an extra $25 and sign up, get involved and help shape the landscape of the Vancouver craft beer community!!
See you there...but if you want to guarantee any sort of reasonable conversation, catch me early as I don't think I'll be able to resist hitting the big-hop, high-octane beers for long...

Beerlesque Fundraiser

For those of you hedonistic types who like a little titillation with your craft beer mark August 19th on your calendar and get ready to have some fun.

The Roundhouse is teaming up with CAMRA Vancouver and Vancouver Craft Beer Week to present Beerlesque, "a celebration of burlesque and BC craft beer" which hopes to raise dollars for the Roundhouse Community Arts & Recreation Centre.

Tickets are $50, inclusive of all beer and entertainment and are available on-line at the above link. There is a full evening of entertainment on the slate and those attending are being encouraged to dress up as a prize will be awarded for the best costume. Beers to provided by Driftwood, Phillips, Russell, Red Truck and Vancouver Island Brewing. Food carts from ReUp BBQ and Ursu Korean BBQ will be on site.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Cambie Malone Group Gets Crafty

Last week, as a part of my dogged, never-ending research in the field of craft beer, I came across an opportunity at one of Vancouver's craft-beer focused establishments, to taste BrewDog's Tokyo Imperial Stout, an 18.2 ABV bomb of a beer, not for the faint of heart.
It takes a lot to surprise this jaded, grizzled, old dog these days, but I was gob-smacked by this experience and the shock was more associated with where I found this beer than with the beer itself.

If you are paying any sort of attention, you will already have figured out by the title of this post I was not at the Alibi Room, or St Augustine's or any of the other handful of "traditional" craft-beer focused establishments you'd expect to find such a delicacy. No, I was in Malone's Bar & Grill, located at the corner of Seymour and W Pender, a place that will soon be one of "the" go-to stops for local and visiting craft beer lovers in this city.

When pigs fly indeed!!

I had been hearing rumours that Malone's, recently renamed Malone's Urban Drinkery, had undergone some changes but I was not prepared for the extent of those changes when I walked in the door to meet the Cambie Malone Group's new Director of Operations & Services, Rachaal Steele. I was skeptical heading into my meeting, but I have to tell you, I was more than pleasantly surprised by what I found at Malone's and very impressed with Steele and her staff who can be described as very craft-beercentric and enthusiastic about the changes Malone`s is undergoing.

Steele, who landed her current position after answering an ad for the position on Craig's List, is an American who brings a wealth of experience and knowledge with her to Malone's having worked in the craft beer industry for various breweries, pubs and restaurants in California and the US Pacific Northwest. Steele arrived in Vancouver March 20, this year and began changing the face of Malone's the following day.

Malone's currently has 24 taps on offer, 20 of those of the craft variety from both BC and the US. Those four remaining taps of mainstream, macrobrews will soon be replaced by more craft taps in the next few weeks. Steele stated she gave the big breweries Malone's had traditionally done business with a bit of a reprieve, keeping them on for a few extra months in a limited capacity.

"It's the least I could do since we were breaking up with them," joked Steele.

For those who don't know Malone's, it was known more of a sports-oriented, establishment which served mainstream, marcobeers to a burger & chicken-wings-eating, twentyandthirtysomething crowd. It was a place no self-respecting beer aficionado would ever be caught dead, but this has quickly changed in the past few months. As I sat and chatted with Steele over a few jars, I noticed a few familiar faces from the local craft beer community seated around Malone's enjoying the great beers on offer.

Steele was expecting a backlash when Malone's made the changes but says the transition has been smooth and most of the regulars have embraced the craft beer. She states that beer sales, in dollars, are up 13%, some of which can be explained by the fact that craft beers are slightly more expensive, but Steele says she has noticed more people coming in and more beer being sold.

As an added bonus to the craft beer selection in Malone's, they have a lounge next door, which can be accessed off Seymour St, under the Syemour Cambie Hostel sign, or from inside Malone's by mounting a few stairs at the south end of the establishment and crossing a hallway. Called the Second Door, this small intimate room, which has a few tables and a few couches to lounge in, features 12 taps and over 100 bottles of craft beer. Steele says this is where you will find the "real beer nerd beers" such as the BrewDog Tokyo Imperial Stout I shared with Steele and a few others. There are plans to install a beer engine in the Second Door lounge so that cask beer will be on tap permanently.

Probably even more improbable than Malone's joining the ranks of craft beer only establishments is the fact that Steele and the Cambie Malone Group are also converting the infamous Cambie Hotel to a craft beer venue. You won't find Brew Dog or any fancy Belgian lambics there but if Steele has her way, the long-established hangout for the Gen X, grunge-loving lager drinkers and world travellers staying in the attached hostel, looking for a cheap pint of whatever, will be craft-beer focused with a more local-BC flavour. The conversion has already began, with all the Granville Island taps being replaced with Russell Brewing Co beers. The existing tap lines have undergone an ``aggressive tap cleaning`` and new lines are being put into place with the hopes of having local BC favourites like Red Racer, Howe Sound and Phillips on tap, although Steele does admit nothing has been confirmed.

I see this as the beginning of the next big wave of changes to our beer-drinking landscape here in Vancouver. It has already started with groups like the Donnelly Group featuring craft beer in some of their establishments where craft beer has not been traditionally offered. Now with places like Malone`s and The Cambie getting all crafty, if the moves works out for them, it won`t be long until other establishments start to see the dollar signs and follow suit. I`m not suggesting that every bar and restaurant in the city will be serving craft beer, but I think, in the next few years, you will see craft brews on offer at many more pubs and restaurants.

I personally don`t care how the craft beer gets into more places or what motivates owners and managers to serve it as long as it is available and served properly. With knowledgeable people like Steele in charge, proper handling of the beer is not going to be an issue, but for others who are not up to speed in regards to craft beer styles, proper handling, etc, there may need to be some education supplied to those pouring and serving our beers. There is no use in ordering a great IPA if it is served over-carbonated in an ice-cold, frosted glass! This is where groups like CAMRA can become valuable, supplying this education and helping bars and restaurants handle and serve their beer properly and with some knowledge as to what exactly they are serving.

As consumers, this expansion of the craft beer market is great news. As more places feature craft beer, our choices of where to go to enjoy a pint obviously grows. And as craft beer is offered in places that traditionally have served mainstream beers, more people will be exposed to craft beer and will drink it on a regular basis. If you pour it, they will come! This is turn helps the local breweries grow and prosper and hopefully more craft breweries will open as the market grows and is able to support them. We still have along way to go, but with places like Malone`s and The Cambie serving up craft beers, the Vancouver craft beer scene is definitely heading in the right direction.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Why Are Craft Beers Found in Restaurants More Often Than Pubs?

This post was first published at as a part of their BeerFile series last week. Check out the other great articles and posts on OpenFile Vancouver by clicking on the link above.

Traditionally, “going out for a pint or two” means meeting at a local pub with friends, but that is not necessarily so for Vancouver’s craft beer aficionados. There is a small but vibrant craft beer culture in the city, and a surprising majority of Vancouver’s discerning beer drinkers gravitate, more often than not, to one of the many craft beer-focused restaurants when going out for a night on the town.
Arguably, the two major “go-to” craft beer establishments in Vancouver are the not-to-be-missed Alibi Room, located on the eastern edge of Gastown, and Commercial Drive’s St. Augustine’s Craft Brew House and Kitchen. Both establishments have world-class craft beer selections and are operating with a food-primary license, more commonly known as a restaurant license, which indicates the licensee’s primary focus is food.
Although these two eateries (both of which have great menus that complement their beer lists brilliantly) are the dominant two craft beer spots in town, they are relative newcomers to the scene. The Alibi Room began to focus on craft beer in 2006, followed by St. Augustine’s, who opened their doors in 2008 but who did not begin to expand their tap list beyond a few until July 2009. Both have taken the concept of craft beer in restaurants to the extreme, and judging by their near-capacity crowds most nights, it is a concept that has caught on.

In fact, it caught on long before these two restaurants arrived on the local craft beer scene. Even then, with the exception of brew pubs who brew and sell their own beers, restaurants had been the main supporters of the local craft beer industry. Craft beers from both local microbreweries and beyond can be found in exclusive, fine-dining establishments and local caf├ęs alike. And where you find craft beer, you will no doubt find those knowledgeable and loyal craft-beer lovers who make up the colourful Vancouver craft beer community.

In the 1980s, the early days of Vancouver's commercial craft beer scene, nearly all the beers brewed were only available as draft. This limited their sales to either pubs or restaurants. Brew pubs did not enter the Vancouver craft beer market until the mid-1990s and as mentioned before, existed mainly to promote and serve their own products.
Before then, BC beer drinkers had been limited to the bland, mass-produced, lager-style brews produced by the three major breweries in Canada. These three companies -- Molson Canadian, Labatt and Carling-O’Keefe -- had a stranglehold on the Canadian beer market.

Selling restaurants and pubs on the idea of serving beers that were unique, full of flavour, made with quality ingredients and brewed in small batches seemed next to impossible in the beginning. Other than the brewers and a few astute and forward-thinking restaurant owners, no one believed that Vancouver beer drinkers were ready for IPAs, porters, lambics and the like.
James Walton, owner and head brewer of East Vancouver’s Storm Brewing remembers how hard it was in the beginning to get his beer on tap.

“There was a lot of rejection at first,” says Walton, whose brewery’s licensee sales have consistently been over 90% to restaurants. “I was told by a lot of people at first that I could not sell my beers."
Established in 1994, Storm was part of the second wave of microbreweries to hit the market in Vancouver. They followed in the footsteps of Granville Island Brewery and Shaftesbury Brewery, who led the local charge against the big three.
“I found that the [restaurant] owners and chefs were more open to my beers and in tune with the tastes. They had a taste for variety,” says Walton.

He believes that many restaurant owners were "kindred spirits" in relation to the owners of microbreweries, since they both owned small businesses with focused concepts.
“Usually [a restaurant's concept] is one person with a vision, so they can relate to small brewery owners. They get it. They care more about what they were putting in their [customers’] glasses and realize people will come back if you give them quality,” Walton says.

Nigel Springthorpe, co-owner of the Alibi Room and Anthony Frustagli, co-owner of St. Augustine’s, both support Walton's views. Their establishments feature a staggering array of craft beers and only craft beers – the Alibi has 44 taps and three permanent beer engines to pour cask-conditioned beers, and St. Augustine’s has 40 taps.

Despite running very different restaurants, Springthorpe and Frustagli share a commitment -- to a vision and to quality -- that has been unwavering from the start, even when they met with criticism and resistance. And like Walton, they stuck to their guns, stayed the course and are now successful. This similarity in attitude between many small brewery owners and independent restaurant owners may have indeed played a big part in coupling craft beer with local eateries.

“Consistency, sticktoitiveness and no compromise,” Springthorpe says, listing the key elements that made his restaurant so successful. “I think if you try to please everybody, all of the time, you end up with a watered down concept," he says.
“At the Alibi it was a big step for us to get rid of the (great-selling) mega-beer brands. At first people were outraged if they couldn't get the ubiquitous brands they were used to seeing everywhere without even having to engage a beer list. But, we stuck to it. Through staff education we were able to guide people in other directions to product we thought they might like.”

St. Augustine’s also met resistance when they dared to offer craft beer in a sports-oriented environment.

“I can't tell you how many reviews of our place I've read online, by people who claim to be enlightened craft beer drinkers, that say something along the lines of ‘they can't decide if they want to sell good beer to the craft beer drinkers or Molson Canadian to the sports crowd’,” says Frustagli.
In spite of the critical reviews and pressure to turn off the sports on their televisions, St. Augustine’s stuck to the idea that some craft beer drinkers also were sports fans. Now the restaurant is packed almost every night, whether it's game night or not.

Apart from similarities as small business owners, Walton, Springthorpe and Frustagli also agree that cost considerations play a role in the link between eateries and craft beer. Although there has been a local craft beer explosion over the past five years or so, craft beer drinkers are still the minority and are considered a fringe or niche market. According to the latest statistics from the BC Liquor Distribution Branch Quarterly Market Review (BCLDB QMR), sales for domestic craft breweries have more than doubled since 2007, but these breweries still hold only a 15 per cent market share. That leaves 85 per cent of domestic beer sales going to the bigger, national and multi-national macrobreweries who still produce mostly alike-tasting lagers.

“Because pubs cost a million dollars or more they are often owned by corporations or other large interests, and those types of businesses generally don't play on the fringe,” says Frustagli. “They have investors that need to be paid back, profits that need to be made...they play it safe and offer what they know 90 per cent of the population will drink.”

Springthorpe echoes those thoughts about why pubs are more likely to stick with the bigger breweries.
“I think a lot of pub owners don’t just own one place, but have a lot of liquor primary licensed pubs under the same corporate entity,” he explains.
“There may be some economies of scale to be had by representing some bigger brands in not one, but several of your places. This would also put you in a position to be quite demanding with suppliers. A lot of the smaller breweries and agents can't afford and/or are not ethically willing to bend over backwards for big accounts who make all kinds of demands in order for them to carry a particular brand,” says Springthorpe.

At Storm Brewing, Walton is now leery of doing business with pubs. He has been successful many times in getting his beers on tap only to see them replaced by beers from the bigger breweries. These breweries usually offer a better deal for pubs, often breaching the law by giving pub owners free products or financial enticements to carry their brands.

“I don’t even bother anymore,” says Walton about trying to interest bars in his product. “My beer has been dropped too many times in bars because of kickbacks. It’s not worth the effort.”
Despite statistics that show total domestic beer sales to be down 9.2 per cent over the last year, sales are up for smaller breweries producing fewer than 150,000 HL (their draft sales increased by 7 per cent, while bottle and can sales are up a whopping 30.42 per cent). This has the bars sitting up and taking notice. Some bar owners are seeing the success of places like the Alibi Room and St. Augustine’s and are trying to jump on the craft beer bandwagon to lure in new customers.

“Only when craft beer proves itself as a money maker and a differentiator will the corporations jump on board, which is what we're beginning to see,” explains Frugstagli.
“As craft beer begins to take a bigger chunk of the market and further proves its profitability we'll see more and more corporations jump on board, and that will lead to more people drinking craft beer which will further prove its profitability, etc. It's a self-fuelling fire,” he says.

“I think we're already seeing changes,” agrees Springthorpe. “[It's] mostly because some pub owners or multiple location restaurant owners are seeing dollar signs when it comes to the question of selling craft beer. The big boys are seeing craft beer as a gateway to another market. I don’t think the majority will ever switch to all craft product. Right now it’s a way to get more dollars rolling in.”
Whether this new trend will continue is yet to be seen. For now, restaurants are still the prime places to enjoy local and imported craft beer. But one thing is certain: if the current trend of increased sales for craft beer continues, it's a win-win situation for local breweries and consumers.

Increased sales means increased opportunities for craft beer lovers to drink their favourite brews, and more potential for new customers to be exposed to those beers. This in turn could result in increased sales for local breweries, encouraging others to open small breweries.
And for those who had the foresight and vision to support craft beer from the start, like Springthorpe and Frustagli, it will mean continued success and sense of satisfaction that their visions and “sticktoitiveness” has paid off.