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...   

Monday, January 14, 2013

A Look Forward to 2013

Now that 2012 is in the rear view mirror it is time to start looking forward to see what is in store for 2013 for the BC craft beer consumer. The past few years has seen the BC craft beer scene explode but I believe that what has transpired has just been the warm-up for the main event which will totally change the craft beer landscape here in BC over the next few years.

Okay, I will now put on my funny wizard hat, look into my crystal ball and channel my inner Amazing Kreskin to see what is in store for 2013 for BC craft beer consumers with a special focus on the Vancouver area as that is where I am based...

Changes to Laws in the Works
As I announced a few weeks back, it looks like the tied house and trade practice laws are going to be erased from the books and according to the intel I am getting, these changes are happening ASAP. How these changes, if they do indeed occur, impact the craft beer consumer is a point of heavy debate among those involved in the craft beer industry.

Tied Houses: In one camp there are those who believe allowing alcohol producers (i.e. breweries, wineries and distilleries) to also own distribution points (i.e liquor stores, pubs, clubs, restaurants) will allow for deep pocketed producers to buy up distribution and sell only their own product limiting the smaller, less financially able manufacturer from being able to get their products to their adoring public. In the other camp, some believe that by eliminating the tied house laws, consumers will have greater choices, especially in smaller markets, as manufacturers will then have the opportunity to create their own places to sell their wares and licensees will have the opportunity to get into the manufacturing game, producing unique alcoholic treats for their establishments.
Trade Practices: Again, there is one camp that believes that giving deep pocketed alcohol manufacturers the chance to basically buy shelf and tap space or allowing licensees to sell tap and/or shelf space to the highest bidder will cut down on consumer choice as money will dictate selection, not consumer desire-demand. Some also say this practice will drive up prices as manufacturers are forced to pay licensees for the right to sell their products. Others believe that changing these types of laws will have no impact because bribery is alive and well and a common practice here in BC.

To be perfectly honest, these laws (both tied house and trade practice but more so the latter) are being ignored and regularly circumvented in the BC beer industry so it is hard to say if making these common practices legit will really impact things. I think here in the big city, where craft beer has a strong hold, we will not see much change, but deregulating may stop to craft beer craze from growing as quickly in the smaller markets.

Another change to the liquor laws I think we are likely to see sooner than later is one that will allow breweries and distilleries to have licensed lounges and special events areas similar to those that wineries have been allowed for years.You can read about the proposed changes here. These changes are being highly anticipated by many and should allow for a lot more opportunity for craft breweries to market themselves and offer their beers right on-site. It will also allow for smaller, nano-style breweries to operate both in the bigger urban centres and smaller communities without having to worry about packaging or getting their beer to vendors. It might be time to start looking for growler companies to invest in as I think the current growler market, which Barley Mowat writes about here,  is going to take off and explode.

But without a doubt the biggest event in 2013 that will influence whether there are major changes in store for the craft beer consumers of BC is the Provincial Election, slated for May 14, 2013. If the current popularity polls are accurate, it looks like we are in for a change of government with the NDP Party taking the reigns for the next four years. I have heard both personally from a contact high up in the NDP party and from another source who also has NDP contacts, that if elected, the NDP will be looking at reviewing BC liquor laws. Whether this is a major review, which could result in widespread changes to laws that are hindering consumer choice, restricting consumer access, inflating alcohol prices, not supporting the growth of the craft beer industry and generally stifling good times, or just a few tweaks here and there, such as we are currently seeing with the Liberals, is yet to be seen. From what I am hearing now, pre-election, is that the NDP may be looking at a major review and fix of our broken alcohol system. I don't expect them to make that promise publicly, as it is a big one to keep, but lets keep our fingers crossed and hope that they truly have been listening to the BC public and have not just been spouting rhetoric in attacking the Liberals for not making these much-needed changes.

A sign of how healthy the craft beer industry is here in BC is the seven craft breweries that opened their doors in 2012, five of those in the Greater Vancouver area, according to Thirsty Writer Joe Wiebe's recent Urbandiner.ca article . Joe is  wired into this type of thing through his constant research on BC breweries so I am going to go out on a limb and say his list is fairly inclusive.

The upcoming year looks to see even more craft breweries open their doors in BC. By my count, there are 10, seven in the Greater Vancouver area, who have announced plans to open and I know of at least four more that are in the planning stages, including the proposed brewpub or brewery at UBC. That estimate could be conservative as I am not as in the know about things that are happening outside of The Lower Mainland-Greater Vancouver and the South of Vancouver Island.

As well, many existing breweries are also expanding their brewing capacity to keep up with demands. Central City, Red Truck and Steamworks are all in the process of building new, bigger facilities. Driftwood has just gone through an expansion at their present sight that has increased production and Parallel 49, who opened last Spring, seem to be in a constant state of expansion to keep up with the demands for their beer. I know Townsite Brewing, in Powell River, is currently installing new fermenters, which will help them keep up with demand and the list goes on and on as to who is growing and expanding. And to make sure that all this increased beer production makes it to market, I have noticed that many of the craft breweries are increasing their sales and marketing teams and attempting to enlarge their distribution areas. This is great news for those craft beer lovers who live outside the craft beer hubs of Vancouver and Victoria. Lets hope these breweries pushing the borders of the craft beer market are successful in spreading the love.

What does all this mean...well, by the end of 2013 we should have much more production of some of the great beers we already love, meaning less shortages of the most popular brews and possibilities for these breweries to expand their distribution and sales. And with the new breweries up and running we will see new beers on the market competing for your craft beer dollar and, judging by the people I know who are getting involved in the brewing end of the industry, there are going to be some great new beers available in the market competing with the already great selection of BC craft beers.

Restaurants and Pubs
It seems everywhere you go these days, at least here in Vancouver, there is at least a few craft beer options on the menu. Rarely now do I need to produce my small bottle of hop oil to tart up my macro-beer because almost everywhere I go I can find decent beer. I was even in the lounge of the Hotel Vancouver the other day and found several Phillips and Driftwood beers on the bottle list. This is great news for consumers and I do not think this trend will slow down as business folks continue to clue in that craft beer drinkers are everywhere, have money and are willing to part with it while out on the town.

In Vancouver, the two most anticipated openings for me are the Craft Beer Market, to be located in the Salt Building at 85 W 1st Ave in the Olympic Village, shouting distance from The Tap & Barrel, the Daniel Hospitality Group's (DHG) dynamite False Creek BC craft beer hangout. The Craft Beer Market is planning on having 140 taps of  draft, many of the craft variety and the DHG are planning on opening a second Tap & Barrel location near the Vancouver Convention Centre, complete with another massive patio and I am told more great BC craft beers on tap.

 The last few years has seen CAMRA Vancouver really raise their game and their profile and I do not see this trend slowing down. I spoke briefly with newly elected President Adam Chatburn at CAMRA Van's AGM and he seemed to speak my language and quickly convinced me he wants to keep on fighting the good fight and keep CAMRA focused on pushing their advocacy and education agendas. This is great news for local craft beer consumers as this upcoming year could be CAMRA's big coming out party if they can manage to get themselves to the table if the NDP do get elected and do commit to a review of liquor laws.

I have also heard rumblings that the BC Craft Brewer's Guild is possibly looking at revitalizing and getting more active and focused. I have long said it is essential that the industry get organized and advocate and lobby hard for themselves in order to get the same treatment that the wine industry does and I really do hope that the rumours I am hearing are true and that we do get a more active and comprehensive craft beer, industry-oriented association because a strong craft beer industry means more growth, which should translate into more selection and more access for consumers.

With all these positive things in the works I believe it is going to be a banner year for the BC craft beer lover. As I said at the opening of this post, I think the explosion we have seen in regards to craft beer locally is nothing compared to what is going to happen over the next few years. Exciting times to be a craft beer lover here in BC!!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

VEBBie Awards - VanEast Beer Blog 2012 Year in Review

The fog brought on by too many barley wines over the holidays has finally lifted and the synapses are once again firing so now is as good a time as any to look back at 2012 and hand out the first ever VEBBie Awards. The award winners have been selected by the VEBB Awards Committee, a committee made up of, well, me and like 99% of all awards given out, mean absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things beer-related or otherwise.

The David Slays Goliath Award
The story of independent business owner Corinne Lea's battle with the LCLB in regards to the Rio Theatre and their liquor primary license set the tone for 2012. Lea applied for and was granted a liquor primary license for the Rio Theatre so they could serve alcohol at over-19, nighttime events and then was told by the LCLB she could not show movies, any time of the day or night, whether the alcohol was locked up or not, because of a decades-old, Prohibition-era law that prohibited liquor licenses in movie theatres. The ensuing public uproar at the ridiculous decision by the LCLB caused a huge backlash that saw support coming from NDP MLA Jenny Kwan, Vancouver City Council, the media, CAMRA Vancouver and thousands of angry citizens and eventually led to the provincial alcohol portfolio being passed from Shirley Bond to Rich Coleman who, after dragging his feet and screwing around with half-measure solutions, did the right thing and allowed for alcohol licenses in movie theatres but not before making Lea suffer due to having her business basically closed down for several weeks.

Things That Make You Go Hmmm Award
This award, hands down goes to the post I wrote entitled "Politics Make Strange Bedfellows" which saw VEBB break the story that the Ontario-only-based chain of liquor outlets called the Beer Store, owned by Molson (49%), Labatt (49%) & Sleeman (2%) had donated over $150,000 to the BC Liberals since 2005. I found it quite strange as to why an Ontario-only chain of beer stores would have such an interest in the BC Liberal Party but when you look at who owns The Beer Store and the fact that the big, national breweries are loosing ground quickly to the smaller, craft breweries.....hmmmm

Jackass of the Year Award
There was a lot of competition for this award but for me, in the end, there was one person who stood head and shoulders above the rest, that being restaurateur Chris Stewart, otherwise known as the Wine Snob. I encountered Mr Stewart while out for dinner with my wife and daughter and was amazed at just how arrogant, insulting and well, downright ignorant this man was. To sum things up, he stated to me, knowing full-well I was the president of CAMRA Vancouver, that craft beer drinkers were not worth enticing to his five restaurants because those who drink craft beer only order yam fries and basically had no idea what good food was all about. 

Political Friend of the Year for the Craft Beer Consumer Award
This award goes to NDP MLA Shane Simpson who, when I made contact with as a result of my CAMRA Vancouver President duties, was the official NDP alcohol critic. Mr Simpson was kind enough to take the time to meet with myself and CAMRA Van VP Dieter Friesen and actually listened to what we had to say. During that original meeting, Shane stated he liked what CAMRA was doing and asked us to produce a top-priority list of no more than three or four issues and stated if they made sense, he would take them forward to Rich Coleman, the Liberal minister responsible for the province`s alcohol portfolio.  And true to his word he did, bringing up CAMRA`s FUSS Campaign, the Bring Your Own Craft Beer campaign and the tied house and trade practice issue in the BC Provincial Legislature. Shane also wrote several letters to both Coleman and the LCLB in support of issues brought to him by CAMRA and members of the craft beer industry and also took the time to meet with myself some of the local brewers who have their breweries located in his riding of Vancouver Hastings. 
It was also Shane who, in July, put the Provincial Liberals under severe pressure in regards to their ill-fated warehouse distribution privatization plan by making public 39 pages of documents that showed the Liberals had no plans to privatize the liquor distribution warehouse system until approached by Excel Logistics personnel, who happened to be very interested in taking over BC`s alcohol distribution as they had in Alberta ans who had hired Liberal insiders to lobby for the privatization. 

Political Enemy of the Year for the Craft Beer Consumer
Rich Coleman, that man just does not give a shit about the BC craft beer industry or the BC craft consumer...enough said.

Best Supporter of BC Brewed Craft Beer Award
This past year Tap & Barrel restaurant opened up in the Olympic Village on the south side of False Creek. Besides having a killer patio that will be the envy of every other restaurant in the city next summer, they have a great 24-tap selection of craft beers all from BC breweries! I know that the Alibi Room, St Augustine's and a handful of other establishments have more taps and a better selection, but none are exclusively BC beers. I love the fact that the Tap & Barrel gang are sticking local and letting our great BC beers take centre stage...I wish more places would follow suit.

Whistler Blower Award
Journalist Bob Mackin, without a doubt, was the single biggest reason the province's liquor warehouse distribution system did not get sold to Excel Logistics, a company that had been lobbying and Liberals for years and who had basically, using Liberal insiders, talked the Liberals into thinking it was in the government's and public's best interests to privatize. Despite the fact almost everyone but Excel and the Liberals were against the move, Coleman and the Liberals plowed forward but with his series of posts hash tagged #Liquorleaks, Mackin led the charge of protest, went at the Liberals relentlessly with some stellar investigative journalism and exposed what NDP MLA Shane Simpson called a "tainted process".

Biggest About Face Award
Due to the above mentioned Bob Mackin, Shane Simpson along with many other journalists and special interest groups, the Liberals quietly announced they were dropping privatization plans for their liquor warehouse system while announcing having reached a tentative agreement with BCGEU in regards to a new contract.This announcement, hidden in the tentative agreement with the unionized government workers came out of the blue, just like the announcement to privatize did some seven months earlier. No real explanation was ever given as to why the plan, which had been heavily defended despite huge criticism from almost everyone, was dropped like a hot potato.

Biggest Shitstorm in the Local Craft Beer Community Award
Probably the worst kept secret in the BC craft beer community was exposed by blogger Barley Mowat in his post "The Grinch Who Stole Cascadia" when he wrote about how Steamworks owner Eli Gershkovitch was attempting to stop other craft breweries from using the descriptor Cascadian Dark Ale as he had trademarked the word Cascadia some years back. This blog post caused a shitstorm the likes that have never been seen before in the local craft beer community and resulted in a ton of negative, on-line bashing of Eli, Steamworks and the evils of corporate greed. For me, the actions of Eli and his "Steam Team" were a sign of how the local craft beer community is changing as the stakes get higher and the competition grows.

Well there you have it folks, the VEBBie Awards. It has been quite a year and there has been so much to write about. I only touched the surface of what is going on in the BC craft beer scene and now that I no longer have the responsibilities of being CAMRA Vancouver President, I hope to dedicate more time to this blog and writing. The readership of the blog has really grown and the more I write, the more I get people contacting me with great story ideas and inside tips about what is going on. Keep the flow of information coming and I will do my best to do what I do, which is offer up my rantings, ramblings, ideas and opinions in relation to the politics of the BC craft beer scene.