Monday, August 12, 2013

My Tribute to a Vancouver Legend - RIP Dan

I cannot remember the exact date I met Dan Small but I do remember the circumstances surrounding our introduction to each other and unlike many in the craft beer community who are currently mourning his passing, our meeting had nothing to do with brewing beer.

It was about 12 years ago and I was working for Storm Brewing, which was located in the same building as Dan's Homebrewing Supplies at the time, at the corner of Commercial and Franklin. I was busy loading up Storm's delivery van with kegs for the day's deliveries when I suddenly heard a voice yelling angrily, "turn that shit down, I am trying to run a business over here".

It was only my second or third day working at the brewery so I had no idea who was attached to the red, angry face that was poking through a two-foot square hole in the wall that stood between Storm Brewing to Dan's shop next door. I did not blame this person for yelling, as James, Storm's owner-brewer, had German techno music cranked to ear-splitting decibel levels, as was his habit at the time when brewing, and anyone within two city blocks would have been within their legal right to make a formal noise complaint.

"Who the fuck was that, James," I asked.

"Just Dan, don't worry.," replied James. "He is always complaining about noise."

Little did I know at that time I was being screamed at by someone who would go on to be one of the most, if not the most, influential people in the home brewing and the craft beer community in Vancouver. Dan's Homebrewing Supplies is on the radar of everyone who brews beer in the Greater Vancouver area and, in my opinion, the local craft beer scene and the current craft beer craze owes a lot to Dan and his staff who have guided, advised, encouraged and supplied the majority of home brewers in the Lower Mainland. I guarantee you that many who turned their passion for brewing beer from a hobby to a profession and who are now creating some of the great local craft beers at commercial craft breweries were once among them.

By encouraging home brewers to understand the science behind brewing beer properly, helping them understand the brewing process, helping them create their own recipes and supplying them with quality ingredients, Dan played a huge role in developing more sophisticated palates among local beer lovers. Dan convinced many lager drinkers, looking to make cheap imitations of the mainstream beers they were used to drinking, into trying to brew different beer styles and once many of them experimented and tried different beers than was their norm, they never looked back

It is no coincidence that Vancouver has the biggest home brewing club in Canada and a very vibrant home brewing scene. Dan's is not just THE place to get supplies, whether you are a novice looking to brew for the first time or an expert brewer looking to create a new recipe, but it is a place to gather, meet like-minded people and exchange ideas.

Back when working at the brewery, I used to love Dan's tastings, when he would invite his customers to come bring beers they had brewed of a particular style  so that they could share with others to get feedback, tips and talk about brewing beer. Mainly it was about drinking lots of beer, but that goes without saying. I wasn't brewing at the time, but Dan usually invited me over to the shop, or let me in on the fun if he was using the brewery space. One particular tasting I remember (up to a point) was a stout tasting that included oysters to pair with the home brewers' offerings, one being a Russian Imperial Stout that were superb...I don't remember who brewed the beer but I sure remember the beer itself!

Dan and I quickly got over our rocky introduction, although his angry face would often appear in the hole between his shop and the brewery, usually with good reason, and I soon found myself spending time hanging out in Dan's store, chatting, smoking and drinking beer either from the brewery or one of the two or three kegs Dan always had tapped in the back of his shop. Our talks were often about subjects other than beer and Dan always had an opinion or a story to tell.

Many people have described Dan as crusty, grumpy  and a curmudgeon, and yes, he was all those things at times, but he was also quick with a smile, and generous with his advice, time, smokes and beer and I was lucky enough to know that Dan more than the other. He had a love-hate relationship with us at Storm, screaming at us one day and helping us out one way or another the next. One of the things I liked about Dan was you always knew where you stood with him. He was straight forward and did not suffer fools lightly. If he had something to say, he would say it.

I got to know Dan quite well during time I worked at Storm. I meet and drank beers with his brothers Tom and Bill, went see Dan play music with his band and visited him at his apartment on Union St where he lived above a friend of mine who used to drive him nuts with loud music and noise as much as James did. I didn't see him around much after I left my job at the brewery to return to school to study psychiatric nursing. I saw him a few years after quitting, just after he had relocated his shop from Commercial Drive to 692 East Hastings in the Heatley Block building. He was closing up, but he invited me in, proudly showed me around his new store and it wasn't long before we were out back smoking, drinking beer and chatting away like old times on Commercial Drive. I ran into him again last year, again in his store, when I was picking up supplies to brew up an Imperial IPA. He looked great and as usual had time to stop and chat and laughed about some of the goings-on at Storm years before that had aggravated him to the point of almost having a stroke.

That was the last time I saw Dan. Like many, I did not know he had fallen ill again until I heard the sad news of his passing. And like many, I have hoisted a few pints in his memory.

Rest in Peace Dan. Your premature departure from this world leaves a huge whole in the Vancouver brewing community. Your legacy of helping create a passionate brewing community in Vancouver will be with us for many years to come. You were one of the good guys. A straight shooter. I hope, where ever you are, there is a great home brewing supply shop so you can carry on brewing the beers you love.

And when I think of you, I will always remember our long afternoon chats where we clouded up your shop to the point of it being inhabitable and drank copious amounts of great beer.