B.C. craft brewers can’t keep up with demand as the craze for all things local sparks a staking rush in the race to claim the hearts and minds – and wallets – of a whole new beer demographic.
When the doors open at 11:00 a.m., there is already a lineup in front of the Central City Brewing Co. brewpub, beside the main entrance to the Central City shopping mall in the heart of Whalley. Men and women, young and old, hand over their $30 prepaid tickets, collect a tasting glass, and then go in search of the event’s focus: cask ale.
Spread throughout the spacious restaurant are stations of three or four firkins – aluminum, barrel-shaped casks that hold about 40 litres of beer. Two dozen unique, cask-conditioned beers are on tap, representing as many breweries. Most are from B.C., but some have travelled from Washington, Oregon and even northern California. Over the course of this rainy early summer afternoon, a sold-out crowd of 300 will taste some, or perhaps even most of the beers, paying $1 per sample after they’ve used up the three tokens included in the ticket price.
Cask ale is the holy grail for craft beer lovers. It undergoes a secondary fermentation, which expands and deepens the malt and hop flavours. The resulting beer is usually richer and more complex than typical beer from a keg or bottle. Brewers often experiment by adding something special to the cask or by testing a new recipe.
Craft Beer in B.C.
Craft beer is a growth industry in B.C. Over the past five years, microbrewers’ sales through the Liquor Distribution Branch (through which all beer flows) have doubled from about $56 million in 2007 to $111.5 million in the 12 months ended March 2011. And beer drinkers are increasingly swapping their Labatts and Molsons for local brews: microbreweries’ slice of the beer pie in B.C. has grown from 6.4 per cent in March 2007, to 12.7 per cent as of March this year.
Surrey’s Central City is one of the dozens of B.C. microbrewers riding the wave. Brewmaster and co-owner Gary Lohin says the company’s revenues have grown from $650,000 in 2008, when it had just started selling its full line of Red Racer beers outside the brewpub, to a projected $3 million this year. The impact of this boom can be seen all across the beer industry: not only are new breweries popping up with regularity, but restaurants specializing in local beer are doing brisk business, as are private liquor stores catering to the demand for B.C. beer.
Some of B.C.’s oldest and newest craft breweries are represented at Central City’s cask tasting. Spinnakers and Swans brewpubs in Victoria date back to the 1980s; Tofino Brewing, which opened just a few months ago, is offering its new India Pale Ale; and Coal Harbour Brewing, which isn’t even fully open yet, is on hand with a test batch of brewmaster Daniel Knibbs’s Pandora’s Box Rye Saison, brewed with yeast he propagated from a bottle of Fantôme Printemps, which he describes as “the best Belgian saison in the world.”
There are some very unusual concoctions: Tofino’s IPA is infused with hand-picked spruce tips; Vancouver’s punk brewery, Storm Brewing, has prepared a cask of potent (and tooth-achingly sweet) Root Beer; and Salt Spring Island Ales has added stinging nettles to its Whale Tail Ale for the occasion.
It’s hard to say what the nettles add to an already tasty brew, and the same goes for Tofino’s IPA – is that spruce I’m tasting, or the pine-like flavour of the hops? In any case, both are my favourites from the day, along with Knibbs’s Rye Saison and Belle Royale, a fruit beer made with sour cherries by Victoria’s Driftwood Brewing.
Lohin is on hand at the Central City tasting, and I point out to him that some patrons may have spent the entire afternoon at his brewpub without even tasting any of his beer. Tall, straight-backed and fit at 50 thanks to the mountain-biking addiction he acquired growing up in North Vancouver, Lohin chuckles in response. “You’re right,” he says, looking around at the crowd. “It’s a very collaborative atmosphere, all about celebrating the beer.”