Morgan Moreira, Ralf Rosenke and Aly Tomlin of Riot Brewing in Chemainus
To beer drinkers’ delight, B.C. is hopping with craft breweries. Cutting prices is just one way to generate buzz
The scene at Central City Brewers and Distillers’ downtown Vancouver brew pub doesn’t exactly look like something that will reverberate around the province. On this May morning, a couple of TV crews are on hand, setting up tripods while a few other journalists mill around, clutching leather notebooks. Bar staff go about their day as usual, cleaning countertops and changing taps.
In front of the cameras, Central City brewmaster Gary Lohin and vice-president of sales Daryn Medwid announce that the company will be selling its most popular brand, Red Racer beer, in 500-millilitre cans at 355-millilitre pricing for the foreseeable future.
“We’ve been making great, consistent beer since 2003; nobody can argue with that. But with the technology today, it’s not hard for lots of people to make good beer,” Medwid explains. “So you have many small competitors; they continue to open up at the bottom end of the market, they continue to nibble at your heels. And from the top end, the scale brewers like Anheuser-Busch and Molson Coors are trying to go after the craft market. So, being one of the larger craft brewers in the country, where can you go? The only thing to do is to fight up.”
It might not seem like a game-changing move—what’s 145 millilitres, after all? But there are about 140 breweries in B.C., and it’s a safe bet that every single one of them hears the news that day.
Some competitors shake their fists and playfully utter “Damn them,” while others opine that the switch devalues Central City’s product. There are even rumours that a new B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch rule on the size of single cans—meaning brewers can sell 473 millilitres instead of the usual 500—forced Central City to make the change so it could use up its 500-millilitre inventory.
But all of those rivals know that one of the province’s biggest craft beer producers is separating itself from the pack, a must for every brewery in an industry that sees more competition each year.
“You’ve got two loaves of bread that cost the same and taste the same,” Lohin says. “One’s bigger. Which one are you going to choose?” Consumers appear to agree: sales of Red Racer climbed some 40 percent in the month after the lower prices hit stores.
Welcome to the craft beer wars.
Central City brewmaster Gary Lohin and VP of Sales Daryn Medwid admire their new packaging
OK, “wars” might be an overstatement. All brewers want to get a leg up on their peers, but members of the craft beer industry have an inherent respect for each other. That’s because everyone knows that, despite the recent explosion, it’s not easy to start and maintain a brewery.
Just ask Aly Tomlin and Ralf Rosenke. The couple own one of B.C.’s newest and most heralded beer producers, Riot Brewing Co. in Chemainus. Back in 2010, the industry veterans left their Vancouver jobs and began planning to set up shop in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island.
“We did get offered money from people, but everyone was pulling the Dragons’ Den, where they wanted the 51 percent,” Tomlin recalls. “We stuck to our guns—it took us seven years, but we own 70 percent, and we have none of our own money really in it. We pulled off the magical feat somehow.”
Between finding the right place in the Valley to launch Riot and getting the required funding, the two had plenty of time to think about how they wanted their cans and bottles to look. “A lot of the branding at the time was, um, unimaginative, I’d say,” Rosenke proffers before Tomlin interrupts:
“It was fucking boring! We knew what we wanted. We’re old-school skateboarder punk rockers. In skateboarding, there’s X amount of riders, but you’re under one team. It’s like, why can’t breweries do that? Why can’t you have all these different beers that are like different decks, but you’re under one umbrella?”
After touring a few B.C. marketing firms that “all looked the same,” according to Tomlin, they went with a U.S. company that contracted the design out to Jimbo Phillips, a California artist and son of Jim Phillips, who designed the artwork for Santa Cruz Skateboards in the 1970s and ’80s and created the company’s famous “screaming hand” logo. The result is bottles and cans that don’t stand out in stores so much as jump up and slap you in the face.
“We were at one of the B.C. brewers conferences,” Tomlin remembers, “and [Phillips Brewery art director] Shawn O’Keefe just came up to me and said, ‘Dude, hands down the best packaging I’ve ever seen. You blew it out of the park.’”
It hasn’t taken long for the beer inside the colourful casing to garner attention, either. In May, Riot was the only Canadian brewery to bring home two medals at the 2018 World Beer Cup in Nashville—its dark mild and coffee lager concoctions won gold and bronze awards, respectively.
Though that success has translated into foot traffic at the brewery and sales at public and private stores—“we cannot physically keep beer in stock,” Tomlin says—it’s not like the proprietors are swimming in cash.
“It’s done what we envisioned it to do, minus the money,” she reasons. “We still don’t get paycheques, and we’re cash-strapped. So that part I don’t think anyone could have predicted, just how bad it could be.”
The town of Chemainus must be hoping that Riot stays put. The brewery has become a fixture in the area, with Tomlin serving as first vice-president of the Chemainus & District Chamber of Commerce. “I think we’ll make it and be fine,” she says. “We’re seeing great growth, our lounge is 70-percent up in capacity from last year, but, you know, with more growth comes more expense.”
IT'S NOT JUST THE BEER THAT NEEDS TO BE FRESH
Even established breweries have no choice but to keep coming up with ways to appeal to a Canadian market that, according to Central City’s Medwid, is consuming relatively the same amount of beer as 10 years ago but is increasingly trying new and different products.
In 2014, six years after launching and right in the midst of a craft beer boom, Victoria-based Driftwood Brewing Co., one of B.C.’s most popular breweries, embarked on a wholesale rebrand. The company enlisted Nanaimo’s Hired Guns Creative to dream up a new identity that would stand out on shelves.
“‘We don’t hold back’ is what we’re known for—we’re full-flavoured beer,” says Gary Lindsay, one of three Driftwood partners. “And marketing goes with that. We made a conscious decision to develop a look that no one else was doing at the time: different labels, really intricate pieces of art. As much as we’re known for the beer in the bottle, we wanted something equally fantastic on the outside of it.”
Driftwood is famous for its Fat Tug IPA, a strong, refreshing brew that has become the standard for B.C. India pale ales. The beer, which features an aquatic scene on its label, makes up more than half of Driftwood’s sales.
“When they rebranded, they really went to a kind of cool, art-inspired piece,” says Ken Beattie, executive director of the BC Craft Brewers Guild. “It’s not like traditional beer labelling at all—it tells a story.”
The sea figures heavily in Driftwood’s brand identity, but the company has also had to cultivate themes that resonate with people across the country. “We do sell our beer in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Newfoundland, so there has to be an attraction there as well,” Lindsay points out. “It can’t be exclusively Vancouver Island or West Coast. You can imply that imagery, but it doesn’t have to be so concise as to alienate others.”
Empowering the local community to trust you as a brand is one thing, and many towns and neighbourhoods in B.C. are fiercely loyal to their local breweries. But for brick-and-mortar breweries, which share the market with contract operators, the challenge becomes expanding the product while staying true to your roots.
Started in 2012 out of a small tasting room in East Vancouver, Parallel 49 Brewing Co. has become one of the largest beer brands in B.C., with product sold in the U.S., China, Singapore, Vietnam and several other countries. The company, which is always well represented at B.C. and Canadian beer competitions, marks its creations with a cast of wild, cheekily drawn characters. For example, its Trash Panda IPA features a raccoon rifling through the garbage, while a limited-edition imperial-style rye IPA called Rye the Longface showcased a well-dressed horse.
“It’s hugely important for us to not stray from what the brand was in the beginning,” says Marissa Mills, Parallel 49’s marketing manager, at the brewery’s new 150-seat tasting room. “It sounds kind of lame, but we’ve always had the same people behind it, and we’ve never lost touch with what we think is cool, and what we think is funny and stupid or interesting.”
Even as the brand has moved from being a relative outsider that “does whatever it wants” to a major player in the craft scene, Mills maintains that keeping the ingredients it was originally created with is essential. “Of course beer styles and trends change, and we obviously want to ebb and flow with the market and be on top of trends, but in our own way,” she says. “All of our characters that are on the beers, we want them to look like they’re cohesive, as part of one brand identity. But at the same time, you never know what’s going to happen next.”
LIFESTYLE FIRST, BEER SECOND
The same basic theory is in play a few blocks over at another East Vancouver shop, but Postmark Brewing takes a much different approach to keeping things fresh without losing its identity.
After launching in 2014, Postmark decided to marry a clean and simple design concept with an outdoorsy, West Coast vibe. The result has been the creation of a lifestyle brand to go along with an easy-drinking beer.
“Instead of just taking a beer and slapping a label on it and saying, ‘Drink this and you’ll feel like it’s summertime,’ we send people out to enjoy summertime activities, with the beer as an afterthought,” says Devin O’Brien, Postmark’s marketing manager. “From a marketing perspective, it’s partnering with brands and creating friendships and a natural flow around the consumption of products, which has let us grow.”
Those partnerships have been essential to how Postmark positions itself and even the beer. Special batches are made to go with events, like a Sevens IPA for the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, held in Vancouver in March, or a High Line Ale to kick off summer at Shaper Studios’ Main Street surf shop in June.
“Everyone is making good beer,” says Postmark community manager Ksenia Dempster. “So you have to kind of set yourself apart in a different way, and we are approached by a lot of different partners and events, because we make good beer, but also because we represent more than just the beer.”
A THIRST FOR NOVELTY
It’s hard to tell what strategy is best, or which is built to last. Either way, maybe there’s enough craft beer business in B.C. to ensure all of the players a long lifespan.
Beattie of the Craft Brewers Guild won’t play favourites—ask him what his preferred beer is, and his canned answer is “the one you’re going to buy me”—but he acknowledges that his job has taken on more importance lately. “It’s obviously more complex because you’ve got more members, but it’s also easier to do because you’ve got more members; there’s more people listening,” he says. “So there’s motivation to get things accomplished that benefit everyone.”
So, yes, “wars” does seem like hyperbole. Still, we could be on the cusp of a new era for craft beer in B.C.
“The consumers of today aren’t the consumers our parents were,” says Driftwood’s Lindsay. “Back in the day, one dad drank Canadian, one drank Labatt, and the other guy drank Lucky. And they would be adamant that they got that beer: ‘If they don’t have it, we’re not staying.’”
Craft beer fans don’t think that way, Lindsay notes. “They’ll grab a couple of their favourites, but they’re always going to grab a couple big bottles or tall cans of something new and different,” he says. “I think consumers are more motivated and more adventurous.”
Given that thirst for novelty, could offering more beer for the same price keep them coming back? As Central City’s Medwid said at the company’s big announcement in May, “This allows us to go after the consumer in a more aggressive way than craft beer traditionally has.”
It’s probably not long until the industry sees its next aggressive move.