Kazuko Komatsu, Owner and CEO, Pacific Western Brewing Ltd.

The owner of B.C.’s largest independently owned brewer doesn’t have much love for her craft-beer peers.

“They study for a few months and call themselves a brewmaster,” she says. “We are bringing in a new braumeister from Germany. It takes eight years to become a braumeister,” she says, pronouncing the word in her slow cadence. “I respect that attitude, that quality.”

It’s that preoccupation with quality that has helped Kazuko Komatsu turn Pacific Western Brewing, a blue-collar brewery best known for introducing Canadians to pull-tab cans, into a rare global success story. Under Komatsu’s ownership, the company (once known as Cariboo Brewing) has gone from near bankruptcy to annual sales of over $15 million by 2013, with almost half of that tied to the export market.

After moving from Japan to Canada in 1975, Komatsu began buying and exporting literally anything she could sell back home—everything from herring to peat moss to fashionable log homes. One of those products was Cariboo’s dry beer. But by 1990, Cariboo’s then-owners had run into serious financial difficulties; unionized employees had not been paid for months, and efforts to sell the operation to its larger competitors—Labatt and Molson—had fallen flat. Komatsu decided to pony up the cash to buy the company a year later, becoming the brewery’s seventh and longest-serving owner.

Komatsu immediately sought to bolster the brewery’s exports to Japan, pursuing ISO 9002—a certification of quality that was a near prerequisite for the notoriously finicky Japanese consumer. The effort soon paid off: at its mid-’90s peak, Pacific Western became the third most popular imported beer in Japan behind Budweiser and Heineken. While exports continue to Japan to this day, the company now also sells into the Russian, Chinese and Argentinian marketplaces, among others.

The diminutive brewery baron attributes her business acumen to lessons learned from a small circle of mentors: her father, uncle and iconic businessman Jim Pattison, who taught her the value of toughness. “Business is very tough.”

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