RAW TALENT | Matt Phillips in front of his new Phillips Brewing malting facility
B.C.’s preeminent craft brewer expands his local footprint with a new maltworks
For a good example of what it means to bootstrap, consider the case of Matt Phillips. In 2001, the then-27-year-old decided he wanted to open his own brewery and went to several banks in search of help. They refused to give him a loan, so he maxed out every credit card he could get his hands on. He lived in the small Esquimalt brewery for the first couple of years, showering at a nearby gym, and did everything himself: he was brewer, keg washer, salesman and deliveryman.
Although Phillips Brewing does not release its revenues or production levels, the B.C. Liquor Distribution Board’s most recent financial statements show the brewery sold more than
in beer in 2013/14–which, according to one estimate, amounts to more than
hectolitres of beer produced annually.
From those humble origins, Phillips has turned his eponymous Victoria-based brewery into one of B.C.’s largest craft breweries, selling to more than 600 accounts across Canada. In 2012, Phillips also began selling its own sodas, and in 2014 launched a distillery, the Fermentorium, which produces boutique Stump Gin and Hop Drop Elixir hop liqueur. Whisky is currently aging in barrels for the minimum three years before it can be sold. And as of September, the 53-employee company is in the malting business, after opening its own maltworks behind the brewery.
For Phillips, getting into malting is all about getting closer to the raw ingredients that go into his products. “You can’t make great beer without great ingredients,“ he says. About 25 smaller-scale maltsters have recently emerged in North America, and another 20 or 30 are in planning, but no other brewery in Canada malts its own grains.
For those not in the know, malting converts the starches in raw grains into sugars that can then be fermented by yeast during the brewing process. Barley is the grain most commonly used in brewing, but wheat, rye and oatmeal are also found in some recipes. Malted grains are also necessary for distilling, and provincial legislation around craft distilling gives a significant tax break if all the ingredients come from B.C.—another important factor for Phillips.
Phillips’s malting facility took two years to build, from design through construction, and cost more than $1 million. It features two 50-tonne grain silos and four 20-tonne malt bins, producing 18-tonne batches of malt in about a week. Since 2014, the brewery has purchased about 340 tonnes of raw barley and wheat from local farmers, which represents about 30 per cent of its malt needs over the next 12 months. Eventually, Phillips hopes local farmers will grow enough grain for all of his brewing and distilling needs—but until then he will purchase grain from elsewhere to fill the gap.
“Malting plugs into so much of what we do,” says Phillips, who is looking forward to tasting his own beer made with locally grown and malted barley. As for what drives him, he says it’s more about a commitment to stick close to his roots than any financial consideration. “There’s not a really good business argument for it. It wasn’t a good business argument to start a brewery in the first place, either, but it’s worked out.”