The B.C. beer in my glass is the result of a dream, the descendent of a revolutionary beverage concept hatched years ago by a handful of first class micro-brewery aficionados.
Golden nectar cascades from the polished chrome tap, gurgling to the brim of a tall sleeve. The bartender sets it down on the hardwood countertop. I raise the sleeve to my lips, tilt and receive a mouthful in return. If beer could have a texture, this one has a satin character with a flowery hop finish, and as the cool beverage slides down my throat, I’m assaulted with an array of flavours that might elicit the kind of descriptive prose usually reserved for sommeliers. It tastes like something that was brewed with care and attention, a libation best enjoyed slowly, pondered and savoured, rather than inhaled mechanically while watching hockey or monster trucks down at the speedway. The beer in my glass is the result of a dream, the descendent of a revolutionary beverage concept hatched years ago by a handful of beer aficionados that included Paul Hadfield, proprietor and one of the founders of Spinnakers Pub on Victoria’s Inner Harbour. A revolution in beer brewing has been underway in B.C. and elsewhere in North America since the early 1980s, when Victoria’s Hadfield and another hophead named John Mitchell – the founder of the short-lived but pioneering Horseshoe Bay Brewing – and a handful of like-minded beer enthusiasts decided the public needed more choice in the beer market. Today the world of beer is a diverse ecosystem, full of unusual species like honey browns, organic wheats and hemps, and even more obscure and rare life forms. However, 25 years ago, when Hadfield, an architect by trade, Mitchell and a few other beer lovers hunkered down in a friend’s basement ruminating about the generic state of Canadian brewing, O’Keefe Extra, Old Stock was about as exotic as beer got. The landscape was completely dominated by big, lumbering dinosaurs that churned out a homogenous breed of carbonated stuff loosely dubbed Canadian lager.“John Mitchell brought a suitcase of beers back from Europe and we sat around and tasted them, as well as some homebrew.” Hadfield recalls. “Here was a whole range of flavours that B.C. didn’t have access to and some of the best beer was our homebrew, so we knew right away that we had the ability.” Just as Fidel Castro and his entourage of revolutionaries clandestinely planned to overthrow a Cuban dictatorship, Hadfield and Mitchell plotted a craft-brewing incursion into the world of mainstream beers. They may have had no illusions about overthrowing the big boys, but when they decided to open a pub that brewed its very own beer and served quality food to boot, they hoped to at least shake up the industry a little. It was also more than a tad self-serving – these boys wanted the chance to drink a wider variety of beers. A pub with tasty beer and gourmet food: It was a blasphemous concept without a Canadian prototype, and completely uncharted territory. Remember, back then, B.C. was still bogged down in the obsidian dark ages of the drinking establishment. Beer on tap was unerringly too fizzy and bland or just plain flat, pub menus consisted of suspicious items that looked as though they had been bobbing in a jar of brine since opening day, and the sour odour of nicotine and spilt beer oozed from filthy carpets pockmarked with cigarette burns. “When we talked about opening a pub, the government wanted to know where the windows would be and the location of the stage where the dancers would take their clothes off,” remembers Hadfield with a laugh. Hadfield and company were determined to eschew this worn-out, unsavoury model, and do something innovative, loosely based on the friendly Irish village pub, but with a certain effervescent West Coast je ne sais quoi. In 1982, Spinnakers Gastro Brew Pub was born and so, too, was a revolution. The concept, which now seems as Canadian as Saturday night hockey, was to serve quality beer and food in a convivial environment. Today, brew pubs with gourmet menus are regular fare in the food and beverage industry, and at last count there were 30 craft breweries in the province, in communities as diverse as Yaletown, Vancouver and Revelstoke in the shadow of the Selkirk Mountains. But exactly what is a craft brew? If the stuff that froths from the pumps at Molson and Labatt is the mass-produced but rock-solid, reliable and predictable economy K-car, craft brewers like to position themselves as the horse and buggies of the business – not always winners, but invariably adventurous. Hopheads often cite the anachronistic Bavarian Purity Law of 1516, which states beer must be brewed with the traditional natural ingredients of barley, hops and water – without preservatives, the way it was historically brewed. It may be one of the oldest consumer protection laws on the books, and today the law lends a grandfatherly, authoritative tone to a marketing campaign, a way for some modern brewers to distance themselves from those that use preservatives and substitute barley with sugar, rice and corn. The truth is, exotic – some might say heretical – ingredients such as honey, blackberries and even coffee are finding their way into beer recipes, impurities that would make medieval Bavarian brewmeisters roll over in their graves. [pagebreak] Make no mistake: the big brewers still own the majority of Canada’s 20-million-hectolitre beer market (one hectolitre, or 100 litres, roughly equals 24 cases of 12 bottles), which contributes more than $13 billion to the Canadian economy annually. At 2,664,513 hectolitres a year, British Columbians place a respectable third in the Canadian beer-swilling contest. Though craft breweries, defined loosely as those that produce up to 300,000 hectolitres a year, account for less than 10 per cent of the beer market, there’s no doubt these flavourful upstarts have shaken up a brewing industry that was traditionally as staid as a Presbyterian preacher. There’s no question the B.C. beer revolutionaries have travelled a perilous road over the past two decades, one littered with the tombstones of at least 15 deceased craft breweries. According to Hadfield, it’s been a battle for small brewers like Spinnakers to get any respect from the outset. Overcoming consumer reluctance to try new products was one thing, but they also faced ambivalence at the government level. Efforts to lobby the feds for a break on excise taxes (basically a tax on production) similar to those enjoyed by craft brewers in other countries have, until recently, been met with resistance. “When it comes to brewing beer, it’s all about economies of scale,” Hadfield says. Craft brewers say it costs them, on average, $260 to produce a hectolitre of beer, compared to $128 for the big brewers. That’s why the big boys like Labatt and Molson hold a critical advantage in the market. At the provincial level, Hadfield says, in the early years even getting a craft brew product through the doors of the Liquor Distribution Branch was like trying to brew beer without water. He claims that big brewers, who pour huge tax revenues into provincial coffers, have traditionally wielded powerful influence over which brands appeared on liquor store shelves. However, that’s slowly changing as provincial liquor stores begrudgingly bend to consumer demand. “Our beer portfolio managers try to reflect consumers’ tastes, but we’re obliged to stock brands that sell,” Katherine Jeffcoat, of the LDB communications department, told BCBusiness. Today, a quick glance at the diversity of beer offerings at your average LDB outlet indicates strange brews are selling. Over at Dix BBQ and Grill on Beatty Street, the beer renaissance is in full bloom. It’s a busy Thursday night at this Yaletown brewpub, just a short swagger from GM Place. It’s also the weekly cask ale night, an informal celebration of traditional brewing. Before the days of artificial carbonation, beer went through a secondary fermentation in wooden casks called a firkin (roughly nine imperial gallons) and was served fresh from the cask. The wooden firkins have now been replaced by stainless-steel casks, but the principles of natural ingredients and fermenting processes remain the same for craft brews, and Dix is doing its part to keep the tradition alive. On tap tonight is a double-hopped India Pale Ale, and I’m sitting around with a couple of beer aficionados and members of the Vancouver chapter of CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale). These are the geeks of the beer world, the hopheads who love quaffing and talking about frothy beverages, and it becomes quickly apparent that even connoisseurs of craft beer slur after having a few. Back in the early 1970s in the U.K., a coalition of pugnacious beer drinkers decided to form CAMRA, a vocal consumer backlash against the increasing corporate horizontal integration and homogenization of the beer industry that was killing the neighbourhood brew pub. CAMRA soon blossomed into one of Europe’s largest consumer advocacy groups, and the organization has now secured toeholds in Canada with chapters in Vancouver, Victoria and a handful of other B.C. cities where beer is cherished. CAMRA members are the folk who bring us the Great Canadian Beer Festival, an annual celebration of fine beer that was humbly launched in 1993 in Victoria as the Microbrewery Festival, before morphing into the large beer bash that it is today, held every October. “We’re basically a collection of beer enthusiasts. I’m sure some of us would be considered beer snobs,” says Warren Boyer, the candid and loquacious president of CAMRA ’s Vancouver chapter, which at last count numbered 35 members in good standing. “The stuff that what we call the macro-brewers produce is just a dumbed-down version of European lager. There’s just so much good beer on the market now. Why would you drink that stuff?” Sleeves are replenished with cask ale, which slops judiciously onto the table, and then we’re joined by Dix brewmaster Tony Dewald, an animated character with a close-cropped head of thick silver hair. Three years ago, when the Mark James Group opened its latest brew pub Dix, he was recruited as brewmaster. “There’s way more acceptance out there for esoteric, alternative beers nowadays. It was like alternative music in the 1980s. We shared knowledge with each other and tried to change tastes one person at a time. Nobody was brewing cask ale when I came to Vancouver, so I wanted to offer something a little different,” Dewald explains. [pagebreak] Forever traversing the textured landscape of beer, Dewald tries to brew a different type of cask ale every week. He counts himself among the beer connoisseurs, but he’s also a little more diplomatic than some of the CAMRA folks sloshing around the pub this evening. “There’s room to drink and experience many, many kinds of beer and for some people that might be Molson,” he says. These days, the little brewers in B.C. have much to raise their mugs about. Up until recently, Ottawa had refused to budge on the excise tax issue. However, just this spring good news arrived for craft brewers, couched in the new Conservative government’s federal budget, which announced excise reductions of as much as 90 per cent. Jim Brickman, chair of Brick Brewing and co-chair of the Canadian Association of Small Brewers, hailed the announcement as the beginning of “a rebirth of Canada’s 350-year-old brewing heritage” that will “add fuel to our craft brewing renaissance.” Though the amount handed over to the feds pales in comparison to what the provincial government collects with its volume-based flat tax (as high as $1.63 a litre for brewers that produce more than 100,000 hectolitres), it’s given a welcome boost to a vulnerable sector of the brewing biz. Buoyed by the newly announced tax cuts, B.C. brewers are also starting to win accolades from experts beyond our borders. At last April’s annual World Beer Cup, held in Seattle, Shaftesbury’s Cream Ale and R & B Brewing Co.’s Raven Cream Ale snagged first and third respectively in the English dark milds category. Down at R & B’s False Creek brewery, the suds are flowing happily. Owners Rick Dellow and Barry Benson are still buzzing from the beer championships, and say the recently announced excise-tax cut is a long-awaited shot in the arm for small brewers like R & B, which brews less than 2,000 hectolitres a year. When the new tax regime goes into effect, R & B will hand $1.40 per 50-litre keg over to the feds instead of the $14 a keg it has been paying, representing annual savings of roughly $50,000. Already, R & B’s owners are planning to boost production, with two new fermenters and several more storage vessels. “The savings will translate into more jobs and more production in the craft brewing industry,” Benson says. Dellow and Benson are both veterans of the brewing industry; they’ve seen the corporate and the grassroots. Benson started as a homebrewer, then worked at Molson, where he graciously says he learned the value of consistency and quality, before becoming a beer consultant with his partner Dellow, helping people establish brew pubs in the Lower Mainland and beyond. They later teamed up again to form their own brewing company and R & B Brewing Co. turned out its first keg in 1997. Recognition at the World Beer Cup only proves that they’re on the right track. “It’s a pretty prestigious competition, and it’s not one of those events where everyone gets an award,” says Benson about the World Beer Cup, which has 85 different categories and judges more than 2,000 entries from 540 breweries in 56 countries. “It’s definitely a passion for beer that got us here,” Benson says. To be fair, the big brewers haven’t exactly been asleep at the taps when it comes to keeping abreast of evolving beer tastes. Labatt Breweries, which was gobbled up in 1995 by Belgium’s Interbrew (now InBev) for $2.7 billion, counts 35 different beers in its stable. Among them are self-promoting, lucrative little brands such as Lucky Lager that have an almost mystical appeal and status in some B.C. towns: gold in the bank for Labatt. Its partnership with InBev, one of Europe’s largest breweries, has allowed Labatt to bring beers such as Hoegaarden and Boddingtons to the Canadian market, helping “to meet the increasing demand and popularity of premium specialty beers,”according to the company’s website. The notion that upstart little brewers have helped keep the big boys on their toes brings a smile to Paul Hadfield’s face; it’s just another small success for the revolutionary hopheads. Back at Spinnakers, the after-work crowd starts to trickle in. Boats ply the waters of Victoria’s Inner Harbour and pedestrians stroll the quay that winds its way toward downtown. In many ways, Victoria is to Canadian hopheads what Vatican City is to Catholics, and Spinnakers is Canada’s Holy Grail of ale. With its decidedly British heritage, Victoria and its citizens are still viewed as the purveyors of fine beer tastes in Canada, the place where the renaissance was born. Even Vancouver brewers like R & B’s Barry Benson admit people often look across the Strait of Georgia to gauge the state of beer in Canada. “It’s nice to know that some of the hopheads that visited Spinnakers back in the early days went on to open their own brew pubs. A whole branch of the craft brew tree can be traced back to Victoria,” Hadfield says. I finish my sleeve and decide to order another, doing my part to support the beer revolution.