Boom Times for Craft Beer in B.C.

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.

Gary Lohin, Central City Brewing | BCBusiness
Central City brewmaster Gary Lohin is revered by beer fanatics and last year he brought home a national Brewery of the Year award.

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. 

What is 
Craft Beer?

“Craft beer” is more a marketing term than a formal classification. About six or seven years ago small regional brewers began replacing the term “microbrew” with “craft beer,” spurring one of the most successful rebranding campaigns in recent history. The beer and the brewers didn’t change, but by associating the product with the artisan and local food scene, regional brewers connected with vast new markets.

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.”


Image: Adam Blasberg
Central City Brewing is ramping up production to
quadruple its capacity.

Central City Brewing

Lohin has good reason to celebrate. Central City Brewing was named national Brewery of the Year at the Canadian Brewing Awards in late 2010, taking home gold medals for three of its brews: Red Racer IPA, Imperial IPA, and Thor’s Hammer Barley Wine, which also won Beer of the Year. Lohin, who is revered among the province’s craft beer geeks, is also respected and admired by his fellow brewers as one of the industry’s leaders. 

Central City is about to break ground on a new brewing facility that will more than quadruple its brewing capacity to 35,000 hectolitres a year from the current 8,000 hectolitres squeezed out of its tiny brewhouse in the Central City mall. (A hectolitre, the standard measure of output in the industry, equals 100 litres.) The new brewery, which Lohin expects to be operational by the fall of 2012, will include storage space for barrel-aging and bottle-conditioning, and will allow Lohin to bottle his specialty beers, whereas currently his brews are only available in cans, on draft or in the occasional cask.

When Central City first opened next to the second-to-last stop on the SkyTrain line in 2003, craft beer drinkers barely noticed. Sure, people knew Lohin was a good brewer from his days at Sailor Hagar’s in North Vancouver, but it wasn’t until 2008 when Central City began selling its line of Red Racer brews – in various-coloured cans all featuring the same alluring illustration of a buxom lass on a retro bicycle – that people took notice. The White Ale and IPA were on everyone’s to-taste lists that summer, and before long, Red Racer IPA, in its distinctive green can, became the standard against which all other beers in B.C. are measured. SkyTrain ridership to Surrey took a decided bump as Vancouver’s beer geeks started making regular pilgrimages to the pub for brews that weren’t available off-site: a nitrogenated stout; Extra Special Bitter (which was finally released in cans last year); and specialty brews, including an authentic Czech Pilsner, a powerful Imperial IPA and an even more potent barley wine aptly called Thor’s Hammer.

Image: Adam Blasberg
Kegs of Central City Brewing’s Red
Racer beer.

Lohin says Central City can’t come close to meeting demand for its brews. “We’ve actually had distributors from the U.S. saying, ‘I’ll send you some empty kegs. Fill them and send them back,’” he recalls. He reports reluctantly turning down a request from Earls Restaurants to supply its chain of restaurants in B.C., and says the Liquor Control Board of Ontario offered to stock his beer in all of its stores, but he could only spare five pallets of the IPA this summer, which the LCBO planned on selling as single cans for a marked-up price.

With demand for craft beer outstripping supply, Lohin says there is a good camaraderie among the province’s brewers, but with a dash of healthy competition. “Everybody is pushing each other to make good beer; I think it’s a good thing. It’s healthy.” That said, Lohin also recognizes that Central City has to play a leadership role in the community, thanks to its burgeoning success. “We do see ourselves in that role, absolutely. We are trying to set a good example as we open up our new brewery.”

Image: Adam Blasberg
Gastown’s The Alibi Room offers 44
local brews on tap to help beer nuts
quench their thirst.

The Alibi Room

Vancouver’s Alibi Room has built a reputation as Vancouver’s mecca for craft beer lovers. On a sultry Friday evening in late July, a dozen people are waiting for tables – mostly skinny-jean-clad hipsters in their 20s. I spot c0-owner Nigel Springthorpe behind the bar, and pull up a stool next to Gerry Erith, manager of the Brewery Creek Liquor Store, known for specializing in local craft beers. I settle in next to him and we proceed to polish the bar with our elbows for the next few hours.

Once mainly a haunt for the Hollywood North set, the Alibi Room has retooled itself into B.C.’s best craft beer restaurant over the past five years, since Springthorpe advanced from employee to co-owner. “It was never really the plan,” Springthorpe admits, his accent matching his ultra-British name perfectly, “but as my own tastes changed and I started to discover the wonderful world of craft beer, I decided to explore the possibility of putting all of the best breweries, near and far, side by side in one location.” And that he did: the bar boasts a long line of 44 draft taps and three beer engines pulling cask-conditioned ales up from the cellar 

On this Friday night at the Alibi Room the crowd is young, and getting younger by the hour. Gerry Erith and I joke that the two of us, in our early 40s, are the oldest people there by far, but I have seen folks in their 50s, 60s and beyond on other visits, probably on evenings when the lineup wasn’t as long. And it’s an even mix of women and men, clustered in couples or groups at the popular communal tables.

Two women in their early 20s take the unoccupied stools next to me, and Springthorpe asks what he can pour for them. Overwhelmed by the two-page beer list they ask for his suggestions and Springthorpe offers a “frat-bat sampler” – four small glasses served on a wooden paddle for $9. I watch as Springthorpe chooses four options from the 20-foot row of taps behind the bar. In the end, he picks a stout, an IPA, a raspberry wheat and a hefeweizen, providing a nutshell description of each before leaving the two to their tasting.

These two twenty-somethings are typical of a whole new demographic the craft-beer craze has welcomed to a market traditionally dominated by men. One tells me she’s already a fan of craft beer, while the other is still experimenting. “There are so many exquisite beers out there,” she says while her friend nods in agreement. When I point out that the pair hardly represent the typical beer market demographic, she states the obvious: “That’s really changing with craft beer.”


Image: Adam Blasberg
Alibi Room co-owner Nigel Springthorpe gladly
dispenses advice for newbies who don’t know their
Tripel from their hefeweizen.

Buying beer in B.C.

While craft beer has breathed new life into the Alibi Room and a handful of others specializing in local brews, a number of specialty liquor stores have carved out a similar niche. In Vancouver, Brewery Creek was named Best Local Liquor Store by the Vancouver chapter of the Campaign for Real Ale Society of B.C. for three years running. Others favoured by beer connoisseurs include Firefly, with a location on Cambie Street and another store in Maple Ridge; Legacy, one of the first businesses to open in the Olympic Village; and others in Victoria, North Vancouver and elsewhere. 

Gerry Erith became manager of the Brewery Creek store at Main and 15th in October 2005, just a few months after it opened. Back then, he says, it was a typical “cold beer and wine store,” offering a small assortment of popular brands at a premium, mainly serving locals outside of government-run liquor store hours. 

At the time, it was a small store with only six beer fridges – and only two of those had craft beer in them. “I was finding nooks and crannies to put things in,” Erith says with a chuckle, describing how he chopped back the cashier counter at one point to add a shelf to accommodate more craft beer.

In 2008, the store expanded considerably, taking over a former massage parlour next door. Of 16 coolers in the beer section today, 11 are devoted to craft beer, along with several shelves holding single bottles of unique Belgian and North American beers that are not kept cold. 

The store’s realignment is a microcosm of the B.C. beer market. Erith explains that mainstream brands like Budweiser and Kokanee “used to pay for everything else,” adding, “They don’t any more.” And it isn’t just a newly minted crowd of craft beer geeks who have pushed this change, Erith says: “The guys who live nearby aren’t buying Kokanee anymore. They’re the ones we’ve converted. Now they’re buying west coast IPAs.” Erith points to a handful of restaurants in the area that have similarly risen with the craft-beer tide: Habit, Cascade, Slickety Jim’s, Burgoo and others. Craft beer, he says, “is the interconnectedness of what all of us are doing.”

Inside Brewery Creek, it’s clear that craft beer has not only expanded the beer market, but upped the price point. One shelf holds a wide range of bottles that sell for $15 or more, comparable to the price of a decent bottle of wine. There are several unique brews from Dogfish Head, a U.S. craft brewery that recently curtailed exports to Canada, selling for around $30 per 650 ml bottle. The most expensive bottle – a three-litre magnum of Chimay Bleue, a Belgian trappist ale – is priced at $68.75. Brewery Creek has three bottles in stock right now, and Erith says he has probably sold seven of them since the store’s expansion in 2008.

Micro and Macro Brewers 

The B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch defines as micro any 
brewery that produces less than 15,000 hectolitres annually 
(1 hectolitre = 100 litres). A regional brewer is one that 
produces between 15,000 and 150,000 hectolitres, and 
macrobrewers produce more 
than 150,000 hectolitres.

Some examples: Surrey’s Central City 
Brewing is a micro, producing 8,000 hectolitres a year; Surrey’s Russell Breweries Inc. is a regional, with capacity of 25,000 hectolitres a year; Molson Coors Brewing Co. is a macro, producing 18 million hectolitres last year.


Although Erith humbly insists that his role in the craft beer boom is minimal, he is also one of the founders of Vancouver Craft Beer Week, another bellwether of craft beer’s success locally. Inaugurated in 2010, the second annual version took place May 6 to 14 this year, featuring 50 events in venues all around Vancouver. Mayor Gregor Robertson tapped the first cask of Collaboration Beer, which 28 B.C. breweries co-created. More than 5,000 people bought tickets to 50 events – twice as many as in 2010 – including special tastings, brewmaster dinners, seminars and a two-day beer festival that closed the week with 1,350 people attending over the final two nights. 

For all of the evidence supporting craft beer’s burgeoning popularity, there are still some voices of dissent. One belongs to Paddy Treavor, the current president of the Vancouver chapter of the Campaign for Real Ale Society of B.C. He believes that B.C. craft brewers are a disjointed lot, blind to opportunities to work together for the common good of the industry. “I do think it’s booming,” Treavor says, “but I’m afraid they’re missing the boat and they’re not taking advantage of the boom.” The best place to start would be a strong industry association, he says, but the existing B.C. Craft Brewers Guild, which was formed in 1997, is largely inactive. Its website ( doesn’t appear to have been updated in years and does little other than provide a membership list, which doesn’t include such prominent craft brewers as Lighthouse, Driftwood, Howe Sound and Crannog. 

The Ontario Craft Brewers website, by comparison, offers information about its members, an interactive map, an iPhone app for finding stores, a podcast, restaurant and bar listings, recipes, events and lists classifying local craft beers according to styles, breweries, regions, awards, and even which restaurants and bars serve which craft beers. The Ontario association also lobbied the provincial government to great effect, securing $5 million in funding from the province over five years when the organization was formed in 2005. In 2008 Ontario’s provincial government announced an $8-million Ontario Craft Brewers Opportunity Fund aimed at helping fledgling breweries get off the ground.

Ontario craft brewers also have a champion in the provincial legislature: Speaker Steve Peters has hosted an Ontario craft beer tasting event annually for the past four years, in which dozens of the province’s beers are sampled by MPPs, provincial staff and special guests, who vote on their favourite brews. The winners of six categories are served in the Legislature dining room and other provincial government venues throughout the coming year. 

Ontario craft brewers also collaborate to put out the OCB Discovery Pack, featuring beers from six Ontario breweries. They even advertise together, with print ads and radio spots promoting their wares as a group. They publish an OCB Style Guide brochure listing more than 150 member brews with check boxes next to them (perfect for encouraging craft beer geeks to try them all). Finally, their beers all feature a special OCB seal, similar to the VQA symbol found on premium B.C. wines.

Chairman Tod Melnyk, who owns Tree Brewing in Kelowna, says the B.C. Craft Brewers Guild is working on several initiatives, but doesn’t have the kind of money its Ontario counterpart does. Nonetheless, he describes three initiatives that include ensuring the quality of B.C. craft beer, joint marketing efforts and working with government to explore ways of growing the industry. 

But for the moment, B.C. craft brewers are so busy scrambling to meet demand that they have little time for industry-wide initiatives. Central City’s Gary Lohin acknowledges, “We do need a more effective guild,” but adds, “I get a little sense of apathy, but I don’t know what else to do. I’ve got to run my business.”