Two Economies, One Province: A distillery and a grain cleaning co-op work together across B.C.

Credit: Lindsay Siu

Craft distiller Sherry Jiang

Surrey’s DRAGON MIST DISTILLERY relies on SOUTH PEACE GRAIN CLEANING CO-OP for wheat to make its spirits

Before Sherry Jiang immigrated to Vancouver in 2004, she was a physician in the northeastern Chinese city of Dalian. Deciding not to pursue medicine in Canada because it would take too long to get a licence, she also noticed that members of the Chinese community had a hard time finding baiju, a wheat-based liquor that is the most popular alcoholic beverage in her native land. So in 2012, Jiang—drawing on knowledge from her grandparents, who ran a distilling business—launched Dragon Mist Distillery

The Surrey-based company, which went to market in 2014, now makes baiju, vodka, gin and a variety of liqueurs, including blueberry and cranberry. Because it’s a craft distillery, Dragon Mist must source its ingredients in B.C. For wheat, Jiang depends on Dawson Creek’s South Peace Grain Cleaning Co-op. “We work very well together,” says the sole permanent employee of Surrey Board of Trade member Dragon Mist, which produced about 7,400 litres of spirits last year. “Whatever we need, they will give us.”

Over the years, Jiang has gotten to know Shaun Grant, South Peace Grain Cleaning’s general manager. The co-op first opened its doors in 1963, but when ex-rancher Grant took charge in 2011, he set out to diversify the business. Besides supplying feed grain to livestock producers in the Lower Mainland, the co-op began working with Dragon Mist and other B.C. craft distillers. Today its seven staff ship wheat and rye to more than a dozen, from Squamish to Penticton.  

“It’s a smaller portion of our overall business, but it’s one that we’re really excited about,” says Grant, who reckons that distillers account for about 5 per cent of gross revenue. “We think we’re going to be one of the bigger suppliers of distilling products over time.” The co-op also provides malt barley to the province’s fast-growing craft beer industry, Grant notes.

Credit: Katie Tanner

Shaun Grant, general manager of South Peace Grain Cleaning Co-op in Dawson Creek

As the agriculture sector consolidates, his outfit, which handles between 16,000 and 18,000 tonnes of grain a year, is “about as small as you can be and still be in this business,” he says. That can be a major advantage for the Dawson Creek Chamber of Commerce member, Grant explains: “The reason that we’ve been so successful with the distillers is because we’re small, and we’ll take the time to address their needs.”

Grant, who hopes that better rail access will make the co-op a larger player in the Lower Mainland feed grain business, thinks urban dwellers have become disconnected from their food supply. He doesn’t fault them for this lack of knowledge, and he predicts that the gap will close as farmers get better at telling their stories.  

“The last few years there’s been quite an effort to reach out on behalf of the rural guys to try and explain what we do,” Grant says. “Our distilling customers really had no concept of how we got this product to them and what types of planning went into this, but once you go through that with them, they understand our side of the equation.”

For Dragon Mist’s Jiang, high-quality South Peace grain will be a selling point when she eventually takes her spirits to China, where the growing middle class seeks out Canadian food and drink. But she’s in no rush to export, citing the need to perfect her packaging for a Chinese audience. 

“First, we have to make the distillery survive,” Jiang says. “Then we go further. I don’t want to overspend; then we don’t have cash to buy grain.”