When the contemporary craft beer revolution began back in the early 1980s, it was led by styles that hailed from the British brewing tradition: pale ales, stouts and bitters. This was no surprise given the heritage of B.C.’s craft beer pioneers, Frank Appleton and John Mitchell, both from the U.K.
When the two joined forces to build B.C.’s first microbrewery in Horseshoe Bay in 1982, the first beer they produced was a bitter styled after Fuller’s London Pride. And when Mitchell went on to help start up Canada’s first brewpub, Spinnakers, in 1984, his stable of beers included a pale ale, ESB, dark ale and stout. No lagers or IPAs in sight.
Granville Island Brewing, which opened the same year, launched with Island Lager, a German beer that was intended to outclass the big breweries’ products at the time and was priced to compete with import beers from Europe. Island Pacific Brewing (which later changed its name to Vancouver Island Brewery) began with Piper’s Pale Ale and Islander Lager, adding Hermann’s Bavarian Dark Lager (a German Dunkel) a little later.
Over at Okanagan Spring Brewery, which opened in Vernon in 1985, the German-born founders did brew a lager, but they decided a pale ale would better appeal to West Coast beer lovers more familiar with the English tradition. Okanagan Spring Pale Ale became the most popular and widespread beer in BC by the early 1990s, thought it was technically an Altbier, a German style that uses an ale yeast.
What about India pale ale, which would arguably become the flagship beer of the craft beer movement by the mid-2000s? Mike Tymchuk, co-owner and brewer at Cumberland Brewing, who was one of the early brewers at Spinnakers from 1987 to 1989, doesn’t remember making one there. “It might have been popping up towards the end. It was cold and bubbly, but it wouldn’t have been very strong.” South of the border, the earliest example of a craft IPA was Bert Grant’s IPA produced by Yakima Brewing in 1983. But this was more in the British tradition; the first true West Coast IPAs that featured huge amount of hop varieties grown and developed on the West Coast did not appear before the early ’90s. The first BC versions showed up around the same time.
So who brewed the first West Coast IPA in B.C.? If you polled folks in the craft beer industry who can remember that far back, the results would likely be split 50-50 between Gary Lohin, currently the brewmaster at Central City Brewing, and Bill Herdman, currently brewing at Big River Brewpub in Richmond. Back then, Gary was the brewer at Sailor Hagar’s Brewpub in North Vancouver, and Bill was brewing at Tall Ship Ales in Squamish. The two often compared notes as home brewers in the ’80s.Herdman says he brewed a draft version of Tall Ship IPA in 1993, and a bottled version followed a year later in 1994. Lohin says he brewed his Bengal IPA, which had a tiger face on the label, at Sailor Hagar’s in 1994.
And how hoppy were they by contemporary standards? “They were big at the time,” Lohin says, “but we didn’t have the hops we do now. We had Cascade but I didn’t use much, because I thought they were overused.” He remembers using Centennial mainly, which he doesn’t think other brewers used much at the time.Herdman says Tall Ship’s version mainly used English hops, Kent Goldings, along with Chinook “to punch it up.” It ran to 7.5% ABV and was first released in single-sale 500ml bottles, then later in regular six-packs, but the brewery closed after a few years.Gary Lohin kept brewing IPAs when he opened the Central City Brewpub in 2003. His Red Racer IPA, which was launched in cans in 2008, really brought the West Coast IPA into public awareness, blazing the trail for Driftwood’s Fat Tug IPA, which was first brewed in 2010 and has since become the most popular and well regarded IPA in B.C.In 2010, Iain Hill won Best in Show at the BC Beer Awards for the Brick and Beam IPA he brewed at Yaletown Brewing. Now the brewmaster at Strange Fellows Brewing, he gives the credit to David Woodward, who was brewing at the Whistler BrewHouse at the time and is now in the process of opening the Loghouse Brewpub in Langford.
Hill says, “Dave had been paying attention to Vinnie at Russian River Brewing [in California] who was talking about this warm dry-hopping method. He tried it and then I tried it. Even Gary [Lohin] wasn’t warm dry-hopping at the time.” Hill says that method, which extracts “tons more flavour” from the hops, is standard practice in the industry now.
If you’re wondering about Storm Brewing’s James Walton who always seemed to be blazing trails with new styles, he says he considered brewing an IPA when he first opened in 1994, but thought Tall Ship was doing one well and he didn’t want to step on their toes. After Tall Ship closed, he “waited a suitable mourning period” and then introduced Hurricane IPA, which Storm still brews today. He admits the original was not very well received, partially because he dry-hopped every keg, which sometimes left chunks of hops floating in pint glasses. He laughs at the memory of Steve Forsyth, then at the Railway Club, balking at the sight, saying he couldn’t sell it. Forsyth recently opened Off the Rail Brewing in Vancouver, which lists three IPAs on its website, though none, presumably, with chunks of hops floating in them.