notes from the Coastal Ale Trail
I usually take some vacation time in the spring each year, typically in April. In the past I would most often end up in Portland. This year with the difference between the Canadian and US dollar, I decided against heading stateside and instead started thinking about a staycation in beautiful BC. It had been a while since I had visited my grandmother who lives near Davis Bay on the Sunshine Coast, so I decided that would be a good place to start my staycation. It only seemed logical that continuing up the coast to Powell River to visit Townsite Brewing would be the next step.
After some thought I decided I would continue from Powell River over to Courtney and Comox, and down the island to visit some of the new breweries and tap rooms that have popped up in the past two years. Over six days I visited Townsite, Cumberland, Gladstone, Forbidden, the White Whale, White Sails, Wolf, Longwood’s production facility, Red Arrow, Craig Street, Riot, Merridale, Axe and Barrel, Moon Under Water, the Drake, Hoyne, Driftwood, Phillips, Swans, and Category 12. I have only previously visited four of these places so I met a lot of new people and tried many new beers.
While I was waiting for the ferry from Powell River, I thought about a topic for this column and started thinking about my own transition into the commercial brewing world. I was hired last fall to work as a brewer and recipe developer at Foamers’ Folly in Pitt Meadows. Another homebrewer, Matt Barber, was also hired in the same capacity. The owners wanted to have brewers with a homebrew background to maximize experimentation and a wide range of styles. I recently made a collaboration beer with Dan Therien from Maple Meadows, another homebrewer turned commercial brewer. We made a Galaxy session saison for the VCBW Collaboration festival.
That got me thinking. How many commercial brewers started as homebrewers? While At Hop and Brew School, Pat Purcell from Yakima Cheif Hop Union told us that the homebrewers of today are the craft brewers of tomorrow. So I decided to inquire as I was making my way down island. It turns out that the majority of the brewers I spoke with had some experience with homebrewing.
While at Gladstone Brewing in Courtenay, I sat down with brewer Gabe Doucet to talk about the brewery and how he became involved. He told me that he started homebrewing from kits while living on Lasqueti Island. He was only seventeen or eighteen years old at the time. Twelve or thirteen years later he walked into Gladstone and started talking about brewing with Daniel Sharratt and was offered a job. I asked him about a favourite style or ingredient and he told me about Labrador tea. Labrador tea is a shrub that grows locally; he collects the leaves and adds them to his homebrews for a unique flavour.
From what I saw at Forbidden Brewing, I would bet that Michael Vincent started as a homebrewer. He has an oversized brew in a bag system using six fifty litre kettles that he picked up out of a U-brew place in Victoria. This allows him to produce 300 litres at a time. He has a large juice tote with an immersion chiller for a fermentation tank; a homebrew system on steroids built by McGuyver. The quality of his beers was much better than I would expect from such an unusual arrangement. The Saison and the Pilsner were quite good.
At Wolf Brewing I spoke with Kevin Ward about his background. He told me about helping his mother make wine at fifteen years of age in England. At first, he didn’t care for beer but by seventeen he was making beer from kits and by nineteen he was brewing all grain. He worked in the restaurant business for many years, starting up new restaurants and then selling them. His concept was concentrating on local ingredients and he would approach local breweries to make a beer for his restaurant. He took it step further by requesting that he brew the beer himself while promising to purchase the entire batch. Through this approach he had the opportunity to intern at several breweries including Hogsback and Fullers. In 2010 he moved to Canada and continued with his restaurant business. In 2013 the brewer at Wolf quit and Kevinsaw an opportunity. He left the restaurant business behind and went into brewing full time. Kevin enjoys making Bitters and ESB, but his favourite is IPA.
At Red Arrow I talked with brewer Zach Blake about his homebrew background. He started with a ton of reading and then jumped straight into all-grain brewing. It took a few batches before he had something drinkable. After sticking to it for the next two years, he had some good recipes. He still homebrews, and told me about a project he was involved with where Vancouver Island sent out some Hermans wort for homebrewers to experiment with. Zach started his professional brewing career at Gulf Island before moving to Red Arrow. He doesn’t have a favourite style but enjoyed a coffee ale he had in Seattle so much that he has tried to clone it five times. On his mind now is a Golden ale with elderberry.
At Axe and Barrel Dave Woodward told me a bit about his early days of fermenting. Dave started with kits at home before working at a U-Brew in his home town of Qualicum. At the U-Brew they would create a base mash from all grain and add extracts to the kettle. When the U-Brew sold, he decided he wanted to continue brewing and went to England to learn. He worked there for a bit before returning home. Over the years he has worked at the Whistler Brewhouse and Tofino Brewing before landing at Axe and Barrel.
If you think you might want to be a commercial brewer someday, homebrewing can be one of the ways to get some experience and knowledge. You will learn more from doing and making mistakes.
Now go make some beer!