Meet Chloe Smith, hailing from Saskatoon. Today, she manages a brewery with a prominent place in the BC craft beer scene. As bright young woman, she could probably have done anything she wanted in life. She always knew she didn’t want to be an accountant or something boring like that. However, the subject that piqued her interest most in high school would probably strike you as dreadfully dull: Chloe liked Chemistry.
“I was in a demographic of people who were all going to university; it was just the thing we all did after high school”, Chloe recalls. So she dutifully enrolled in Science at her home-town University of Saskatchewan, and found herself pursuing a degree in Chem. It offered something that involved practical science in a way that appealed to our young protagoniste. The future was bright, and far away. It was the 1990s.
Like many young folks who find themselves in university, Chloe wasn’t actually sure what she’d be doing with her chemistry degree after graduation. According to her, “I really did love studying it; I just really knew that I couldn’t end up working in a research lab.” Despite well-meaning suggestions by many locals her age, she knew she didn’t want to operate a meth lab for a living.
One random day during the “gee, I’ll have to get a job after this” phase, she happened to browse the local classifieds, and noticed a job posting for assistant brewer in a Saskatoon brewpub. It listed Chem as a requirement. At that point, Chloe didn’t apply; it just planted a seed that brewery jobs had something to do with chemistry, and that a chemistry degree could be used for something interesting and novel. The seed wedged itself firmly at the back of her cranium, in a manner that in hindsight it seems could not have been dislodged (thankfully, no medical implications from this).
In 1999, Chloe travelled to Europe with her best college friend. Travelling around and enjoying themselves, they were naturally drinking lots of beer (if you’ve been there, you know. It happens). Up until then, Chloe’s beer experience was fairly common for Saskatchewan, comprising good ‘ol Pilsner and other local lagers. In 1999, nobody she knew in Canada was talking about beer, but in Europe, beer culture was part of daily life. Well, it turns out that this darn seed in the back of Chloe’s head simply required European biers in order to germinate.
At some point, young Chloe happened to stumble across a classified ad in an Edinburgh newspaper for a “brewing scientist”. The young lady, thinking back to that Saskatchewan brewpub want ad, realized that she wanted to be a brewer. But that was just a silly thought, n’est pas?
Back in Saskatchewan in 2000-2001, Chloe managed to snag a job at a local homebrew store. During this period she was in full discovery mode, trying lots of beers; Chimay White Label became her new favourite. Eventually, on a second visit to Europe she paid a visit to the Chimay brewery in Belgium, a trip she describes as “the best day of my life” to that point.
There was no way to be trained as a professional brewer in Saskatchewan at that time, which frustrated her. So she simply convinced the government that they should support her education. Her approach: “either you have to build a course, or pay for me to go somewhere else and learn this.”
Don’t underestimate Chloe. She received provincial funding in order to take a five month American Brewer’s Guild course via distance learning. She remembers that it was like a homecoming. The first VHS tape was about Sensory Analysis; Chloe watched the first few minutes, and the feeling overwhelmed her: “Oh my God, this is it! This is exactly what I want to be doing with my life.”
At this point, I should mention that this is not a typical BC brewer profile. Sure, Chloe is a brewer. But that’s not her job. She doesn’t brew for a living. She doesn’t have to. You’ll see what I mean.
The last month of the course involved a one-month apprenticeship at ThirstyBear Brewing in San Francisco. She showed up at the pub one day in 2003, and the brewer told her to get in the car. They drove to the local Gordon Biersch—a US brewpub chain specializing in German/Central European beers—with a big jug in the back seat. She soon found out why, when brewers from all over the Bay area suddenly showed up with jugs of their own, and filled them with hefeweizen yeast. Everyone went home and started brewing Hef, then got together again when the brews were ready and drank them down.
She immediately understood the significance of community in the craft beer. There was no need for “this weird competition” between breweries; they actually helped each other. It was a lesson she would take to heart, and which would serve her well in due course.
One quiet day in San Fran before the apprenticeship was up, she did a bit of job-seeking. She knew she was coming back to Canada, and her goal was to live in Vancouver, Montréal or Halifax. She got job offers located in Calgary and Saskatoon, the latter at the very same brewpub that had planted that seed all those years ago. Did she jump at the chance to return to her hometown and work for this obviously nostalgic connection to the genesis of her inspiration?
Hell no. She soon got an offer from one of the best breweries in Canada, Brasserie McAuslan, and hauled her keester off to Montréal and pretty much the greatest opportunity a jobless Sasky chem major and wannabe brewer could ever be presented with. Chloe Smith got her first full-time professional job at the home of some of Canada’s most award-winning beers. She was off and running, doing shift work at McAuslan, starting in the filtration department. Her first brewing job involved 450 hectolitre tanks.
Brewing in Québec was different from brewing in California. She noticed that some of the feeling of community and camaraderie was missing; there was actual competition between breweries. The culture just wasn’t the same. Eventually she applied to the Canadian division of the French international Les Trois Brasseurs, another superb Québec opportunity. Her ulterior motive was to work for its parent company and live in France.
Fate prevented this (thanks, Fate!). Chloe showed up five minutes early on her first day in order to meet her scheduled trainer, a Belgian-born brewer named Cédric Dauchot. When he walked in, Chloe looked up. A voice inside her head spoke. “This is the one”, it said. In that interval, Chloe, sadly for France, bound herself to a future in Canada.
Somewhere between eye contact and parenthood, Cédric and Chloe got busy in other ways. Chloe was head brewer at one of the Trois Brasseurs outlets, and Cédric was overseeing expansion of brewing operations in Québec. Ms. Smith was happy with her lot at. Inevitably however, the calling of home echoed more loudly in her cranium, and her suave new beau was convinced to leave cosmopolitan Montréal and head back with his new love to frosty Saskatchewan.
There was another plan behind this move. Rather than toil their lives away at some giant corporate Brasserie (despite it being a dream job for most people), the new couple had convinced themselves that they should start their own operation. They worked from 2008 to 2010 on a brewery business plan before making the move. The plan was thorough; Saskatchewan was where they would make their mark, with their very own brewpub.
A number of years had now passed since our story began. Alberta was in the midst of an oil boom at the time, and the effects had spilled over to the neighbouring rectangular province, in the form of a rich job market and a corresponding housing deficit. Having been proactive enough to have investors lined up for their proposed business, Cédric and Chloe were actively trying to pin down some commercial real estate.
Chloe was pregnant with her first child, and things weren’t coming along according to plan. Time after time, promising locations were discarded, and their prospective investors eventually tired and moved on. Chloe and Cédric started to rethink the landlocked province as a fruitful base, and looked around for other options. Eventually, options presented themselves in the form of a start-up operation in faraway Powell River, BC.
Powell River is a classic example of a 20th Century industrial district that is finding its feet with a new direction in the 21st Century. The city area includes the original Townsite, a pulp mill company town which became designated a National Historic District in 1995, one of only 7 such districts in Canada. Its Patricia Theatre, the oldest continuously-operating cinema in Canada, is well known for its striking architecture and classic marquee. Its Old Courthouse Inn is another heritage location representative of the town’s classic era; these landmarks are now attracting a modern tourism audience.
As documented by Joe Wiebe and others, Townsite Brewing was founded by Steve Brooks and Karen Skadsheim in 2012 as a way to bring life to yet another striking old building—a former federal government office built in 1939, just down the hill from the theatre. It was also their way of helping to bring life to Powell River. Enthusiasts of Old Country pub culture and modern New World craft beer culture will agree on the important role a responsible pub or brewery can play in the fabric of a community, and Townsite became an example of that. It has been adopted by the residents who have (thanks in part to the efforts of beer fan Paddy Treavor, founder of a successful local CAMRA branch) taken to the craft beer wave with relish.
Rewind to 2011. Karen, who is no longer with the business but who was managing it at the time, was looking for the person who would fill the role of brewer in this as-yet-unopened operation. Chloe and Cédric, meanwhile, just happened to have a business plan for a brewery. Cédric’s background in opening new locations for Les Trois Brasseurs was perfect for the situation, so a connection was made, and business plans were merged. In the Fall of 2011, the couple made the trek westward to pursue their destiny. Cédric would become Townsite’s brewmaster.
Unlike most of the commercial brewers being hired in the current wave of new breweries, Cédric and Chloe didn’t homebrew. Because the couple were professional brewers, they came at the West Coast craft revolution from a different direction both literally and figuratively. They didn’t really start fooling around with recipes outside of work until they were in Saskatoon and realized that they would need to decide on a beer lineup for their business plan. Once the burden was on them to create a unique and successful product lineup in what was virtually a craft beer wilderness, the reality of flying solo truly hit home. Chloe recalls, “There was definitely a moment, right before the brewery opened, that we were lying awake at night, thinking ‘Oh my God, can we really pull this off; are we really as good as we think we are, or were we only as good as somebody else’s recipe’“.
Fortunately, their beers made the grade. In 2012, despite the fact that the craft wave was entering the peak phase it’s in now, only four breweries opened in BC. Townsite got in the door before the floodgates opened, and Cédric’s Belgian-inspired creations were immediately accepted by the local and BC-wide craft beer audience. In hindsight, his recipes might have been much more stifled in the Saskatchewan brewpub they had planned; coming to the Coast was probably a better fit.
From day one in BC, Chloe was volunteering and helping around the brewery, even though a formal job for her wasn’t really part of the plan at first. Chloe was on maternity when the brewery opened in the spring of 2012, but she was back shortly after delivery. By June 2012 she was in the brewery as a Mom, working full time around the store, cleaning kegs and drains and doing general admin work. It wasn’t the science she was trained for, but she didn’t mind. As Chloe mentioned to Lundy Dale in a Spring 2014 issue of What’s Brewing, “When I look back at my 10 years in breweries, I was always heading towards management”.
As a matter of fact, it’s caused her to realize something about herself. As a young person, Chloe had seen her university training as just a means to a job. She thought of herself as a fundamentally lazy person, at least in the sense of lacking any specific ambition. Working in the craft brewing industry as a manager has given her a set of challenges that have unlocked her problem-solving abilities and personal creativity. She realizes, “It was just a huge surprise to me when I started studying with the Craft Brewers Guild… if I’m interested and engaged in what I’m doing, lazy has nothing to do with it”.
“This is such a great industry, because you can come at it from so many angles” Smith continues. “The marketing, the sales, the brewing, the quality control; there are so many different aspects”. She relates that this job has allowed her to “dabble in science a little bit, without having to worry about applying for grants”.
She can also dabble in brewing, although she’s generally content to leave the creative direction to Cédric. Her most tangible contribution in this area is Townsite’s fourth beer, Suncoast Pale Ale. In the beginning, the couple had planned three beers: a Belgian golden ale (Zunga), a balanced IPA (Tin Hat) and a porter (Pow Town). Ownership was nervous about the lack of a ‘standard’ pale ale, so Chloe came up with something easy-drinking to fit the bill. She based Suncoast loosely on the good old McAuslan Pale Ale she helped make in her early brewing days. However, she pushed for it to be local-only; to this day, it’s distributed only in kegs, on the Coast. Aside from demonstrating modesty, downplaying her own beer demonstrates savvy forward thinking, since Townsite has been able to stand out in a crowded BC field based on Cédric’s Belgian-inspired portfolio.
As for life in Powell River, the couple seems to be very happy with their choice. “We certainly feel very lucky that we ended up here” Chloe confirms. Many Vancouverites and other BC residents who have migrated to the North Sunshine Coast in recent years would agree. The vibe in Powell River is less industrial and more ‘village’ now. Along with areas like Ale Trail companions Comox Valley, Cowichan Valley and mid-Vancouver Island, the Sunshine Coast offers a superb lifestyle with relatively modest property valuations, allowing young parents and urbanites seeking to cash out an ideal destination.
They also realize that their timing was very fortunate. Because they came along first, they now find themselves in a mentoring position respective to the new breweries in places like Courtenay and Cumberland, just across the water. Chloe also found herself in the role of craft beer community leader this year, when she was asked to participate as a speaker at Drink in the Story, an event held during Victoria Beer Week on International Women’s Day. She takes such butterfly-generating challenges in stride, belying her seemingly private nature.
In a craft beer scene full of rock star brewmasters, there’s a longtime brewer who doesn’t seek recognition, and receives none. There’s a leader who quietly contributes to the community. There’s a manager who’s a Mom first. There’s Chloe Smith for you.