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The Brothers Doan: A Modern Folk Tale
What's Brewing Biography

The Brothers Doan: A Modern Folk Tale

Photograpy by Brian K. Smith

From time they were young, Mike and Evan Doan had a strong bond. “He’s like my best friend in the world”, Evan said right off the bat, almost causing those present to tear up before the interview could get started. “We’ve always been able to relate to each other well.”

Part of that has to be down to their complementary personalities. Younger Evan is the artistic, free-spirited type, balancing the intellectual demeanor of his brother, Michael “Spreadsheet” Doan. “We have two completely different skillsets, and they’re almost opposite, so they work together”, says Mike, who runs the numbers and handles the management end of things for their business, Doan’s Craft Brewing Company. “Evan has the artisanal, creative side. If things worked out differently and I was the [lead] brewer, I would be brewing very scientifically guaranteed, regimented…”

Evan interrupts: “We would have failed. Day Two.” But he points out that if he had to do Mike’s job, he would have burnt out immediately. Which might not have been the only danger. The farcical idea of Evan handling the brewery’s finances immediately gave Mike visions of his brother blowing their (imaginary) brewhouse expansion savings on a new Lamborghini.

As youths, the Doan brothers of course had no way of knowing they would open a brewery one day. But as Mike tells it, “We always had the same interests. We always hung out. Like mountain biking was a huge thing. We bought pretty much the same mountain bikes. We’d pop on…and just be out together ’til 10 PM every night, like four or five days a week.”

Evan, Jon and Michael Doan

Evan says: “When you’re biking, you have this ‘I’ll do it if you do it’ kind of thing. You’ll be standing on a 50-foot cliff you’re about to ride down. That bonded us. But it also gave us an opportunity to talk. You’re not always biking; you’ll be sitting on the top of a hill, chatting.”

By the time they entered their 20s, the boys had an idea that they eventually wanted to go into business together in some form or other. Mike says that no big ideas came to them back then, so it was an open question as to what that business might be. But their bond was calling for something.

As Evan says, working with friends is just not the same as family. “There’s a lot of barriers you can’t really cross”, citing the level of transparency and honesty available to brothers. “With family, all those social components are immediately eliminated. You can tell each other, f*** you. Or, ‘we have this much money, we have to make it work.'”

The Whole Truth

By the mid-2000s, they were both employed at the Whole Foods Market near Broadway & Cambie in Vancouver.

“When you work in retail, and you’re facing [aligning products on] shelves two hours a day at the end of your shift” says Mike, “It’s a major motivation to think about what you want to be doing with your life. “One of the notions that more and more frequently occupied those young adult minds was that they both enjoyed beer. “Evan was working there too. We were hanging out away from work, homebrewing and drinking good beer.”

It wasn’t their goal to learn about business or boutique food manufacturing from Whole Foods, but to a certain extent, that’s what happened. “There were a bunch of advantages from working at Whole Foods”, Mike relates. “For me, in management: learning to manage [a business], invoice and all that stuff.”

And Mike notes it wasn’t just him. “For Evan, working in the Specialty Cheese department, there was learning about local artisans; handcrafting, fermentation and natural foods. There was a lot of inspiration coming from all those facets.”

The boys both describe their parents as “borderline hippies” who raised them to take an interest in healthy foods. In fact, by this time, Evan had been a vegetarian for many years. But Whole Foods further elevated their existing awareness of food sources. They would in fact at some point consider brewing organically. As it turned out, they discovered that they could brew some non-GMO products by using certain imported German malts. That realization can be attributed to their older brother Jon’s influence on the brothers’ beer development, which is not to be underestimated.

At this point in our conversation, Evan realized that his time working in food retail was good exposure to another important business planning aspect. “Big time. I never even thought about it, but: branding.”

Mike: “We would stand and look down the Whole Foods aisles, and notice things like colour blocking. Or: how does this brand of juice stand out from the 700 other brands on the shelves.” Evan: “Or: why does this brand make so much more money and is so much more money than this brand, which is a superior product at a lesser price?”

They noticed that certain products with the best branding could beat other products that were cheaper and better. They realized the importance of details like typography and artwork. This would eventually lead their fledgling beer company to engage a local Vancouver artist who would create the signature, award-winning artwork which has become associated with Doan’s.

The Path to Enlightenment

The boy’s first motivation for learning to homebrew was to get beer in their mouths for the least cost. Evan had learned something about beer while studying Archaeology at the University of Calgary, thanks to a prof who would bring back “real beer” from around the world. He also learned about the local good stuff. In that time and place, that meant Wild Rose Brewing (founded by Mike Tymchuk, who now presides over the brew kettle at BC’s very own Cumberland Brewing Company). During Christmas break, Evan filled Mike’s ear about the wonders of their flavourful brews.

Mike’s gateway came through imports. While studying at Queen’s University in Ontario, he liked to be seen drinking the ‘premium’ brands like Stella Artois. Or, when drinking on the cheap with bandmates, the go-to was Danish import Faxe. By around 2003, midway through his time in college, he got into local Ontario stalwart Creemore Springs, which still had some heft to it in those pre-Molson days. Back here in BC, naturally the local brews followed: Granville Island, then Howe Sound (Mike loved the giant bottles).

In those days, the Vancouver beer scene was not yet fully formed. Evan’s first understanding of BC craft came from the more established Victoria breweries like Phillips, and later Driftwood and Hoyne. Then followed a series of “blips” where the boys stumbled across some palate-changing beers. “Green Flash Imperial IPA. Kaboom!”, Evan recalls.

A turning point for them came when Legacy Liquor Store opened. Soon they were hooked on premium beer shopping. “I remember Midas Touch by Dogfish Head. You could pick it up for $22 for a four-pack”, Mike relates. Evan, who according to Mike has long had the better cellar, remembers once spending his entire $160 Whole Foods gain-sharing bonus on beer at Legacy.

Of course, in their hands, the beer wasn’t just entertainment, it was an education, especially for Evan’s palate. He says that now, as an experienced brewer, “I can taste a whole series of grains, and know how to make a beer before actually brewing it.” They both laugh about the fact that they got into homebrewing to make 20L of beer for $35, then later a $40 bottle became completely justifiable. By that time it was clear that it was no longer “just beer” to them.

The Arduous Quest

Even though the boys were getting serious about homebrewing during their time at Whole Foods, it still wasn’t ordained that their dream business would be a brewery. Mike was quite into kombucha, and if things were different, the Doans might have gone all in on fermenting a whole other type of beverage. But as young beer fans living in Vancouver, they would have felt the first tremors of an impending craft beer explosion. Like many significant players in BC’s current brewing scene, they became members of a brew club, in their case the Vancouver Homebrewers Association (you may know it as Vanbrewers). Now they were stove-top brewing regularly and learning their chops. But things got serious when they laid down the cash for a Brew Magic system. By 2010, five years before they would open their own brewery, the Doan brothers began test batching with a purpose.

The Brew Magic, which is basically a homebrew kit on steroids, was housed in a sublet 600 sq ft commercial space down below Marine Drive on SE Kent Rd. in Vancouver. The landlord was a woodworker who collected miniature motorbikes; the boys would try riding them while waiting on a boil. Evan relates that to this day, brewing is his favourite sensory experience. The aromas involved in mashing in, opening a fresh bag of hops; “It’s beautiful”, he insists.

No issue about the love of the craft. By this point, “How can we make money doing this” was the driving question. But before that could happen, they would undertake an extended phase of dues-paying that any Mississippi bluesman would be proud of. It was all based around their work schedule at Whole Foods.

“We would wake up at 5:30 in the morning, get to our test batch facility, spend 7-8 hours brewing a double batch, then go work an 8 or 9 hour afternoon/evening shift…on the opposite side of Vancouver”, Evan relates. “Then the next day, potentially do it again.” All this with no car, riding BC Transit’s finest. Sometimes they’d bus to Dan’s Homebrew Supply (where Evan worked for a while) north of Hastings, then all the way South to the brew spot. And if Mike forgot the yeast, he just had to bus all the way back home and get it.

Turns out that the guys who would open North Van’s Black Kettle Brewing a year before Doan’s—Bryan Lockhart and Phil Vandenborre— also knew the same shop owner, and used their own Brew Magic at the facility during their testing phase as well. There were only three Brew Magic sets in the entire province (Graham With of Parallel 49 being the owner of the third), and two of them made their way, at some point or other, into this one random South Vancouver woodworking shack. Talk about practicing like a bluesman; this was “woodshedding” in the literal sense.

A Knight Appears

There’s something else that came out of the boys’ experience at Whole Foods which turned out to have a lasting effect on their dream. That something is a someone, named Kevin Sharpe. Significantly older than the two boys, Kevin is their mature sounding board. A former trucking company owner, he would turn out to possess the critical business and self-employment background the brothers would need in order to pursue their dream. But as it happens, before he could join Whole Foods and eventually meet his two young future partners, he had to go through one of them in order to get a job.

“I interviewed Kev” says Mike Doan. “I was Assistant Manager in Grocery at the time, and Kev came in. He gave a great interview, one of the best interviews ever. He was customer service to a ‘T’. Uncompromising. I was like, ‘We’ve gotta hire this guy.'”

Working in the grocery store alongside the brothers, Kevin noticed that these two engaging coworkers would constantly talk about beer. Kevin is a teetotaller, and normally by rights should have had no interest. However their enthusiasm struck a chord with him and he couldn’t help but eavesdrop. Even though he didn’t drink beer, he picked up on the creativity behind brewing, which is an aspect that appealed to him. Eventually, he asked questions about their plans.

“I haven’t had a drink since July ’96”, he shares. “Beer [the liquid] is not my forte. But I like the business aspect of it; making something and selling it, and the brainstorming.” Oddly, he also liked the idea of coming along on the boys’ visits to brew shops. BosaGrape is a well-established Burnaby brew supply outlet that the boys frequented, and Kevin would learn about behind-the-scenes aspects of brewing by being part of those shopping trips (it helped that he had a car). Despite not drinking alcohol, he enjoyed how beer made other people happy. Beer was something he could see himself getting involved in.

Evan, Jon, Kevin, Mike and Liam in the tasting room

Evan credits Kevin for providing focus to the group. “We were always dreaming and dreaming. Kevin would say, ‘No, no, we can do this. Let’s do this.'”

Kevin came on board as a serious partner in brewery planning by 2012, and pushed the boys to undertake a series of fact-finding road trips, sending the boys to places like Portland and Victoria. “We went on a [beer-related] road trip to Seattle”, Kevin notes. “That really helped bring us together.” He says that seeing the small breweries in Seattle “gave us more passion, more drive to make this [business] a reality.”

Kevin helped start the search for a place to open a real brewery. “We couldn’t find a place to lease to start the business”, he says, and talks about the struggle to find a bank that would lend them money. Business Development Bank of Canada said ‘No’ right off the bat. It wasn’t easy; as Kevin says, the key word was ‘tenacity’. But now there were three of them working toward the dream.

Leaving Yeast Kent: Hello Yeast Van

Liam, a smiling Doan’s staffer, serves up a pint

Even with Kevin on board, the team needed the right opportunity to finally make things happen. Maybe the most critical challenge was location. “We almost took a place under the Oak Street Bridge”, Kevin recalls. He and the boys were working with Colliers Real Estate on a couple of spots around there, plus both North Vancouver and South Van, but as he says, “I’m so glad; it was meant to be that those didn’t work out.” Instead, opportunity finally presented itself in an industrial district that was becoming known as Yeast Van.

Mike: “Evan knew David [Bowkett, Owner of Powell Street Craft Brewery, as it was then branded] pretty well from the homebrewing scene and Vanbrewers. David was super admired by homebrewers because it was the OG journey: Homebrewing Guy Opens Small Brewery in East Van. That’s the story that everyone was hoping to do at the time.”

David and PSCB’s claim to fame was a shocking win at the nation’s highest-level for beer contests, the May 2013 Canadian Brewing Awards. When Old Jalopy Pale Ale took home Beer of the Year honours barely six months after Powell Street’s modest facility opened, PSCB was catapulted into a higher trajectory than the then-nanobrewery could have anticipated.

Then misfortune struck. David injured himself, to the point that he temporarily needed help to keep brewing. In stepped Evan and Mike.

“Ev and I came over, signed the [work injury disclaimer] agreements, and helped him brew two batches in two days”, Mike recalls. “That was the beginning of a really solid relationship with David and his wife Nicole.” About the couple, Evan agrees: “They’re like family.”

Kevin mentions, “I think it gave them an inside sight into what David was doing, because then we found out that David was going to leave” the tiny location, and ultimately move into bigger digs just up the road. “We were able to get in contact with the landlord and get our foot in the door, letting them know we were really interested.” Fortunately, that landlord was receptive. When PSCB moved out, Doan’s would become their new tenant.

Mike: “David was super helpful too. All along the timeline, he reviewed our business plan, our financial projections, and gave us advice: how many upgrades we’d have to do to the building…all of it.”

Kevin found an architect that maximized the building’s modest square footage. One of the quirks of the Powell Street brewery’s original design was that, when it opened in late 2012, there was no such thing as a “tasting room” in BC, at least not the way we know it today. Back then, “tasting” literally meant “evaluating a maximum 12 oz sample before you make a purchase.” Thankfully, those handcuffs were off by the time Doan’s came online, and the former quaint Powell Street tasting bar would be remodelled as a small modern beer lounge. The financial advantage this provided was massive; nanobreweries like Doan’s now had a basic source of income right away, long before they would be able to ramp up their sales of packaged beer.

And the neighbourhood didn’t hurt. As Kevin says, “This is the perfect place; right here with all these other breweries. It was the right size… I was disappointed when those other [location opportunities] didn’t work out, but it was worth waiting for this.”

The Stork Arrives

As brother Jon mentions, when Evan and Mike helped David brew at Powell, some in the beer community noticed that the results turned out really well, which provided a confidence factor for the boys in terms of their commercial brewing chops. The sports analogy: they’d been called up briefly from the minors and showed potential. Now it was time for them to prove they could hold their own, full-time, in the big leagues. But just when they were getting close to dropping the puck on that long-awaited inaugural season opener, one of their star players found himself on the disabled list.

Mike Doan had a serious accident in January 2015 from which he emerged with limited mobility for some time. Just like David Bowkett before him, the soon-to-be co-owner of the little Powell Street brewery that could, temporarily couldn’t.

It brought the team even closer together. Kevin says, “I’d go pick him up, and we’d still have meetings… Mike got hurt, which is terrible, but we were still able to get it together and move forward with it.” The word tenacity was invoked again.

Doan’s Craft Brewing Company opened for business during May 2015, not long before Evan’s 29th birthday. It’s no small accomplishment to be the co-founder/owner of a respected brewery while still in your 20s. That’s something all team members involved should be proud of.

The Brothers Doan
Photo: Brian K. Smith
Mural: Ola Volo

Art of a Folk Tale

The decor of that newly-opened tasting room would be dominated by a large mural, a singular piece of artwork which greets all visitors. Its creator would prove to be an important part of the Doan’s story.

Early on, with the marketing lessons learned at Whole Foods securely in mind, the boys had engaged a local Vancouver artist to try to find an image for the new company and its planned flagship product. Ola Volo’s mural-driven folk art style adorned the bottle artwork for their Rye IPA, and formed the basis for a series of subsequent art pieces.

Ola astutely isolated the fairy-tale, folklore nature of the brothers’ struggle and the brewery’s origins, and captured their spirit by flavouring her already intricate style with touches inspired by the Doan family’s German origins in Kassel, home of the Brothers Grimm. That first bottle featured Mike, Evan and Kevin. Followup cans and bottles would alternate team members. Ola’s black and white work adorns the packaging which has brought recognition to the brewery. In 2017, that packaging took home two coveted BC Beer Awards, for can design (Crystal Weiss) and cardboard packaging {for their Happy Pack).

Ola is an extremely well-respected artist who has become quite successful. It’s clear from her website that Doan’s is now one of her smaller clients. But one also gets the feeling that the brothers probably hold a special place in her roster.

A Brewing Factory

This article is about the semi-miraculous birth of Doan’s, not everything that’s happened since. But it’s worth talking about at least one serendipitous subsequent occurrence.

In early 2016, your humble author heard tell of an under-construction Vancouver beer facility to become known as Factory Brewing Ltd. from its founder, Andrew Harris, about a year before its 2017 opening. I went away from that conversation with the impression that Andrew’s project might bring unwanted competition to Vancouver’s beer scene by brewing foreign beer here. In hindsight, I don’t think Mr. Harris knew just how ecstatically his new project would be received by the space-constrained breweries of BC.

Factory creates and packages beer on contract in its large production brewery for many BC breweries who don’t have the capacity, capital, labour, room, or simply the desire to expand their brewing operation. It has made a world of difference for Doan’s. The signature form factor rolling off Factory’s assembly line—the seemingly-becoming-ubiquitous tallboy can—is literally putting the Happy in Doan’s Happy Packs.

As great as it is, the Powell Street location alone might not have been enough to keep the brothers’ dream afloat. “We were struggling to see how we would keep the doors open”, Evan confided. “There is no way to grow in this type of location and have a wage.” His take is that Factory’s unforeseen debut can be summed up in three words: “Dream. Come. True.”

Happily Ever After

Mike still works at Whole Foods. As brother—and former grocery coworker—Evan says, “We have to get him out of there.” But Mike’s pragmatic about that, and shyly admitted something during our conversation that I really respect.

“Working in retail sucks”, he candidly opines, surprising nobody. “But off the record, I could love doing any job. I love working, and the people I work with. So I could do pretty much anything.” Sorry Michael, but that, to me, is so thoroughly admirable that it’s on the record.

Evan is a strong reason why the Doans’ dream will probably succeed in the long run. He is a magnetic figure. His ability to be friendly and engaging, conveying genuine interest in people, is an unteachable gift. And he knows what’s important in life.

When I asked him to look back and talk about something that’s worked out well, that he’s pleased with, Evan said, “We’re still in business. That’s the big thing. You don’t get into the [craft] beer business to make money. So just keeping the doors open is awesome.”

Doing it for the family dream. Speaking to the editor of a magazine that exists purely for the love of the craft, he could not have said anything more satisfying.

  Issue:

Dave Smith

Editor of What's Brewing, BC columnist for Northwest Brewing News. Contributor to The Publican, BC Ale Trail and Beer Me BC. Accredited Member of the BC Association of Travel Writers. Craft beer fan since the late 1990s, CAMRA BC member since 2004. Along with wife Ivana, he travels Cascadia as half of the beer duo BeerSeekers.


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