How One Family’s Pioneering Spirit Created Community From Craft
Trading Post Brewing Co. might be flying under the radar for some BC beer fans, but it’s become a hub for the burgeoning Fraser Valley beer scene. Their third anniversary party in early February 2019 bore testament to that, as members of a handful of Valley ‘brewcomers’ including Northpaw Brewing, Fraser Mills Fermentation, Smuggler’s Trail, Farm Country, Five Roads, Camp Brewing and its point of origin, the Full Barrel Brew Club filed in to pay homage to what, by contrast, feels like a veteran brewery after only three years. TP is well positioned, right at the centre of what promises to become South Fraser’s answer to Port Moody—with neighbouring breweries imminent, a Skytrain extension in planning and Langley itself blowing up.
Mind you, “Trading Post” isn’t just a brewery; it’s a hub in another sense. It’s the brand name at the core of a growing number of initiatives undertaken by Fort Langley’s Verhoeff family based around brewing, hospitality and events in the latter half of this decade. These include a respected brewery, two (so far) brewery-supplied “Eateries,” partnerships with two pro sports teams and a famous restaurateur, as well as a large annual beer festival which, in turn, spawned a spanking new events production company.
The history of modern brewing includes numerous stories of families creating small businesses with varying levels of success. Langley’s Trading Post is quietly one of the best examples you’ll find in BC. That alone is enough for a compelling narrative, but our story isn’t just about success in business for the benefit of one family. It’s about the contributions that family is making to their community in the process, and the determination it has taken to make that happen.
SETTLERS IN A NEW LAND
“My Mom and Dad were born in Holland,” shares the driving force behind Trading Post, the relatively youthful Lance Verhoeff. “They both came from big families.”
The odd thing about the first meeting of Lance’s Dutch progenitors, born within a year of each other, is where it happened. Decades ago, but also within a year of each other, the families of both father Paul and mother Cobi independently emigrated to the same city in Canada. Inevitably, these families connected, which led to Paul and Cobi’s introduction. Overcoming a rocky first impression, the couple eventually dated and would start a family in their adopted hometown of Calgary.
“My family was very hospitable,” Lance continues. “Every Sunday after Church, they would invite people over for lunch.”
Paul Verhoeff tells us how he’s always loved bringing people together to share food and beverage, to enjoy conversation. “I put myself through university by working in restaurants as a server,” he reminisces. “I enjoyed it for all those reasons.”
But that’s not the direction the elder Verhoeff’s career went, and not how he would make his money. He recalls, “I was studying business, and I knew that the hospitality industry was going to be too all-encompassing at a time when I wanted to be with my growing family. But I always loved the idea.” Instead, Paul and his brother Stephen would create two successful flooring firms and eventually found the Verhoeff Group of Companies, a collection of family enterprises. As Paul put in the work to become a successful businessman over the years, the notion of working in the food and beverage trade remained dormant, waiting for a special idea to awaken it.
HITTING THE WESTWARD TRAIL
When Paul and Cobi’s brood of four children approached the age of higher education, the family considered two faith-based colleges in Canada before leaning toward Langley’s highly regarded Trinity Western University. A small migration to British Columbia began as Lance’s older sister Lies arrived in 1999, followed by Lance in 2006 and his brother Rudy the year after. Aside from its curriculum, the school was attractive for its advanced athletics program.
With considerable height inherited from their tall father, the Verhoeff offspring were naturals at sports. Lies and Rudy would become known for their volleyball prowess, with both becoming national team members and Rudy an Olympian. As for Lance, his six-foot-nine frame would serve him well as he became a standout in basketball (he still holds the school record for most blocked shots in a single game) and a passionate TWU Spartan. In the process he became generally infatuated with his new West Coast surroundings, and particularly so with a fellow student named Marissa he was starting to see a lot of.
After studying corporate finance and graduating with a Bachelor of Business Administration in 2011, Lance took jobs in sales with technology and tool firms. Although working in his father’s businesses may have been an obvious path (his sister Lies, for instance, has moved in that direction), Lance didn’t apply his finance degree in that way. “A lot of my classmates went to work at banks, or became accountants,” he shares. “I knew that wasn’t what I wanted to do.”
What he did know is that he wanted to run his own business. Exactly what sort of business was an open question for a few years. During this period, Marissa was studying at UBC so the couple took up residence closer to school in Kitsilano. That’s when Lance was introduced to beer.
To be accurate, Lance was only 13 years old when he was originally introduced to beer. As a youngster of Dutch heritage, he was handed a Heineken by his father at a relatively tender age, and drank what most would consider “regular beer” through college age and beyond. His craft discovery would not occur until around the fall of 2014.
“My buddy called me up one night and said, ‘Hey, what are you doing this Friday? Let’s go out to the breweries.’” ‘Breweries?’, Lance thought. He recalls being completely unaware that people could make an activity of visiting the places where beer was manufactured. Of course, this was the dawn of a golden age in what had recently become known as Yeast Van. Verhoeff found himself fascinated by the experience of the tasting room and became a big fan of Mount Pleasant notables Brassneck Brewery and 33 Acres. The community aspect in these gathering places resonated with Lance’s family memories and ticked certain boxes for him.
Meanwhile, parents Paul and Cobi were travelling frequently between the kids’ newly adopted BC base and their home in Calgary, until the pull of the West Coast won out and they settled in Fort Langley. Eventually Lance and Marissa ended their time in Vancouver and joined them nearby. Our brewery-struck business grad immediately noticed a void in his surroundings. “Where are the breweries in Langley?” he thought, and it was only a matter of time before the aspiring businessman set his mind to the pursuit of his first venture.
In that endeavour, Lance demonstrated a real dedication to seeking out and picking the brains of people in the famously collaborative craft brewing industry. He made it a goal to visit every brewery in the Fraser Valley and find out how they worked. That’s how he made his first critical connection in the industry.
HIRING THE EXPERIENCED HANDS
John Ohler is a hospitality and brewing industry veteran who made his name managing 1990s startup Howe Sound Brewing. By 2015 he was working with Abbotsford’s Old Abbey Ales, and that’s where he was when keen young Lance Verhoeff walked in. As the visitor sipped beers and asked question after question, they struck up a friendship.
Verhoeff says of Ohler, “He was someone who was so open, so willing to help, and wanting to see someone like me succeed. I was so fresh and didn’t know anything about brewing, but he had all this experience. We started having more and more conversations.”
By this time, Lance had bounced the idea of a brewery business off his well-established father. The elder’s first reaction was, “Why don’t we make wine instead?” The beer bug hadn’t bitten because Paul hadn’t yet acquired the exposure to craft culture his son had, so Lance’s first business hurdle was to convince his father that a brewery was the right idea. Lance addressed this by leading his Dad and Uncle on pilgrimages of discovery to East Van and then Oregon.
“Walking in to (Portland’s) Hair of the Dog and seeing their taplist… it was wild,” Lance recalls. Standing outside afterward, they met the head brewer, who took them in the brewhouse and showed them around. As it had for so many others, the call of craft beer worked its magic on the business-minded visitors.
The idea of getting into a beverage business also awakened the senior Verhoeff’s long-dormant notion to get involved in the business of hosting people, and for him that meant food as well as beer. The idea of a brewery and restaurant near their home base, the village of Fort Langley, began to crystallize. Paul Verhoeff says, “When Lance came along with this, my brother and I said, let’s go for it. We hired industry experts, and relied on people that knew brewing and hospitality.”
John Ohler, a chef by training, was a natural to lead the charge. Lance opines, “He was the perfect storm for us because he had the culinary background to help us open a kitchen, create a menu and pair beer with food.” He also had well-formed ideas as to how to properly open a brewery. This would be key to getting the Verhoeffs off the ground.
But first they needed a brewer, and for this Ohler provided the best connection of all. Veteran Tony Dewald had been working with John to help start up Old Abbey. He lived just down the road in Langley and was receptive to the idea of reducing his commute. After a wooing period, Tony gave notice on his birthday in September 2015, and the family had their star brewmaster.
They also needed a name for their brewery, and for this, Lance would turn to advice from someone closer to home. He had known for some time that the business would theme itself around celebration of “local” as well as pay tribute to Langley’s colonial heritage. “The original idea was to call it Historic Brewing,” Lance admits. Fortunately, he would do better with the help of his wife. Reading up on the background of Fort Langley, Lance picked up that it was a Hudson’s Bay trading post—which is to say, a place of gathering. This dovetailed perfectly with the vision he was trying to encapsulate. Marissa said sensibly, “Why don’t you just call it ‘Trading Post Brewing’?” Certain that the name would have been claimed, Lance Googled the name and found to his delight that it wasn’t. Beverage brand studio Dossier Creative worked their magic, and a very solid brand was established.
Ohler’s experience and professionalism would shine through when opening day impressed all visitors with a great team and great presentation in February 2016.
TURNING OVER STONES
Creating a brewery in Fort Langley itself had proven to be problematic, since the village is by design isolated by the river, away from the main transportation links. But that didn’t mean the Verhoeffs had given up on owning a restaurant in their home enclave. Even while brewery planning was underway, they had their eye on a building that would be absolutely perfect for their dream outlet: a wooden edifice built in the 1980s as a replica of a pioneer-era trading post.
This one wouldn’t come easy, as ownership made it clear the building wasn’t available for their brewery project. But only a week after being rejected, Lance was scouring want ads in Craigslist when he stumbled across something remarkable: there on the Web was the very same building he had just enquired about—and it was listed for sale.
Lance, bearing the want ad, returned to the landlord who was obliged to divulge that the family had had a change of heart in the space of a week. This time there would be no rejecting the young businessman, and a lease agreement and option to purchase was struck. In a case of perseverance creating luck, Lance Verhoeff’s diligence was rewarded handsomely and the family had the perfect spot for what became the Trading Post Eatery. It launched later in 2016, serving beers trucked in from the brewery.
That drive to turn over rocks was also how Lance found his mechanical contractor. Early on in his research phase, while working as a salesman for Milwaukee Tool, he summoned up the courage to stop in at Dageraad Brewing in Burnaby. “I’ll just go talk to them,” he thought. As he stepped out of the branded truck in his branded work clothes, the first person he shook hands with was tradesman Allen Vidovic of A&D Plumbing. He listened to Lance’s plan and eventually helped build out his brewery.
The layout is an “open concept” design. “I wanted people to experience the brewery—from visually seeing it, to smelling it and hearing it,” explains Verhoeff. “I was frustrated with breweries where the brewhouse is closed off and you can’t see it. You might as well be in a pub.” The end result has two levels, including a second floor mezzanine that allows visitors to watch Dewald’s brewing process like symphony-goers in their balcony seats.
SELLING BEER ON THE FRONTIER
Brewer Dewald and owner Verhoeff are quite different personalities, but with Trading Post they were able to combine visions to create a brewery experience and beer list that appeals to their visitors. Right out of the gate, their taplist was a smart balance of accessible yet not predictable; for instance, instead of presenting just a “lager”, they taught the citizens of Langley what a Helles is. Instead of your standard dark beer, they went with a sharp coffee stout. For a fruit beer, they came up with a tart cranberry ale (in winter, alternating with a raspberry in summer). Each of these is still on their menu board, some sporting names that evoke Langley-area heritage themes. Their popularity is in no danger.
The pair’s original stated influence was Brassneck, a brewery where there are innumerable distinctive beers that rotate throughout time. Tony says the plan was, “There might be fifty beers to draw from, but only 8 are on tap at any given moment.” But those experimental brews weren’t all hits, and Trading Post learned quickly that there’s a limit to how far into esoteric beer territory Valley residents can be led. For instance, their launch-day Brett IPA was quietly retired. “We realized that we were shooting 3 feet over people’s heads,” Dewald says somewhat ruefully.
Tony and Lance have concluded that setting up a brewery and telling people what they want to drink isn’t as smart as listening to what they want. Dewald is a proud Langley resident but he pragmatically refers to TP as an “outpost brewery” due to its distance from East Van’s nexus of urban and hipster culture. “There is a fine balance between what people want and what we want to be brewing,” he warns. “We think we’ve gotten there over the years, and our Rye Amber exemplifies that.”
That beer is a good example of Dewald’s approach to creating new brews, because the recipe started out as a variation on something he had made for his previous employer. As Tony says, “There have been so many thousands of brews over the years; from the ashes of one beer comes something completely different.”
He compares it with his days as half of the famed 1980s ‘sludgeabilly’ duo Deja Voodoo. “Our hit song was something called Cheese & Crackers by Rosco Gordon. We changed the chords, changed the chord progression and changed the words.” Dewald looks at designing beers with as a similar exercise, like a jazz musician taking a musical standard and riffing on it.
“I’m such a process-driven guy; I have that part down,” he shares. “There are ruts in the concrete from me walking back and forth. But I try not to be set in my ways, I try to be open to influences, and I get to stretch out. You come into the business as a fresh-faced newbie with an idea how you want beer to taste, then over time your ideas change and you want to f***with things.“
That includes ingredients. “You can buy different things now that weren’t available for any money not long ago,” Dewald offers, with a nod to the skid of Weyermann floor malt he’s pictured atop of on this issue’s cover. Tony lives in a rural setting with wife Andy, grows crops and identifies as a Langley farmer, but he’s realistic. “I would love to use all local ingredients, but not everything can come from here. With real German floor-malted grain, hops and yeast, and local water that is very similar to Munich’s, I think I can make something that rivals the true flavour and intensity of German beer.” As it happens, Trading Post’s Helles is their biggest seller by a wide margin.
THE COMMUNITY HITCHES UP TO THE POST
One quiet but significant development early on was Trading Post’s contract to provide beer to Vancouver Giants games at the Langley Events Centre, recently followed by a contract to do the same at Abbotsford Centre for the soon-to-debut Fraser Valley Bandits pro basketball team. Paul Verhoeff explains, “We’re not really into beer distribution as our model; we just do it to get exposure and get our brand out a little. We do distribute our beer to liquor stores and a select few draft accounts, but that’s our ‘excess beer.’”
In 2017 the company broke into the events business when it kicked off the Fort Langley Beer + Food Festival, a full-blown outdoor event in partnership with the Fort Langley National Historic Site. The team hoped for 500-1000 attendees in its first year; they netted 1500. They sold double that the second year. This year, capacity was expanded to an impressive 4000 and Early Bird tickets went quickly. The events side has gone so well it’s spawned a new division of the Verhoeff Group.
“We love hosting people, and we love celebrating life,” Paul shared with us. “So we’ve decided to set up a separate organization called Red Door Events.” They’re planning to present a three-day music festival called Summerset on the September long weekend at the same Fort Langley NHS site, as well as a Fort Langley Oktoberfest, a Christmas Market and another big Christmas event in Calgary.
In late 2018, TP debuted an Abbotsford eatery as its third outlet. Of this stunning growth, Lance admits, “I’d be pretty foolish to sit here and say that I did this on my own. It was a family effort, with my Dad and my Uncle [and his wife and sister pitching in along the way].”
“I have a father who was able to financially help and had the entrepreneurial spirit,” he continues. At 63 years old and in a position to retire, Paul Verhoeff still “can’t really help himself,” Lance says. “I don’t know if my Dad will ever wind down.”
The elder Verhoeff reflects, “People talk about the BHAG: the Big Hairy Audacious Goal. I think our BHAG is a local brewery making good beer as a hub, with spokes—maybe three, four, maybe five Eateries —that we feed beer from the brewery. Abbotsford has been phenomenal. If that continues, we can duplicate it [with changes to keep things local] in Calgary, Edmonton and wherever else.”
Paul explains, “My father and mother were not business people. But I thought of my own father as a social entrepreneur. He would see what was needed in the community, and try to help start that and get it rolling. Not for money, but for the good of society. We’ve applied that to our business life and our charitable life.”
His principal accomplishment on the charitable side is the Spartan Foundation, a not-for-profit that Verhoeff founded in order to support the Spartan athletics program at Trinity Western. From an original goal to raise $100,000 per year, the events-based charity has grown to the point it raises $1M per annum for TWU.
Opportunity International Canada, a cause that the family supports through their flooring businesses, and Paul is a Board member of is a charitable organization which helps people in developing countries bootstrap themselves via small business loans. It resonates for Paul because it reminds him of the faith others showed in loaning him the money to start his own first enterprise. It’s also led to another Trading Post connection.
Through his work with that charity, Paul happened to meet Vikram Vij of Dragon’s Den fame. Their friendship led to the creation of Vikram’s Weissen for Vij’s My Shanti restaurant in South Surrey, as well as a shared tour of India for Opportunity International.
Trading Post also sponsors an annual scholarship for a deserving student in Brewing and Brewery Operations at Langley’s Kwantlen Polytechnic University, given in the name of John Mitchell, the godfather of BC craft beer.
Making financial contributions after such a short time in business is a stunning feat. Asked how all this squares with what he set out to accomplish, son Lance opines, “I see beer as a vehicle toward what we’re trying to accomplish in the community.”
“We have a good balance between not being a big brewery and not being small,” Verhoeff feels. He’s pleased to report that between the brewery and their two restaurants, there are about 150 people on staff. “That’s a lot of people advocating for the company,” Lance feels. “It’s eye-opening how rewarding a team experience can be.”
“The piece of paper I earned in business school helps me with reading financials” he continues. “But what really helped me at Trinity Western are the relationships that came out of it. That’s what I tell students in basketball: the friendships that you’re making and the interactions with the people you’re meeting along the way are the most valuable.”
When asked if, as a family of faith, there was any hesitation in entering the beverage alcohol industry, Paul Verhoeff shares, “The beer and food are just a catalyst to bring people together.”
As he says, “You won’t find TVs in our outlets; you won’t find a reason to stay forever. We don’t stay open really late and we don’t run a bar where people come just to get drunk. Everything is better in moderation, better when there’s balance.”
Lance has a small family and is doing his best to find the right work/life balance, Paul notes. “A lot of people say that’s not possible, but it’s possible with the right decisions.”
With the brewery closing at 8 PM, Marissa is happy that Lance can come home at a reasonable time most nights. “We have one little son, and another baby on the way” says the young husband.” It’s a stage of life where everything’s a bit chaotic. Why not add in self-employment for a little more chaos.”
“As long as we’re still doing what we set out to do, which is to bring people together and create community, I think we’ll continue to see success,” Lance reflects. “I’m just holding on for the ride. I’m excited for what’s next.”