HOW SOME CRAFTY SCIENCE FANS ARE CHARTING A COURSE TO BEER DISCOVERY
Kepler the cat has no appreciation for astronomy, one would imagine. He has no idea who his namesake is, nor does he ponder why his owners felt that a classical-era German astronomer should be paid homage through the moniker of a family pet. He is likely not aware that Johannes Kepler, dead since 1630, also lent his name to a NASA telescope and a European cargo spacecraft. Most disappointingly, Kepler cannot possibly grasp the fact that he almost shared that same name with Coquitlam’s only craft brewery.
Kepler Brewing doesn’t exist, but the project which almost adopted that name is alive and well. It was eventually birthed to the world as Mariner Brewing Company in late August 2017, and therefore celebrated its second anniversary shortly before this article was published (as the cover story for our Fall 2019 magazine). It’s the brainchild of Kepler’s dad, Byron Vallis, whose passion for homebrewing led him to leave a comfortable government career and apply his scientific mind to a daunting business endeavour.
A LABOUR OF LOVERS
“Lauren and I are both sort of science geeks, but I am the bigger geek for sure,” shares Vallis, who turned 28 around the time this magazine was released. Asked if her future husband is indeed a geek, Byron’s fiancée Lauren Ang hesitates, then agrees. “We went through a very serious Star Trek phase,” relates Ang, two months Vallis’ junior. “Star Trek definitely impacted my life,” Byron openly admits. “The search for knowledge is innately human in my mind.”
Vallis then partially explains the astronomy reference: “When we named our cat [now five years old] I was going to University and studying science.” Not space science, mind you, ”mostly biology, which has been helpful in brewing.”
As with a substantial proportion of the industry’s newer entrepreneurial population, Vallis didn’t originally set out to brew beer for a living. But when he heard the call and knew clearly a brewery was in their future, the couple began searching for a name that reflected exploration and charting a course.
The Kepler space probe made its way onto the shortlist. “It essentially points itself at a part of space and looks for new planets,” Vallis. Probably to everyone’s benefit, the name was discarded once it was discovered that an old Irish cidery had a similar brand.
Mariner also made the list, and it ticked a few boxes. “The name was less about the word Mariner and more about what a Mariner does,” commented Vallis, referring to navigation and exploration. The word itself has a couple of other convenient meanings: it refers to a program of 10 space probes that pre-date the Voyager program, and it’s the name of a prominent street in Coquitlam, winding its way not far from where Byron hails and toward where the brewery stands today.
Mariner Way also runs right by Mundy Park, close to Dr. Charles Best, the well-known secondary school where Byron got to know Lauren back in Grade 10. They became romantic after graduation, at the tender age of 18. With nine years as partners, they’re really an old married couple, despite the fact that they won’t be making it official until July 18th, 2020. At that point, they’ll have a decade of pre-marital experience to lean on.
By the time marriage made the radar, Mariner Brewing was well underway as a going concern. With so much to deal with, they set a two-year engagement in 2018. But that first year flew by. Not that nothing has been accomplished; they’ve chosen the venue, caterer, photographer and the dress. That’s not bad. Lauren’s got her wedding party selected, but Byron hasn’t really been focused on all that.
“If I’m honest,” he opines, “Managing a release schedule of a new beer a month is a lot more complicated than planning a wedding.” He describes “the complexities of running a small manufacturing facility” as taking more share of mind for him. [We try to avoid gender stereotypes here at What’s Brewing, but Byron’s not helping.]
“It’s going to be a fun party. But we’re both pretty chill about it, I would say,” Lauren chipped in. “We’re not very formal people,” added future hubby. “Slogging kegs around at beer events has taught us that things don’t have to be formal to be enjoyable. We’re both pretty humble.” Reflecting a Millennial sensibility, bride-to-be Lauren doesn’t see the wedding as necessarily the ‘most important day of my life’. “Hopefully not,” she says forthrightly. “I’m very excited for it, but hopefully we do other things that are more impactful.”
‘Wow’, thinks the author, becoming less and less surprised as to what these newcomers have accomplished in their young beer business.
TO BOLDLY GO
“In my family, it’s always been really important to make food and share food with people,” Byron Vallis recalls when thinking about his earliest influences around hospitality. “I learned the importance of sharing food & conversation; how that can bring people together.”
Growing up in the suburbs shaped Vallis’ experiences in that vein. “After my group of friends turned 19, we found ourselves saying, “Let’s go get some cool food and drink. I like trying different beers. Well, I guess we have to go into Vancouver,” was the inevitable reality, Byron recalls. He and his friends would find good beer at places like Tap & Barrel and CRAFT Beer Market. Standout breweries like Four Winds and Steel & Oak were opening in the suburbs around this time.
The idea of brewing beer germinated in the young craft fan to the point that it became a sideline pastime. “I think there was a two-year period when you guys didn’t go out anymore; you just brewed at home,” Lauren pointed out. “It was before [Port Moody’s] Brewers Row was a thing.”
Vallis confirms: “When Yellow Dog and Moody Ales opened, it really struck me: instead of putting the cool new thing in the city, you can really make the suburbs a lot more liveable by having these community hubs. It was close to home, but not as close as I felt it should be.”
“We have been surprised that nobody has gone ahead and opened another brewery in Coquitlam,” Vallis continues. “But at the same time, three or four have opened in Port Coquitlam,” which, with newer commercial construction, has seen a recent brewery boom.
To be fair, there was a brewpub in Coquitlam back in the late 90s. Coquitlam Brewing Company, in Henderson Mall near to Coquitlam Centre, folded alongside many a brewery at the end of the “first wave” of craft. Sixteen years passed before microbrewing would return to Coquitlam.
Lauren mentions that the biggest impediment has been real estate. “There were a few other breweries that were looking to open in Coquitlam, but they moved on,” she relates. Byron points out that zoning is at the core of that issue. “When we were looking through many square kilometres of commercial space [in Coquitlam], we found only three suitable buildings.”
Back in 2016, What’s Brewing ran a story on the new Port Moody row, in which our reporter Mallory O’Neil reached out to Coquitlam City Councillor Craig Hodge to get an explanation as to why BC’s sixth largest city, with four times the population and area of Port Moody, had nothing to show after all these years of craft beer’s popularity. As Hodge told us at the time, “Cities determine land use via zoning, so that has been central to the discussion of craft breweries in Coquitlam.”
Coquitlam council, having witnessed both neighbouring Tri-Cities become exponents of the craft wave and having seen its first new brewery become a hub, certainly recognizes the value at this point. “The City is definitely on board,” Byron confirms.
Of the Coquitlam hospitality scene in general, Vallis says, “It wasn’t until bubble tea and sushi started popping up that people would go out of their way to meet their friends and try something new. It’s really in the last two to four years that there’s been a resurgence in owner-operators trying to do something unique.”
Vallis and Mariner certainly fall into that category. But it’s been quite a jump from looking for beer with friends to supplying it to the community. Before that happened, Byron learned to homebrew and refined his craft while living with Lauren and her mother Sandy, fermenting his batches in their cloakroom. It took some time before his concoctions were ready to come out of the not-so-proverbial closet and become the foundation of a commercial enterprise.
Before jumping into the fray, Vallis conducted his own market research. “Having a background in science, I took a pretty data-driven approach,” he says. “One of the first things I did was spend a bunch of time at Yellow Dog counting people.” He asked himself, “How much beer do they sell out the front? What portion is growlers vs. glasses on site? How does that affect the business?”
Byron continues, “People say a lot about the camaraderie within the industry, but it still surprised me how encouraging they were.” Twin Sails Brewing was really helpful, Lauren shares. “Cody and Clay [Allmin] were fantastic,” Vallis agrees. “The whole Row was very supportive. Everyone knew Coquitlam would get a brewery at some point.”
Now Byron needed the right partners. Fortunately, as early as 2013, the biology student was working at an Art Knapp’s location under the tutelage of owner Wim Vander Zalm (son of a certain famous garden-owning former BC Premier; businessman and plant expert in his own right). When Vallis started making serious conversation about opening a brewery, Vander Zalm was listening and became an investor in Mariner. The search was on for a location, and they found one within a short walk from what became Coquitlam Station.
“The [Evergreen Extension] Skytrain was half under construction at that point,” recalls Vallis. “I knew the city was going to grow.” He mentions the community plan involves densification, which will make the area more urban over time. “They’re going to be building ten towers just down the street in the next five to ten years,” Lauren adds.
Still, it’s a scary proposition for a young couple to open a business as costly as a brewery. Vallis shares, “I’ve heard it said that it takes a really big ego to open a brewery. In hindsight, I’d say that’s true. ‘I’m going to make some damn good beer, and it’s going to be great.’”
With a plan, funding and a location settled, Mariner was shaping up. But even the most confident homebrewer can’t create a large commercial brewery on their own. Mariner’s first key hire would be a Head Brewer to help make Byron’s brews come to life on a larger scale.
MAKING IT SO
Kevin Wilson has been brewing commercially for over a decade. Originally a self-taught homebrewer, he joined the Vancouver Homebrewers Association (Vanbrewers) around 2008-09 and participated keenly enough that he was invited to judge at a few events.
In 2017, he heard that a new brewery was opening in the Tri-Cities. Interested in applying for the head brewer position, he found himself at an interview in an office tower boardroom. “Lauren’s father grilled me with all these serious questions,” he recalls. “But I got a good impression from them.” Byron was apparently also impressed, because Kevin started with Mariner in late spring 2017, while the brewery was being built.
“The first thing we did was hung out and played Star Trek Catan,” Wilson shares, underscoring the geeky side of the brewery’s management team. But eventually he realized “they were a lot more cool than they seemed at first.”
Lauren had graduated university in December 2016, a year after Byron. Rather than go out and try to find work in her field, she held down the fort at Mariner. “We knew we were going to need somebody full-time on site starting January 2017,” she says.
At that point, Vallis was still working at his full-time government job downtown, and doing brewery project management on his phone. “Byron would start his shift at the brewery around dinnertime,” Wilson recalls.
“He’d put in eight hours downtown, then eight more at the brewery, then come home and sleep for three,” Lauren adds. Meanwhile, “Kevin and I shared a tiny desk at the front of the construction site, yelling at plumbers all day.” Thanks to good planning, the brewery’s construction phase was completed in only about four months.
The process allowed the core team to gel. For Ang, it reinforced her commitment to the project. “Originally, Lauren was not too enthusiastic about the idea of opening a brewery,” Byron reveals. “It’s definitely not the simplest way to [be self-employed].” But Ang began to realize that this was something she wanted to do.
“My initial goal was to work with children in the school system,” shares Ang, who has a psychology degree. “I did a six-month co-op at a special needs school. It was really rewarding, but emotionally exhausting. While the kids were lovely, I realized it was not something I could do for the rest of my life.”
Working at Mariner made sense. “We decided originally I was going to be Taproom Manager – for at least the first year. Then it became my baby,” she shares. “I enjoyed it, and I also started to feel responsible for it.” Lauren named herself Mariner’s Chief Consumption Officer: “It’s the title you get when you get to make up your own title.”
Now, she says, “I can’t see moving on from Mariner. I think as we grow, and our business gets more established, my role will probably change. But I can’t imagine not being involved, in at least some way.”
THE NEXT GENERATION
Jeff Bressette is originally from Ontario. He studied sports psychology in New Brunswick, where he discovered craft beer drinking local Picaroons Traditional Ales. He arrived in BC three years ago, thirsty for knowledge that would help him break into the craft beer industry. So, he Googled “brewing school” and Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Brewing & Brewery Operations program came up. He began studies in the Brew Lab’s fourth-ever class.
In 2018, he took a summer job at mobile operator West Coast Canning and found himself working shifts canning batches of beer, occasionally at Mariner. Later on, a KPU classmate introduced him to Mariner’s owner Byron Vallis, who was looking to hire a brewer to work under Kevin.
“For the first year, the brewing was all me, but now Jeff is full time,” shares Wilson. “The business is successful enough that now, just being Head Brewer is what I need to do.”
“One thing we’ve been doing since inception is an Exploratory Batch program, with one-offs every Thursday,” Kevin explains. They release a new 100 litre batch each week. “By the end of the first year, I felt like I was scraping the bottom of the ideas barrel. Jeff is now leading that program.”
Bressette chips in, “For the one we’re doing tomorrow, I went to a grocery store and wandered around until I found something that could work.” But the search wasn’t totally random. “KPU drilled into you that everything you do is done for a reason,” he points out. “Like, when you’re picking ingredients, you’re doing it with the final flavour in mind.” He ended up with a bundle of Borage, which is a blue starflower that “tastes kind of like cucumbers.”
“I’d never heard of it,” confirms Wilson. But he isn’t fazed by it either. “If you look back to our starting beer lineup, it was really kind of basic and generic. We assumed we would have four core beers because that’s what the market would demand. We’ve found way more success with our experiments. The reception for all the crazy weird stuff has been great, and it’s just leading us to do more and more of that.”
“We have people that come in every Thursday to try it,” Ang notes. Vallis adds, “We learn a ton about ingredients, about scaling, and people’s preferences” through this series. “Trying not to fail was a big motivator in the beginning, but the experimentation is working better for us than trying to play it safe,” Wilson concludes.
For example, the colourful beer prominently featured on this magazine’s cover is Venture Blueberry Sour, which started as an Exploratory Batch beer (see Beer Me BC review previewed below). “It’s probably our most popular beer this summer,” says Kevin. “Our Strawberry Berliner Weiss is super popular, and everyone is excited about our Lemon Slice Sour.” This reporter can vouch for the tastiness of these brews.
Asked who comes up with the beer ideas, Wilson notes that Mariner’s recipe development is very collaborative amongst the brew team. People in the taproom, and even some regular customers, give their feedback as well. So far, it’s paying off.
ABOARD THE ENTERPRISE
As a BC craft beer fan, you’ve probably seen Mariner’s products at retail. Considering their modest tenure, they’ve done really well at getting their products on liquor store shelves. Vallis points out that their sales team has combined four or five decades of beverage alcohol sales experience. But more than that, there’s been some serious elbow grease by the owners as well.
“For the first year and a half, I did farmers’ markets every week,” Lauren points out. “We’re the only brewery that’s consistently been at the Coquitlam and Port Moody markets. You have to get up at 7am on a Sunday to pack the van and be there. In the winter, when it’s minus three out and nobody wants to drink beer,” they follow through anyway, she says.
“You have to be passionate about telling the community about your cool local brewery”, explains Vallis. “We’re young; we don’t have kids. We’re more on the work end of things. We just went all into it.”
As for work/life balance, he notes, “We’re trying to build more structure around things. We’re big on checklists.” They’re gaining a little more balance, and they’ve got their workday down close to eight hours. “I feel like we’re just emerging from the cave,” Vallis admits.
People often think that Mariner is bigger than it is. Byron says that friends sometimes mention, “You’ve grown so much; you’re everywhere!” He and Lauren try to temper such thoughts. “We’re a very small family business,” Ang reinforces. “For the last year, it was just Byron, me and (former team member) Val in the office. Three of our investors are biologically related to us.”
Despite their modest status, they’ve already begun giving back to the community. “We do a number of charity events, but the two we focus on are the Coquitlam Firefighter’s Charity and the Coquitlam Animal Shelter,” Ang explains (the latter receiving partial proceeds from their Homeward Bound Pale Ale, for instance).
The brewery itself has grown a patio out front, as well as another dog-friendly one out back that’s called the ‘beer garden’. Kids are welcome throughout the facility until 8pm. Food options have increased as well, with pizza-like flatbreads joining the menu in the past year.
Asked if they would consider opening a second location, like a taphouse near Coquitlam Centre, Byron confides that he’s definitely entertained the thought. “It would have to be very small,” he insists.
At the moment, that kind of growth is not the focus. This group of explorers needs to venture farther on their journey of beer discovery first. But with the earnest modesty of this group, there’s no danger of losing sight of that.
“What I lacked in experience, I made up for in enthusiasm,” says founder Vallis, who sets the tone. “We’re just really excited about making the best beer that we can.”