Cornucopia's other lesser-known attraction: beer

Cornucopia is a little more than a month away and while most are focused on the food, the wine and the bubbly, my eye is on the beer.

According to Statistics Canada, Canadians downed the equivalent of 77.2 litres of brew each last year compared to only 15 litres of wine per person.

Brewers like Whistler Brewing, Granville Island and Phillips Beer are supplying some of the demand for all those suds and all three companies will have product samples available at Cornucopia's House Party on Thursday, Nov. 10.

Wine may get most of the attention, but beer will definitely have its place too during Whistler's biggest celebration of epicurean delights.

The micro-brewing industry is growing in North America, according to the Brewers Association, craft brewing industry. In 2010 it went up at a rate of 11 per cent by volume and 12 per cent by dollars compared to growth in 2009 of 7.2 per cent by volume and 10.3 per cent by dollars.

That's an interesting statistic considering that there is an overall decline in the popularity of beer. Many in the industry feel that it is the microbreweries, such as those on display at Cornucopia, that are keeping the domestic beer industry afloat.

Fortunately for us in the Sea to Sky corridor, there is a long history of pioneering when it comes to brewing beer.

John Mitchell and Frank Appleton were pioneers back in the 1980's when they opened what many believe was North America's first modern craft brewery at Horseshoe Bay.

If you fast-forward to today there are three craft beer operations well established with growing annual sales in the corridor.

The Whistler Brewing Company made its debut in 1989 and a few years later Bill Herdman and David Philip set sail on a microbrewery adventure in Squamish with their Tall Ship Ale Company. Sadly the Tall Ship left the dock for the last time in 1998 and didn't return.

Howe Sound Brewing came into the picture in 1996 when Dave Fenn and Stephen Shard, with help from John Mitchell, opened their hotel, pub and restaurant facility in Squamish. Mark James jumped into the local brew phenomena with the Whistler Brewhouse and now has similar concepts in North Vancouver, Richmond, Surrey and Yaletown.

It is appropriate that the corridor is home to these fine brew operations in light of the fact that The Squamish Valley Hop Company grew, harvested and then delivered hops to beer makers around the world about 100 years ago.

But things have changed drastically since John Mitchell, known as the grandfather of micro brewing in Canada, imported some dairy equipment from the United Kingdom to set up a brew operation in Horseshoe Bay back in the early 1980's.

Brewers are now using state-of-the-art equipment to create one of the world's oldest mind-bending beverages.

The stories of how the small brewers got started are fascinating.

The Whistler Brewing Company's tale is filled with tears and smiles as the locally conceived brew was transplanted from its Function Junction home to Alberta after the prairie province's Big Rock Beer bought and moved it east over the Rockies. But in 2009 the local love affair was back on when Big Rock gave up on the brand and the taps opened again across the street from the brewery's original Function Junction location.

Phillips Beer "begins with an outlandish idea, a passionate brewer and a stream of refusal," according to founder Matt Phllips.

After working at a number of B.C. breweries, including stops in Whistler and Horseshoe Bay, Phillips started his own operation in Victoria. The upstart brewery was financed using credit cards when local banks failed to back his business plan.

Granville Island Brewery has been around since 1984 and now brews eight different flavours and ten limited release brews. It is one of Canada's largest microbreweries and prides itself on using local ingredients. It has become well known for its special offers, such as the Pumpkin Ale now available. The popularity of these microbrews hasn't been lost on the big beer producers, leading to Molson's purchase of GIB recently.

So while there is no doubt that the wine will flow and the bubbly will sparkle at Cornucopia everyone should make a point of trying our local brews and indulging in a craft that has been around these parts for decades.

Most Cornucopia participants will sniff the intoxicating grape juice, stare at the legs, comment on aroma and then expel into spittoons while a few others will pass on all that sophistication and choose the ales and lagers.

I intend to take it all in and report on all the fun expected at Cornucopia but my heart will be with the beer and my hand will be most at home holding a frosty cold mug.


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