September 12, 2013 Features & Images » Feature Story

Brew it and they will come 

Whistler's inaugural craft beer festival storms out of the gate

click to flip through (10) PHOTO BY VINCE SHULEY. - Brewmaster Derrick Franche has been steering the Brewhouse for the last two years. His 5 Rings IPA won best IPA at last year's B.C. Beer Awards.
  • Photo by Vince Shuley.
  • Brewmaster Derrick Franche has been steering the Brewhouse for the last two years. His 5 Rings IPA won best IPA at last year's B.C. Beer Awards.

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Riding the wave of B.C.'s 'Beerconomy'

Craft beer has been around in B.C. since the early '80s but it has only been in the last few years that the movement has exploded into a full-fledged industry. According to reports by the B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch (BCLDB), since 2006 craft beer sales have grown by 20 per cent each year while mainstream beer sales have fallen flat or declined slightly. The share of craft in total beer sales has also tripled from six to 18 per cent during the same time period.

"(The province) is starting to react to the interest in craft beer, I don't know if they're being proactive and recognizing the strength of the industry as much as they could," says Joe Wiebe, beer writer and author of "Craft Beer Revolution: The Insider's Guide to B.C. Breweries."

"(The Ontario government) supplied millions of dollars in marketing money to the Ontario craft brewers association a few years ago, B.C. is not doing anything like that. I'd love to see the government recognize and support it as they have the wine industry for years."

An article in the National Post in June suggests of a bubble forming around the Vancouver craft beer industry, but to counter this notion Wiebe points to the success south of the border. In Portland, the percentage of craft beer consumed has been as high as 40 per cent, he says.

"We could grow another 10 per cent and still not be anywhere near Oregon. That's huge. I think there's a lot of potential left, I don't know if it will continue at this pace much longer but I think it will continue to grow and that growth can be sustained."

The review of B.C.'s near-century old liquor regime points to a positive change for the industry, but there is still plenty of progress to be made. Draft beer distribution has become easier with many bars and restaurants allocating more taps to craft breweries, but government liquor stores still insist on keeping craft beer boxed into the far corners of the retail floor.

"The national beer brands have been on the decline for the last decade yet the government and the BCLDB gives them the lion's share of real estate in the government stores," says Don Gordon, director of sales for Whistler Brewing Company and director of the B.C. Craft Brewers Guild.

"We need to educate the government, and bar and restaurant associations, on craft beer and the changing palate of the consumer."

The economic benefits of the craft beer boom also needs to be recognized and endorsed, says Gordon.

"For every brewery that opens up, there's another hop farm that's opening, another metal fabricator making tanks, trades people building breweries and trades people making beer."

Back in Whistler the rise of craft beer has been challenged in the past by the tourism being confined to the peak winter and summer seasons.

"Prior to a few years ago, Whistler was a destination place and the shoulder seasons were so (quiet) and it was it was dominated by big brewers," says Gordon.

"Now there's more people coming to Whistler and more traffic in the shoulder seasons than ever before. There's more people coming in from the Pacific North West looking for exciting beer styles and more flavours."

The rebranding of the Whistler Brewing Company also helped revitalize the local market. Since the overhaul of the recipes by brewmaster Joe Gutz (the man behind the early success years of Granville Island Brewing) and the opening of its Function Junction location in 2009, locals and tourists alike have begun to identify with the locally made beer. You can also tour the brewery and sample everything on tap.

"The brewery really helped the Whistler community appreciate all the different craft beers that are out there," says Gordon.

"We're educating tourists, but we're also talking to the staff in the bars and the restaurants."

Converting mainstream beer drinkers to craft is what has fuelled its massive growth, both in Whistler and the entire province. Stoker has turned the Dubh Linn Gate from being just another Irish pub into Whistler's premier beer boutique. The change has turned some heads among local beer drinkers and he intends the WVBF to do just that, but on a much larger scale.

"Hopefully, what this is going to do is really shake the culture up here, wake a lot of people up and realize that this craft beer thing is here to stay and it's better than what we've been doing," says Stoker.

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