The brand manager of Granville Island Brewing, Jamie Bennett, likes to view Vancouver’s growing craft-beer industry as a reflection of the city’s creative economy.
Sitting over a glass of beer in the GIB Taproom, the Kitsilano-raised marketer told the Georgia Straight that when the brewery’s founders launched Island Lager in 1984, Canadians weren’t used to such a flavourful beer.
“We’ve ridden it ever since, but we’ve never stopped innovating,” Bennett said. “We’re the lab. That’s what we do. We want to invent great beers. We want to help people on their journey and celebrate all these things and experience new tastes.”
Bennett, who has an MBA from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, studied under Richard Florida, who has written numerous books about the rising importance of creative thinkers in the urban economy.
And as Granville Island Brewing prepares to celebrate its 30th birthday on June 9, Bennett is drawing on all of his creative smarts to help his company cope with far more competition than in its early days, when it presented a rare alternative to Labatt Blue, Molson Canadian, and a handful of imports.
It’s a challenge facing many other breweries trying to carve out market share in an increasingly crowded, billion-dollar B.C. beer market.
Some are promoting their local roots, others emphasize their support for local music and sporting events, and then there are those trumpeting their environmental credentials.
An explosion of microbreweries, particularly in Vancouver, has transformed the industry, making Granville Island look like a giant in comparison to some of the others.
According to the B.C. Craft Brewers Guild, there are 70 craft breweries across the province, with another 17 planning to open this year. About half are in the Lower Mainland.
Adam Chatburn, president of the Vancouver chapter of the Campaign for Real Ale, told the Straight by phone that microbreweries’ market share may reach 30 percent in the Lower Mainland this year, up from 22 percent last year. In B.C., a microbrewery is defined as any operation that produces no more than 160,000 hectolitres per year. (A hectolitre is 100 litres.)
The best known include Parallel 49 Brewing, Red Truck Brewing Co., Storm Brewing Co., Howe Sound Brewing, and Central City Brewers + Distillers, but there are also scores of “nanobreweries”, which have very small production runs and may offer their beverages in only one location.
Chatburn said that this has occurred despite delays in obtaining provincial licences in a timely manner.
“Whenever a brewery sells a beer, they have to give all of the money back to the government straight away and wait for the government to send them a cheque back,” he said. “It’s a very bizarre system that is really causing a lot of problems for a lot of breweries. It just goes to show that this craft-beer explosion is happening in spite of the government, not because of the government. They’re doing their level best to make things as difficult as possible, despite what they say.”
There has also been increasing globalization, with Molson merging with Coors. Another old Canadian standby, Labatt, is controlled by Anheuser-Busch InBev, which was created by a merger of Belgian and Brazilian beer giants.
The increasingly segmented beer market has resulted in some unusual partnerships. To obtain financing and superior distribution, some craft breweries have sought investment or been taken over by major breweries. (Shock Top, Blue Moon, and Goose Island are three examples from south of the border.)
“We kind of call them crafty beers because they’re marketed in a way to tap into that craft-beer market,” Chatburn said.
Granville Island Brewing is owned by Creemore Springs Brewery Ltd., which is controlled by Molson Coors Canada. The parent company operates a brewery in Kitsilano, and Bennett said that his company’s brewmaster, Vern Lambourne, still monitors the production of Granville Island beers, just as his predecessors did back in 1984.
“Now we’ve got enough that we can serve everybody who’s thirsty,” he added.
To reinforce the company’s local roots, Bennett has embarked on a significant rebranding exercise, which included updating the company logo and designing new packaging. The company has also created three categories of beer: Coastal Series, Under the Bridge, and Small Batch.
The Coastal Series began with Island Lager and includes English Bay Pale Ale, Cypress Honey Lager, and the seasonal Lions Winter Ale and False Creek Raspberry Ale, which features a giant red image of Science World on the label.
The new Under the Bridge category features more flavourful beers, including Swing Span Amber Ale and the soon-to-be-released Hey Day Hefeweizen, Maple Shack Cream Ale, and Infamous IPA.
Bennett explained that this series is designed to highlight the history of Granville Island, which has evolved from an industrial hub to a bustling and artsy dockside market and dining area.
“The Hey Day is about the heyday times,” Bennett said. “This was an industrial island before it was Granville Island, and [company founder] Mitch Taylor and the barefoot gang came in. Swing Span, of course, is referring to the old bridge, which is a swing span that crossed this area.”
The Small Batch series are strong-flavoured beers such as Shamrocker Potato Stout, Uncle Monty’s Best Bitter, and Auld Skool Scottish Ale, which are cooked up by brewmaster Lambourne. On this day, he’s hosing down the cement floor alongside tanks of beer in the brewery beside the taproom on Granville Island.
In an interview with the Straight, Lambourne revealed that when he was a biochemistry student at the University of Victoria, he dreamed of becoming a winemaker.
“I thought that would be the coolest thing in the world,” he said. “Then I discovered beer and changed my mind. I make beer for a living and I love it.”
He’s not the only one in love with his job. Over at the new Central City Brewers + Distillers facility in North Surrey, marketing and sales vice president Tim Barnes told the Straight that his company’s top priority is to create beer that it wanted to make and to have fun doing it.
In the building’s lobby, he pointed to a brewpub, a liquor store, and an area reserved for merchandise, including cycling gear, in homage to Central City’s Red Racer craft beer. According to Barnes, the company’s new India Session Ale was designed for cyclists as a lighter beer with less alcohol.
On this day, the brewpub was full because a large crowd had been on-site for the launch of the company’s newest beverage, Maple Bacon Breakfast Ale.
Barnes likened the rising popularity of microbreweries to what’s going on in the food and wine industries.
“People are thinking more about local products overall in their basket of goods that they buy,” he said.
During a tour of the brewery, Barnes revealed that Central City is creating about 18,000 hectolitres of beer “on an annualized basis”.
The current capacity is about 35,000 hectolitres.
“So we’re still about half of what we need to do,” he noted. “We’re still not full, but through the summer, we will be. As new markets come onboard, we plan to finish the year close to 30,000.”
Central City beer is available in six provinces and the states of Washington and Oregon.
Over the next three months, distribution will reach California, New York, New Jersey, and the New England states.
The company plans to reach 100,000 hectolitres in its fifth year of operation, and there are also stills creating vodka, gin, and whiskey on the premises.
Barnes, a former manager at Labatt, said that globalization of the beer market may have created room for locally produced craft beers.
He pointed out that Coors Lite and Budweiser have emerged as their respective corporations’ “forefront brands” in Canada over Molson Canadian and Labatt Blue.
That’s because it’s easier to market these products around the world. “The Canadian brands, the local brands, are backroom brands,” he said.
Marketing involves creating a personality around a product, particularly in the beer industry. When asked what Central City would be like if it were a person, Barnes replied: “I would say someone that’s friendly, not pretentious, definitely down-to-earth, but smart—probably a bit of a smart-ass with a witty sense of humour.”
Craft beers are rapidly gaining market share in the Lower Mainland, but Barnes said it’s still Budweiser country across much of B.C. However, even outside Greater Vancouver, a brewery-industry veteran has noticed significant changes.
Kazuko Komatsu, president and CEO of Pacific Western Brewing Co., spoke to the Straight at a company event honouring “hometown heroes” at the Terminal City Club.
Hosted by Olympic speed skater Denny Morrison, it showcased how the B.C.–based brewery is financially supporting amateur athletes.
In the 23 years that she’s been in charge, Komatsu has noticed that consumers’ tastes have become far more individualized. Her company produces almost 30 lines of beer, including some created in a microbrewery set up inside a bigger plant.
“It used to be more mass production,” Komatsu stated. “Now, everybody has different tastes.”
She’s also noticed another significant transformation. When she began, there were almost no women in management in the beer industry.
“I was the first one to hire female sales reps,” Komatsu said with a smile.
Sybil Taylor, communications director at Toronto-based Steam Whistle Brewing, is another one of the female pioneers. On the phone from her home, she told the Straight that she was the first person hired, in August 1999, six months before the first bottle was created.
Steam Whistle, which produces a premium beer, has distinguished itself with its environmental initiatives.
One of its marketers, local medical researcher Mike Kiraly, can be spotted driving around town in an electrified 1958 Chevrolet Apache pickup that runs on 24 lithium-ion batteries.
“He drives around the province hawking our sustainable suds in this emissions-free truck,” Taylor said. “I think that truck represents what Steam Whistle is about, because there are these fun retro elements to our brand, yet we’ve got this modern environmental conscience.”
Taylor, founder of the brewery’s environmental committee, rattled off a list of things Steam Whistle is doing to reduce its environmental footprint.
Its green bottles are made of slightly heavier glass than regular brown bottles, and last three to four times longer. It has achieved 96-percent diversion from the waste stream through its recycling efforts, and it pays for commercial composting and uses biodiesel in trucks.
“What I think maybe is different about us is we try to look at every element of our operations,” Taylor said.
Like many other breweries, including Central City and Granville Island Brewing, Steam Whistle invites the public to tour its operation, take pictures, and ask questions.
Nowadays, everyone wants to put their best face forward to stay ahead of the pack.
The days of only being a Blue or Canadian drinker have been consigned to history.