Earlier this year, Vancouver Craft Beer Week cofounder Leah Heneghan found herself halfway around the world, exploring the majestic ruins of Angkor in Cambodia’s exotic Siem Reap. To get a handle on what she loves most about our province’s booming craft-beer movement—inclusion and community being major buzzwords—it helps to flash back to that trip. Heneghan was a stranger in a strange land in Cambodia, but that didn’t stop her from making fast friends with strangers.
“In Siem Reap, me being me, I was like, ‘I wonder if there’s any beer here?’ ” she says, kicking back in her West End apartment on a sunny Vancouver spring day. “There were a couple of brew pubs, one in particular called the Local, run by a couple of American guys. We went in there, sat down at the bar, and started talking and talking about beer. They said, ‘What do you do?’ and I said, ‘I run Vancouver Craft Beer Week.’ ”
Along with technical director Tyler Olson and business-development director Paul Kamon, Heneghan has been part of VCBW since launching the yearly event in 2010. If she has learned anything over the years, it’s that there’s something about sitting down with a pint or a flight that brings people together.
“Immediately, I had a community around me in Cambodia,” she marvels. “They wanted to show me the brewery, tell me where to go in town, and other places that I might want to see. I built this instant little beer family in the middle of Cambodia.”
The same thing might very well have happened on these shores had Heneghan been visiting Vancouver from halfway around the world. With the ninth edition of Vancouver Craft Beer Week (Friday to next Sunday [May 25 to June 3]) on the horizon, she’s been thinking about what makes British Columbia special. A major thing, of course, is that Vancouver is able to throw something as big as a weeklong celebration of all things beer, which includes daily events across the city, from tap takeovers to fruit- and sour-beer showcases to a Port Moody brewmaster’s dinner to a Gastown pub walk. (For a full rundown of events, as well as dates and ticketing, go to the Vancouver Craft Beer Week website.)
Over 180 craft breweries now operate across the province, meaning more businesses competing for a share of an ever-expanding market. That’s done nothing to dampen the original spirit of B.C. craft brewers.
“One of the things that I really love is that, right from the beginning of this whole movement, everybody is really supportive of each other,” Heneghan says. “Everybody wants everyone to do well. Look at all the breweries in East Van or Mount Pleasant or [Port Moody’s] brewers’ row—everyone works together to make each other successful. And using the Port Moody breweries as an example, they’re working with a lot of local businesses—bringing in meat from local butchers, promoting those businesses to help them succeed.”
In that spirit of teamwork, one of VCBW’s signatures is its collaboration beer. Heneghan and company bring together multiple breweries to produce a special one-time beer; this year’s offering is a double dry-hopped pilsner from North Vancouver’s Beere Brewing, Whistler’s Coast Mountain Brewing, and Squamish’s Backcountry Brewing. The Sea-to-Sky breweries helped develop the recipe and participate in the brewing process at Backcountry.
That VCBW’s collab beer for 2018 brings together breweries from beyond city limits isn’t an accident. Heneghan points out that craft beer is now a provincewide phenomenon. For proof, look no further than the B.C. Ale Trail, a tourism initiative by Destination British Columbia and the B.C. Craft Brewers Guild committed to building the profile of the province’s microbrew community. This year’s collaboration, available in select specialty liquor stores, bars, and restaurants, is one way of making sure that Vancouver Craft Beer Week isn’t just about Vancouver.
“We wanted to bring people who are a little bit further afield together for our collaboration brew,” Heneghan says. “The craft-beer community is throughout B.C.”
For Backcountry brewer John Folinsbee, the fun of this year’s collaboration process was working with, and bonding with, like-minded folks from across the province. After Backcountry sat down with Beere and Coast Mountain brewmasters over pizza and—you guessed it—beer, to work out this year’s pilsner, the real fun happened.
“One of the greatest things you can do as a brewer is go and show up at another brewery where they are making the beer,” Folinsbee says with a laugh. “You kind of get to just hang out for the day, shoot the shit and talk beer while drinking beer. It’s always more fun to watch other people than work yourself. The VCBW collaboration beer is kind of a notorious party. You’ve got 40 to 50 breweries showing up, usually with samples to try. We’ve got a full tap list, so everyone gets together to just hang out.”
As part of that, the beer community grows. While Folinsbee wasn’t familiar with Beere Brewing at first, he now raves about their IPA. And he notes that things like the VCBW collaboration are indeed only going to boost the profile of breweries outside Vancouver.
“There are so many breweries opening up on the Sea-to-Sky that the Craft Beer Week people really wanted to showcase what we’re doing up here,” he says.
As in past years, this year’s offering will benefit Eastside Boxing Club, which will use the money for its free female self-defence program, offered, Heneghan says, to “people who female-identify, nonbinary folks, and members of the LGBTTQQ2S community”.
Eastside Boxing founder Dave Schuck says the nonprofit club is committed to helping at-risk youths and women who’ve been victims of violence. The youth program runs five days a week, and includes an organic meal, clothing, tutoring, and access to scholarships.
“It’s almost a one-stop shop for kids—we’ve even got a doctor that comes in and sees them,” Schuck says, interviewed by phone. “Vancouver Craft Beer Week and the collaboration beer is just another example of how the community comes together and works towards a great good. We wouldn’t have these programs if things like Vancouver Craft Beer Week wasn’t involved.”
Noting she grew up in East Van in the pre-gentrification years, Heneghan adds: “Eastside Boxing is a place for kids to go and hang out if their folks are working and they don’t have anywhere to go after school. Hanging out at the gym means they aren’t getting into trouble. Being from East Van, I can totally relate to that. I probably could have used some place like Eastside Boxing to go after school.”
And Eastside Boxing recently gave the city’s craft brewers, as well as those associated with the industry—canners, hops producers, and event planners—a chance not only to hang out, but also to hone and then display their boxing skills with something called Beer Wars. The event, which culminated in an evening of boxing at the Croatian Cultural Centre on April 8, had industry players train and then step into the ring. Beer Wars raised $50,000 this year for the day-to-day running of the gym.
“People from all different breweries get together and train, and then end up fighting each other,” Schuck says. “What’s great is that it’s not an adversarial thing. They get together and train as a team, and get to know each other, which is great for networking. It shows everyone how everyone is willing to work together despite being competition. It’s intensive training for three months, and then, boom, the big show. It’s a healthy alternative to what they often normally do, which is events that tend to be beer-based.”
VCBW’s East Vancouver roots run deep, with the event’s first-ever festival in 2010 taking place at Heritage Hall on Main. This year’s launch happens at the Maritime Labour Centre just off Victoria Drive, with beers from over 25 breweries on offer. Also featured will be feats of strength like lifting barstools, thumb wars, and planking with a pint of beer on one’s back. The choice of the Maritime Labour Centre was carefully thought out, starting with its proximity to breweries like Parallel 49 and Doan’s Craft Brewing.
“East Van is such a huge beer district,” Heneghan says. “I grew up there, Paul grew up there, and Tyler lived in East Van, and we all love it there. It’s very close to all of our hearts.”
Talk to anyone living in the shadow of the mighty East Van cross, and they’ll tell you that craft-beer culture has helped change the fabric of their neighbourhoods. Whether you’re talking Main Street’s Brassneck Brewery and Red Truck Beer Company, Strathcona’s Luppolo Brewing and Off the Rail, or the Drive’s Doan’s Craft Brewing and Parallel 49, breweries have become go-to destinations in the community. Sit at a long table at your local establishment and chances are good you’re going to get to know your neighbours.
“People often ask us, ‘Why do you think that craft beer has grown so much?’ ” Heneghan says. “I don’t know if this is Vancouver-specific, but we actually do like to get to know the people who live and work around us. Being able to go down to your local brewery and hang out with your neighbours, bring your family or meet your friends, is great for making you feel like there’s a certain energy in your community. We went through so many years of not knowing who lived next door. Now you’re going down to your local watering hole and getting to know the people who live around you.”
Given VCBW’s East Van roots, and the number of breweries on the East Side of the city, it’s no accident, then, that one of the weeklong celebration’s most wildly popular events—its craft-beer festival—takes place at the PNE Fairgrounds on June 2 and 3.
This year’s festival will feature a cavalcade of food trucks, more than 300 beers and ciders (including 30-plus beers from 15 different breweries in the States), a new VIP area with catering and specialty products, and a beer garden spotlighting B.C.–bred musical acts like Youngblood and Tanglers. A B.C. Ale Trail area will highlight offerings from different regions of the province, with over 10 beers pouring on an “ale trail(er)”. Also in the same area will be a craft-beer market lounge with games.
“It’s a big, big festival and another example of different groups coming together in one place,” says Heneghan, who acts as the festival’s director. “We’re working with the Vancouver Mural Festival, so we’ll have artists painting on-site, so people can talk to them and meet them while they are creating beautiful pieces for VCBW.”
Heneghan notes that’s she excited to see ciders becoming a bigger part of the Vancouver Craft Beer Week Festival.
“There are going to be 12 different cideries on-site, and quite a few haven’t been to the festival before, and wouldn’t be able to come if we weren’t doing what we’re calling Cider Row,” she says. “They are another great example of how fast craft is growing in B.C. I’m a huge proponent of cider. I lived in England for eight years and drank cider the whole time I was there. There was a handful of cideries when we first started VCBW, and now there are something like over 30.”
More than ever, Heneghan enthuses, Vancouver’s craft-beer scene is bringing people together in a city that has a reputation for being cold and aloof. That’s reason enough to be excited about VCBW, no matter how you might be involved.
“In a day and age where we’re all tied to our phones and social media, it’s good to have reasons for people to be in the same room,” Heneghan says. “Beer gives us a common thread. It gives us a great opportunity to sit down and talk.”
For more information on Vancouver Craft Beer Week, go to the Vancouver Craft Beer Week website.