With Vancouver Craft Beer Week about to celebrate a milestone 10-year anniversary, it makes sense to begin where it all started. Before there was an annual 10-day celebration in venues across the city—ranging this year from the marquee giant outdoor festival at the PNE Fairgrounds to small-scale bike tours to a burlesque bacchanalia—there was an informal gathering of like-minded dreamers at Gastown’s Alibi Room.
At that meeting were three of the people who would start what’s become the city’s premier beer bash: Leah Heneghan, Tyler Olson, and Paul Kamon. They would become the core team behind VCBW. Heneghan today serves as Vancouver Craft Beer Week’s festival director, with Olson the technical director, and Kamon in charge of business development. (Rounding out the team is marketing director Chris Bjerrisgaard.)
Looking back, Heneghan remembers the Alibi Room being chosen for a reason.
“Back then, there wasn’t really a lot of places to get really good craft beer in town,” she says, interviewed on her cellphone while running VCBW errands around the city. “The Alibi was kind of the epicentre for beer in Vancouver for a lot of people. We had our first VCBW meeting upstairs at the Alibi Room during brunch. In many ways that was by design. It made sense for a small flock of people who were trying to start a big beer party to go to the place where you could get good beer in Vancouver.”
That the Alibi Room ended up being the unofficial ground zero for Vancouver Craft Beer Week—running Friday (May 31) to June 9 this year at locations around the region—was fitting, given the history and everyone-is-welcome philosophy of the room. When owner Nigel Springthorpe arrived on the West Coast in the ’90s as a 19-year-old from northern England, the city was anything but the sophisticated beer mecca it’s blossomed into today.
“There were all these great restaurants where you’d have a fantastic chef at the helm, an amazing wine program, and some superstar bartender guy putting together amazing cocktails,” says Springthorpe, interviewed on a sun-drenched spring Sunday in Vancouver. “And then there would be three crappy beers on tap.”
After seven years as a staffer at a then cocktailcentric Alibi Room, Springthorpe bought the spot and transformed it into what it is today, one of Vancouver’s most beloved, grassroots craft-beer shrines.
“Movie guys originally owned the place, and they kind of wanted a place where their friends could hang out for things like script readings,” he recalls. “It kind of had an air of ‘It’s for you, but it’s not for you’—there was kind of an exclusivity thing. I figured it would be a better use of the place if it was for everybody. That’s why the beer thing fits in. Beer is a drink for everybody, unlike a fancy cocktail.”
With that observation, Springthorpe also sums up the appeal of Vancouver Craft Beer Week. What started out as an informal brunch at the Alibi Room has mushroomed into one of the city’s most-loved celebrations. Ten years after the idea of VCBW was officially hatched at the spot, Springthorpe remains continually impressed by the way the now-massive event promotes the ideas of community and, just as importantly, inclusivity. In the beginning, craft beer was widely seen as something for homebrew nerds and fixie-riding Main Street denizens who looked like they’d just arrived from the set of Portlandia. Today, all of the city is welcome to the party.
“VCBW has taken the beer scene forward from a slightly insular group of a few people who in the beginning were really pushing things,” Springthorpe opines. “That sounds like it has negative connotations, but it shouldn’t—that group was always there to support every early beer event in Vancouver, from beer dinners to tap takeovers. But VCBW has really taken the beer scene from an almost under-the-surface, sort of counter-culture kind of thing to something that is in the mainstream. They’ve made it accessible for everyone.”
The first edition of Vancouver Craft Beer Week took place back in 2010, culminating in an intimate one-day festival that drew 100 or so enthusiasts to Main Street’s Heritage Hall. After outgrowing a succession of sites (including the River Rock Casino Resort parking lot and a city-owned space in False Creek) in the years that followed, the fest component of the week finally settled at the PNE.
From a decidedly small-scale beginning, that festival part of VCBW now spans two days with live music, a small platoon of food trucks, and of course rivers upon golden-amber rivers of beer. More than 100 breweries and cideries from Canada and the States will be on-site to pour over 300 beer and ciders this June 8 and 9, with bands on-stage including Dead Soft, BB, the Campfire Shitkickers, Vinyl Ritchie, DJ Sheldon Knight, and the Eleven Twelves.
It was during 2018’s festival at the PNE that Heneghan realized how far VCBW had come.
“Paul, Tyler, and I all have music-festival backgrounds, and we really wanted to build the kind of party that we wanted to go to,” she says. “We had this not-so-secret garden area at the PNE that I referred to as the bovine lounge because there was a little cow sculpture. I walked up to it and people were laughing, drinking beer, dancing everywhere, and I thought, ‘This is insane. This has become a totally crazy thing—we’ve built an awesome party which attracts thousands and thousands of people.’ ”
This year’s Vancouver Craft Beer Week will include the usual cavalcade of signature events, highlights including but by no means limited to: a Forbidden Fruit celebration of fruit beers at the Devil’s Elbow Ale + Smokehouse on June 6; a Sour Beer Session at Strange Fellows Brewing on June 5; North Van Beer Bike tours from Friday (May 31) to June 8; and a Beers on Board boat excursion on June 7. (For a full list of festivities, go to vancouvercraftbeerweek.com/events/.)
As always, the goal is to expand the audience of Vancouver Craft Beer Week. The team this year made a concerted effort to spread things out across the city, which is why you’ll find events everywhere from Whole Foods on Cambie to Timber in the West End to the American in the Downtown Eastside.
“What we wanted was to turn VCBW into an actual citywide celebration of the craft-beer scene,” Heneghan says. “We consider ourselves to be a conversion engine, so the more inclusive we can be with getting craft beer to the masses, the better.”
The term conversion engine is one that surfaces more than once with Heneghan. Asked to elaborate, she says that the goal of VCBW’s founders is to grow a scene first embraced by grassroots beer hipsters. No one today, she says, is looked down upon for not knowing the difference between a dry-hopped hazy IPA and a fruit bomb kettle sour.
“We are all beer nerds—self-proclaimed, with no problems owning that,” Heneghan says. “In the beginning, that’s kind of what all of our events were geared towards. We had really special beers, brewers coming up from the States for all these special events. Then we watched the festival start to grow from 100 people in year one to 1,400 the next year, then 4,000 the year after that. That’s when we started to realize there’s a huge market for this. A lot of people want to drink good beer. So it was like, ‘Let’s start getting those big beers out of people’s hands, and put in a craft lager.’
“We’ve also tried to get the word out that craft beer is for everyone to experience and enjoy,” she adds, “and also to understand that craft beers aren’t just IPAs and lagers—but instead there’s a beer for everybody. My mom used to hate beer and would never drink it. Now I have her buying beer all the time.”
VCBW’s efforts to expand the way people think about beer have paid off in things like Vancouver’s decidedly upscale Sutton Place Hotel hosting a Sommelier vs. Cicerone pairing dinner on Saturday (June 1).
“I think the Sutton Place Hotel is a really great example of how far craft beer has come,” Heneghan says. “They are revamping their beverage program to have a bunch of craft beer on their menu. That’s huge.”
But not as huge as Vancouver Craft Beer Week has grown in its 10 years.
A big part of each VCBW is its collaborative beer, where different brewers from around the province come together to create a one-of-a-kind offering. This year’s collab had Delta’s Four Winds Brewing Co. spearheading things, with considerable help from Burnaby’s Dageraad Brewing and Vancouver’s Powell Brewery. That team came together to create a dry-hopped table saison loaded with exotic fruit accents.
“Leah came to us with the idea of doing a dry-hopped table beer—something light and easy to drink in the summer,” says Four Winds cofounder Brent Mills. “It has enough flavour that people are interested in it, but low enough alcohol that you can have a few and not get burned out on it.”
Having participated in past collaboration brews, Mills jumped at the chance to work with Dageraad Brewing and Powell, mostly because they are run by people he met through business and who have become friends.
“We’ve been excited to host one of these for a few years now,” he says. “We’ve been open for six years, and we always thought, ‘One of these years we’ll get to do it because we’ve had such a good time going to other breweries.’”
As someone who’s watched VCBW grow over the past decade, Mills is amazed at the way things have taken off across the region—from the streets of Strathcona to the suburbs of Burnaby and Delta to the city of Surrey.
“The reason why I love it so much is that I don’t like to be exclusive in any sense,” he notes. “That goes right down to the design of our beers—I’m open to talking about how we make our beers to anyone.”
The art on VCBW’s 10th-anniversary-collab cans is almost as important as the beer inside them. Artist Luke Ramsey was commissioned to illustrate and connect standout stories from VCBW’s first decade—something he did Rube Goldberg–style.
“The big focus for the art was what that last 10 years have been, and the defining moments along the way,” Heneghan says. “Like the story of the folks from Parallel 49, when we had our festival out at the River Rock Casino. At the end of the festival, all the Parallel 49 guys—or so the story goes—pooled their money, went into the casino, and bet on 49 black and it hit. Stuff that’s kind of ridiculous, but also awesome.”
Included in the illustrations is a nod to the Alibi Room, which after serving as the launching pad for Vancouver Craft Beer Week a decade ago, then hosted one of its most legendary events—Hoppapalooza—in the event’s first year. Looking back, Springthorpe remembers that first blowout being glorious pandemonium, a blur of live music, two seatings, and a demand for the day’s specialty beers that was impossible to keep up with.
This year, as it celebrates its 13th birthday and 1,000th beer list, the Alibi will also celebrate VCBW’s anniversary by bringing back Hoppapalooza for a second time.
Springthorpe—whose mini empire now includes stakes in the Brassneck Brewery and the new Magnet pub—reveals what he loves most about the business he’s in is the sense of people pulling together.
“None of this has been on my own,” he says. “I have my wife, my brother and sister-in-law, and partners at the Alibi Room and at the brewery and at the Magnet to thank. It’s always my name that pops up, but it’s them and the crew and the staff at the Alibi and the brewery that makes all this work.”
He notes that the Alibi conversion to a craft-beer mainstay wouldn’t have worked without a crew that understands people want to feel welcome when they’re out for a beer.
And the ongoing legacy of Vancouver Craft Beer Week, he says, is 10 years of making everyone feel like they are part of the party.
“They’ve taken craft beer from this bubbling-underground-ish thing to this completely mainstream thing,” Springthorpe says. “They can take a lot of credit for that. It’s something that’s now embedded in our dining and drinking culture in a way that wasn’t before. I didn’t see that coming, but I’m glad we were able to be a part of it on the ground level.”
Vancouver Craft Beer Week celebrates its 10th anniversary at locations around the region from Friday (May 31) to June 9. For a full breakdown of events, go to vancouvercraftbeerweek.com/.