The owners of the Sunset Grill Tap House & Whiskey Bar, Gary Reilly and Fred Wilson, compare their bar in Kitsilano to the one made famous in a long-running U.S. sitcom.
“We really are like a Cheers,” Reilly told the Georgia Straight inside the 26-year-old establishment near the corner of York Avenue and Yew Street. “We know everybody’s name when they come in the door. I guess that’s been our formula.”
The high-school buddies from David Thompson secondary have operated one of the longest-running businesses near Kitsilano Beach. But they haven’t survived by remaining stuck in the 1990s.
Ten years ago, they launched the Brewery Creek Liquor Store in Mount Pleasant, becoming pioneers in promoting Vancouver’s burgeoning craft-beer industry.
Now, there are 1,000 different beers available through their retail outlet on Main Street, according to Wilson.
“The government liquor stores had no inclination to get into that area at that time,” he noted. “It was private stores that changed the culture.”
Reilly confessed that at first, he thought it was “crazy” when a former store manager kept ordering craft beers from small breweries, but they kept selling. And this, he noted, has helped educate staff at the Sunset Grill Tap House & Whiskey Bar about changing consumer tastes.
Recently, Reilly and Wilson won approval from Vancouver city council to convert the licensing of 61 seats inside and a 20-seat outdoor patio from food-primary into liquor-primary, which will enable them to serve alcohol on the patio.
It’s part of a broader city trend that has more people drinking and socializing in neighbourhoods, including along bicycle routes where the Sunset Grill and several craft breweries are located.
Sitting beside Reilly, the general manager, Jennifer Musser, explained that four or five years ago, the Sunset Grill Tap House & Whiskey Bar sold many more beers by national and international breweries.
Now, most of the 16 taps supply craft beers from B.C. breweries, including Howe Sound Brewing, Central City, and Driftwood, as well as Ontario-based Mill Street, which she described as making a “great organic lager”.
“Labatt came in the house the other day,” Musser said. “They want very much to be part of us, but the customer is driving us a different way.”
Craft-beer industry faces challenges
According to the Justice Ministry, there are 25 breweries in Vancouver, compared to just 12 on January 1, 2013. Even though craft beer is thriving across the city in rooms ranging from the Bimini Public House on the West Side to the Alibi Room in the Downtown Eastside, the industry still faces obstacles.
The B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch’s new wholesale-pricing model has reduced margins for private liquor stores, which have traditionally promoted craft beers.
In addition, some craft breweries are not permitted to operate tasting lounges where they can sell more than 12 ounces of beer, whereas others have this privilege attached to their licence.
Reilly also wishes that the province would allow liquor-primary licensees to sell growlers to go.
"It's not really on their agenda, I don't think," he said.
The executive director of the B.C. Craft Brewers Guild, Ken Beattie, told the Straight by phone that there are 94 craft breweries and brewpubs across the province. He noted that in Vancouver, there are five companies offering craft-brewery tours.
“We would like to see the government promote local B.C.–produced beers more than they do currently—similar to the partnership that they have with VQA wine,” Beattie said.
Central City goes downtown
Darryll Frost, president and founder of Surrey-based Central City Brewers + Distillers, remains bullish on craft beer and spirits, even as he expresses exasperation over how the B.C. government recently adjusted the malt levy to assist “Big Beer”.
He spoke to the Straight inside the hollowed-out former Dix brewpub on Beatty Street, which is being converted into a new Central City Downtown brewpub.
“When you consider on a per-hectolitre basis that craft employs eight times more people than big beer, I fail to understand why government is giving them the same tax break as they’ve given craft,” Frost said. “It makes no sense to me at all.”
Frost said that he plans to have 40 taps inside his company’s new 6,100-square-foot establishment when it opens in the early summer. Half will serve Central City products; the remainder will feature craft beer recommended by brewmaster Gary Lohin.
“It’s going to be an exceptional experience for craft down here—not just our craft,” Frost promised.
He revealed that Central City Downtown will include five long tables, a private room, and the same-size bar as existed in the former Dix space. Staff will serve sour beers and Central City vodkas and gin, as well as the brewery’s first whiskies, which come out next year.
“It takes three years to mature,” Frost said. “The beauty of whisky is it’s beer first. Most people don’t know that.”
Central City has a food-primary licence for its downtown location, but Frost hopes to convert seats to liquor-primary in the future.
The company will be allowed to open a downtown brewpub because of a provincial regulatory change in 2013. It permits breweries with capacities of up to 300,000 hectolitres to sell their products in up to three associated food-primary or liquor-primary licensees.
“Because they changed the rules, we will open, 50 more people will be employed, and craft gets to expand across the province,” Frost stated.
He added that he favours scrapping all “tied-house” regulations restricting breweries from having equity stakes in outlets that serve their products to consumers, but the provincial government hasn’t gone this far with its liquor reforms.
Last year, Howe Sound Brewing took advantage of the regulatory change to open the Devil’s Elbow Ale & Smoke House on Beatty Street in the space formerly occupied by Chambar Restaurant.
Tasting rooms build a sense of community
Vancouver beer-industry lawyer and blogger Carlos Mendes has paid close attention to provincial and municipal regulatory changes affecting the craft-beer sector.
In an interview at his downtown office, he explained that prior to liquor prohibition in the 1920s, big U.S. brewers owned beer halls that would only sell their brands, at incredibly low prices. Sometimes, they would lure customers into their pubs with free peanuts.
“When Prohibition was repealed, they [regulators] wanted to cut that out,” Mendes said.
He added that these tied-house rules became less relevant with the rise of a cocktail culture as well as the growing number of women going out for a drink.
But nowadays, Mendes noted, the culture is shifting to where people want to spend time socializing in their neighbourhoods in tasting rooms or tasting lounges operated by breweries.
In 2013, the province changed the rules to allow breweries to have tasting lounges added to their licence as an “endorsement”. This relaxed the restriction limiting craft breweries to selling a maximum of 12 ounces in a glass to each customer on-site. Of the 25 Vancouver breweries, 10 have a lounge endorsement.
According to Mendes, tasting rooms and tasting lounges are having a dramatic impact on the culture and the local economy, spurring the growth of craft breweries and contributing to a greater sense of community.
As an example, he said that when Parallel 49 Brewing Company in his East Side neighbourhood opened a tasting room, he started seeing moms and dads from the playground dropping by.
“They become little community meeting places,” Mendes noted. “I think that’s happened more and more throughout the city where we’re getting to a place where people are not leaving their neighbourhood to go downtown to go for a drink and to socialize with their friends and family. They’re staying in their neighbourhood.”
Closer to Main Street, the retro-looking Red Truck Beer Company at 295 East 1st Avenue is taking its community-building to a new level.
This summer, it’s launching the Red Truck Parking Lot Concert Series starting June 13 outside its 34,000-square-foot brewery and soon-to-open Truck Stop Diner. Four shows will take place during the summer featuring the Trews, Five Alarm Funk, No Sinner, Vinyl Ritchie, Rich Hope, and other musical acts.
“The city has jumped onboard and has given us the special-occasion permit,” Red Truck brewery general manager Jim Dodds told the Straight by phone. “We’re really excited about animating our brewery and doing things there because we have the ability to do that.”
Unlike the new Central City Downtown brewpub, the Truck Stop Diner will only serve beer on tap made by its owner.
Dodds explained that because the Mark James–owned company is adding a restaurant, there was no need to apply for a lounge endorsement as part of its brewery licence. Instead, it’s operating a tasting room, limiting it to providing samples for visitors.
Coun. Heather Deal told the Straight by phone that she’s excited by Red Truck’s concert plans, noting that the Big Rock Urban Brewery in Mount Pleasant also has an indoor stage for live music.
“We need to work with the province to sort out the difference between large downtown clubs and small neighbourhood places,” she said.
Darby's witnesses huge changes, thanks to craft
Meanwhile, in Point Grey, the growing craft-beer culture has transformed Lightheart Hospitality’s Darby’s Public House & Liquor Store, which has been at the corner of Macdonald Street and West 4th Avenue since the early 1980s.
Lightheart’s general manager, Brendan Bonfield, told the Straight by phone that the popularity of locally produced craft beer has “completely changed our demographic”.
“We’ve got 31 beers on tap,” he said. “We’re just growing and growing and constantly getting in new customers.”
Darby’s is building customer loyalty through its “Hall of Foam” program. People who drink 50 different beers in the pub get a gift card, a T-shirt, and their name on the wall.
On May 30, Darby’s plans to host a Rare Brews & BBQ night featuring rare brews from 16 different local brewers and four craft-brew imports, complemented by food offerings from chef Bill Taylor.
Bonfield revealed that his company has had meetings with a brewmaster about possibly manufacturing its own beer. “We’re starting to build up our business plan,” he said. “We would be looking closer to 2017.”
A few blocks to the east, the owners of the Sunset Grill Tap House & Whiskey Bar are planning to launch their own beer, called Brewery Creek, in collaboration with Callister Brewing Co.
“We’re going to do a yearlong project to see how our brand does,” Wilson said. “We’ll be selling it here.”
One of the bar’s patrons is Deal, who lives in Kitsilano. She said that the city wants to encourage more small-scale operations like the Sunset Grill to ensure more people can enjoy local food, local beer, and local distillery products in their neighbourhoods, along with live music.
When asked if this is part of the city’s Greenest City Action Plan to get people out of their cars, the councillor offered up a hearty chuckle.
“We want all neighbourhoods to be complete neighbourhoods where you can live, work, and play,” Deal said. “This is part of play.”