Vancouver Craft Beer Week grows but stays true to roots

    1 of 9 2 of 9

      Vancouver Craft Beer Week has come a long way from its charmingly small-scale beginning six years ago, but what makes the folks behind it proudest is that the spirit of the event hasn’t changed in the slightest.

      “In the initial going, we wanted to do this because we were passionate about it,” says Chris Bjerrisgaard, marketing director and one of the four principals behind what’s now Canada’s biggest celebration of craft beer. “We wanted to see more beer events in Vancouver because there weren’t any. As things began to get more serious, we started to have a mission statement where we were like, ‘What are we trying to do?’

      “And this is something that we always look back on, and make sure we check ourselves. Our main mission is still to grow craft beer and craft-beer culture—without compromise.”

      That’s been accomplished, he suggests, thanks to above-and-beyond dedication to the cause from a Vancouver Craft Beer Week team that also includes events director Leah Heneghan, technical director Tyler Olson, and sales director Paul Kamon.

      The annual celebration of all things beer first took place at Heritage Hall in 2010 and this year, will occupy three full days at the PNE Fairgrounds.
      Vancouver Craft Beer Week

      “Doing it without compromise has been really tough,” Bjerrisgaard notes, reached on his cellphone at the Strathcona Beer Company, where’s he’s enjoying a pint. “When you grow festivals, the people who sponsor them and the people who pay for them—ask music festivals—are usually booze sponsors.

      “They’re the ones who pay the freight. But when you’re doing a festival about craft beer and you’re unwilling to take the big guys’ money, it’s difficult, because you don’t have the easy funding that a lot of people get. We had to bootstrap this thing up, and I think that’s my biggest point of pride.”

      Bjerrisgaard, Olson, Kamon, and Heneghan have reason to be proud. The inaugural VCBW in 2010 concluded at Heritage Hall on Main with a festival that drew around 100 enthusiasts. Since then, the fest portion of the event has grown each year, moving to the old Salt Building near False Creek before heading outdoors to different locales (the Hard Rock Casino parking lot in Richmond, Olympic Village) and finally settling in its current location at the PNE.

      Vancouver Craft Beer Week's opening night event offers attendees craft beer samplers from over 50 B.C. breweries and cideries.
      Vancouver Craft Beer Week

      This year’s edition of Vancouver Craft Beer Week runs May 27 to June 5. Highlights of the 10-day event include a kickoff party at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre with 32 breweries and cideries on-site. Biercraft Bistro hosts the week’s wildly poplar Belgian Showcase on May 30, while sours and fruit beers from 20 craft breweries will be the focus at Devil’s Elbow House in Crosstown on June 1.

      Things wrap with a three-day festival of beer, food, and a multiband live-music blowout at the PNE from June 3 to 5. Presented by the Donnelly Group, it will feature food trucks and over 400 beers and ciders from 100 North American breweries and cideries.

      “We’ve always had bands and DJs involved, but this year we decided to really step it up and go to a festival size with a main stage and two side stages,” Olson says. “We had a contest with a hashtag, #willplayforbeer, to select local acts to open up and get the chance to play in a park for 5,000 people on a big stage. It’s great exposure for those bands, as well as the bands that we’re featuring, like the Boom Booms, JP Maurice, and Good for Grapes.”

      The Donnelly Group will once again set up its Publican's Quarter at the festival, where imbibers can kick back with a selection of arcade games.
      Two Peas Photography

      The festival will again also feature a pinball arcade and games area curated by the Donnelly Group. Through this growth, VCBW has managed to steadily evolve while working to change attitudes about what makes a great beer.

      “A big part of our marketing was about breaking beer out of the industrial box and putting it in a new context—essentially, trying to make it cool and attractive to people like millennials, and to women,” says Kamon, reached in his adopted hometown of Powell River, where he’s enjoying a beer on his deck in the spring sun. “Getting it out of that industrial model where it’s like, ‘You drink 24 of these after a hockey game.’ ”

      Interviewed over VCBW collaboration beer at Strange Fellows on Clark Drive, the East Van–raised Heneghan adds: “Every year, we grow and we change and we look at what worked and what didn’t work. We look at it like, ‘If we were going to a beer festival, what would we want to see?’ It’s a monster that keeps going and going, and when I say ‘monster’ I don’t mean that in a bad way—it’s a great thing.”

      Partial proceeds from sales of this year's VCBW collaboration brew—an Oceania-inspired saison by Steel & Oak Brewing Co. and Strange Fellows Brewingwill go to Music Heals.
      Vancouver Craft Beer Week

      And, even in small ways, that monster gives back to the city. One of the highlights of each year is a collaborative beer that improves the lives of people in Vancouver.

      “We get a brewery, and then a brewer from a different brewery to come there, and the ingredients donated from the hops guys and the maltings company,” Olson says, reached on his cell during a break from his day job working on movie sets. “They come up collaboratively with the recipe and it’s brewed for us for Vancouver Craft Beer Week. We serve it at all of our events, with the proceeds going to charity. This year it’s Music Heals.”

      It’s music, as well as a commitment to evolving, that explains why organizers are so excited about Vancouver Craft Beer Week’s new band-showcase component this year, which will feature acts on three stages. (To understand the extent of their excitement, it helps to know about their musical backgrounds. During a stint in England, Heneghan worked at a record label and helped run a stage at the fabled Glastonbury music festival. Kamon and Olson have both worked on electronic-music festivals in B.C., and Olson ran stages at the Olympics. Bjerrisgaard used to work for local hip-hop label Battle Axe Records.)

      Local band Good for Grapes is one of 15 musical acts that will hit the stage at this year's VCBW Festival.

      “We’re all super-crazy stoked for the festival this year,” Heneghan says. “Getting the festival to this music-food-beer point is what we’ve all wanted to do from the very beginning. The four of us all have, to some extent, a background in music and/or festivals, as well as this long-term love for beer. Getting our festival to the point we’re able to focus on craft beer and local music is what we’ve wanted from the beginning.”

      “By adding a music element this year, we’re showing that we’re a cultural event that you go to to listen to music, drink good beer, and enjoy food from the food trucks,” Olson says. “Our slogan this year is Music Food Beer, and it’s a celebration of all of that.”

      A major reason VCBW continues to grow is, of course, that the province’s craft-beer scene continues to explode. Kamon points out that, despite being a new and shiny thing to a generation that buys its beer in growlers rather than six-packs, the microbrewery movement in B.C. is older than many think.

      While new craft-beer operations seem to pop up every week in Vancouver (scheduled to open in the next couple of months are the Andina Brewing Company, Faculty Brewing, and Luppolo Brewing), there was a time when the movement was considerably smaller.

      “We have these watershed moments,” Kamon says, “when craft beer really takes a leap. Like when Granville Island opened, and then you get R&B and Russell and Storm—some of the early pioneers. Then things kind of settle down for a while and breweries get bought up the way Granville did and Sleeman did. Then you have another one of these big moments, and that’s what happened in 2010.”

      Craft breweries continue to open up shop in the Lower Mainland, adding more and more entries to each year's festival.
      Vancouver Craft Beer Week

      It’s no coincidence that the first VCBW happened in the year that Vancouver not only hosted the Olympics, but threw the kind of party that seemed to mark the beginning of the end of the No Fun City era.

      Kamon remembers wanting to capitalize on the energy and buzz that the Olympics gave Vancouver. He wasn’t alone.

      “We started Vancouver Craft Beer Week, and then breweries just started to open up,” he remembers. “And then, year after year, we’d see more breweries and it kind of created a critical mass. And now look where we’re at—we have 120 breweries in the province. That’s exponential growth.

      “And the best part is that it’s small business. When I drink a Red Racer, I know my friends are getting paid. It’s a good B.C. story to see how we’ve embraced these new breweries and made them part of our community culture.”

      And right from the beginning, Olson says, Vancouver Craft Beer Week has been all about community.

      Beer pourers work the Parallel 49 Brewing booth at last year's Vancouver Craft Beer Week Festival.
      Vancouver Craft Beer Week

      “There are craft-beer weeks all over the States,” Heneghan relates. “The initial thought was ‘Why isn’t there anything like that in Vancouver or Canada?’ We had this scene that was just starting to grow bit by bit and it seemed like the perfect time to celebrate it.

      “What everyone wanted to turn the attention on was local craft beers so we weren’t always having to go across the border. We wanted a celebration in a place that deserved it, because the beer was just so good. So we ended up being the first craft-beer week in Canada.”

      This year’s music-festival component not only ramps up the entertainment a couple of bombastic notches, but also builds on the idea that VCBW is ultimately about community. And a crucial part of that component is that the bands playing the festival are either homegrown success stories or acts getting a big break.

      “What we decided to do with the music—and what’s been fantastic about it—is that we’ve stayed with our grassroots and our integrity,” Bjerrisgaard opines. “We thought, ‘We could bring in some big international bands,’ or do something that no one else is doing because it’s not necessarily profitable as its own thing, and make it a showcase for B.C. talent, B.C. music. The long-term goal is that, if you’re an up-and-coming artist, you want to play that Sunday spot that the Boom Booms have.”

      Vancouver Craft Beer Week hopes to continue its growth while remaining rooted in the local.
      Vancouver Craft Beer Week

      And, hopefully, help bring craft beer to a whole new audience. Because despite the growth of Vancouver Craft Beer Week, the ultimate goal remains the same: growing a proudly local movement without compromise.

      “It’s almost like Stage 2 starts now,” Bjerrisgaard suggests. “If you are going to grow craft beer, you have to grow it past the people who are just in it for the beer. We believe in craft beer, so how do you Trojan it into a new group of people? So we’ve got elements like the Donnelly Group bringing in pinball machines and all this extra fun stuff.

      “It’s not just people standing around with tiny cups debating what beer is good. You can do that—you totally can—because we have the amount of product, and we’d never compromise the integrity. But at the same time, you can now bring your friend who doesn’t even like beer.”

      He pauses, and then adds with a laugh: “Or bring your celiac friend, because we have craft cider.”

      For full information on Vancouver Craft Beer Week, go to the Vancouver Craft Beer Week website.