It’s been a fixture on Vancouver’s landscape for almost 60 years: that monolith at the southern foot of the Burrard Bridge. It sits on prime Kitsilano real estate that many Vancouverites drive past daily and jog around—way around—heading off the bridge to Granville Island. It might be ignored completely if not for the blue box on top of the building that relays the time and temperature.
Relatively few people have cause to enter the Molson Coors Canada Brewery, which has 250 employees; most of the activity is hidden behind chainlink fences that guard the main entrance on West 1st Avenue. At first glance, you might think the brewery is part of the Seaforth Armoury next door—and it might as well be, considering how closed off it’s been to the general public. But all that changed last week, when the brewery opened its doors for public tours for the first time in its history.
On September 13, Vancouver Food Tour kicked off its twice-weekly forays into the brewery. The tours are scheduled to run indefinitely and take visitors through the history of the building, besides giving them a behind-the-scenes look at the brewing process.
Vancouver Food Tour owner Melody Fury told the Straight on-site that the tours are a joint effort with the brewery, which approached her company. (Vancouver Food Tour also runs a craft-beer tour of Gastown.) “They want to show people that the beer is actually made locally and consumed locally,” she said, explaining that 90 percent of the Molson Coors products consumed in B.C. are brewed in Kitsilano.
So why open the doors now? Molson Coors spokesperson Julie Gathercole said that preparations had been in the works for about a year, and involved modifying the building for public access and developing display material. “Beer drinkers are becoming more knowledgeable about beer and finding out where it comes from and what goes into it,” she said. “We wanted to let them see exactly what we do.” The company is also trying to reach beer drinkers through its new website, the Beer Host, which focuses on beer and food pairings.
I took an abbreviated version of the 1.5-hour tour at a media preview. Before I arrived, I was sent the detailed dress code that tour participants must comply with, which mandates wearing closed-toe shoes and long pants, and removing all jewellery, including rings, earrings, studs, and facial piercings. “This is a working brewery, and it’s for safety considerations,” Fury explained. You must be 19 and have picture ID to enter.
Our group donned safety vests and headsets and followed our guide, Carlos Gomes, into the building. The entrance hallway gives an overview of the history of the company and the building itself, with a display of archival photos. The brewery was built in 1953 for Sicks' Capilano Brewery Ltd.; its location was chosen for its proximity to water and the rail lines that brought in the malt and barley. Molson purchased it in 1958, and it became Molson's Capilano Brewery Ltd. in 1959. In 2005, Molson merged with Coors, which is based in Colorado.
As the tour progressed, we learned that the 500,000-square-foot Vancouver brewery is the largest in Western Canada. It’s the third-largest Molson Coors Brewery in Canada, after the ones in Montreal and Toronto (neither of which offers public tours). It has a production capacity of over 2.2 million hectolitres of beer per year, or about 600 million cans. The brewery makes not only mainstays like Molson Canadian and Coors Light, but over 30 brands such as Asahi (brewed under licence and exported to the U.S.) and Calgary Beer, which, ironically, is usually sold only in Saskatchewan. Nearly 90 percent of what’s produced is distributed within Western Canada and hits liquor -tore shelves within about a week of production.
The tour continued with a peek through a window into the fermentation room, which lies under the towering silver tanks you can see from the street. Then, we went up to the brewhouse filled with massive kettles, where Gomes explained the brewing process. The room’s three-storey-high windows face west down Cornwall Avenue, allowing a new perspective on Kitsilano.
The highlight, however, was the canning and packaging room, where we put on eye protection and got a long view of the process from an elevated walkway. Here, cans shoot past on conveyor belts—at a rate of 1,500 to 1,600 cans per minute—and branch off into aluminum rivers.
The tour ended in the “John Molson Academy”—aka the polished-wood staff bar and lunchroom—with a view of Burrard Street. Here, participants are offered four samples of beer made on-site, along with a lesson in beer-tasting. “If you want to insult the brewer, drink from the bottle,” Montreal brewer David Hamel had said in a short video shown earlier. That’s because when you pour beer into a glass, you can better appreciate its complex flavours and aromas. “It’s all the difference between a peck on the cheek and a good, proper French kiss.”
Visitors can’t buy beer at the brewery to take home. But when they see it in stores, they’ll know where it came from.
Tours of the Molson Coors Canada Brewery run every Tuesday and Thursday at 1:30 p.m. and cost $20 per person plus tax and a ticketing fee; see www.vancouverfoodtour.com/.