The Museum of Vancouver’s “Home Brew” examines our hoppy history

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      These days, it’s hard to move in Vancouver without stumbling across some small-batch beer. Craft breweries line Mount Pleasant and cluster in East Van, while liquor stores across the city stock mom-and-pop lagers and ales all made within the 604. 

      While the deluge of craft breweries offering hazy IPAs and hoppy pilsners might be a new phenomenon, breweries have been here for as long as settlers have been. A new digital catalogue at the Museum of Vancouver, Home Brew, explores that history—examining how Rain City and beer made each other, through an interactive publication full of archival photos, timelines, and videos.

      “What I thought was super interesting was from the perspective of thinking about the city, how the city transforms over time, and the role of early breweries in structuring it,” says Viviane Gosselin, director of collections and exhibitions at the Museum of Vancouver. 

      She points to Main Street and the neighbourhood known as Brewery Creek as a key example. It’s where Charles Doerig founded Vancouver Breweries in 1887, at the corner of Scotia Street and 7th Avenue, with three more companies establishing themselves in the same area within a decade. Fresh water from the creeks was vital for brewing beer, and the water also powered mills that ground grains into grist.

      “In the process of building industries and breweries, this became one of the key suburbs of Vancouver at the time,” Gosselin explains. “Beer was kind of a driving force in developing some neighbourhoods over others.”

      The research for Home Brew began before the Covid-19 pandemic began, and was originally imagined as a physical exhibition. During the lockdown and following period of uncertainty, cultural spaces like museums pivoted to going digital, and businesses like restaurants and craft brewing rooms struggled to find revenue when they couldn’t serve customers. 

      “We decided to adapt some really good research and material into a digital publication,” Gosselin explains. “And we wanted it to be free—we didn’t want to make this a coffee table book. We just wanted to share this with the world.”

      Alcohol was an integral part of early Vancouver. As a logging town, workers looked for places to congregate—with the beer halls and pubs needing a product to sell. (Indigenous people were banned from drinking alcohol until 1951, and overt sexism and racism combined to make these places almost exclusively the domain of white men—although they were far from the only people living here.)

      The sheer size of Canada also made it more efficient for local companies to create beer, and serve the geographically close market. However, Vancouver’s early wealth of brewers faded out, as by 1922 Vancouver Breweries controlled most of the local supply. Canada’s Big Three breweries—Molson, Carling O’Keefe, and Labatt—further flattened competition, buying out most local enterprises by the 1950s. 

      “If you’re looking at some of the mainstream beer companies, it’s not extremely tasty,” Gosselin says. “That’s what you had in the ‘60s, ‘70s, early ‘80s, before craft breweries started to emerge.”

      The first modern craft brewery in Canada was Horseshoe Bay Brewery, started in 1982 in West Vancouver by some long-time corporate brew workers who were unhappy with the state of the beer industry. Granville Island Brewing began in 1984, with countless other new ventures proliferating in the decades since. West coast craft beers lean into different taste profiles, water hardness, and brewing techniques, embracing regional ingredients and variance that set BC beer apart. 

      Besides the history of local beer, the catalogue also discusses some important side-notes. From finding sustainable ways to reuse byproducts, to how craft breweries weathered the pandemic, there’s plenty besides dates and numbers. 

      The agriculture side of the industry is also fascinating—Gosselin notes that, historically, the Fraser Valley was the largest hop-growing region in the Commonwealth. Those plants are here in Vancouver, too, as hops fell from the trains that carried them to the city, and started to grow feral along railway lines—places like what is now the Arbutus Greenway. 

      “These feral hops have over 100 years of genetic change, making it more robust,” Gosselin enthuses. “Scholars and researchers have been studying it as a potential ingredient that would make local beer more distinctive, so I love how it traces its way back to the 100-year-old industry.”

      Check out the online catalogue here, or head to the launch event collaborating with Parallel 49 tonight, to find out more. 

      Home Brew: How Vancouver and Beer Made Each Other opening

      When: December 15, 6pm 

      Where: Museum of Vancouver, 1100 Chestnut Street

      Admission: $6.66, available here