The latest food craze to cross Vancouver isn’t about food at all – it’s about beer. Specifically, fine beer brewed in small batches with care and attention to detail. This style of brewing, called craft or microbrewing, is quickly becoming the want of many in our town and around the world.
“People are starting to take more interest in the food they consume and the alcohol they consume,” says beer lover Chuck Hallett, who writes online about his escapades with Vancouver bars and beers under the pseudonym Barley Mowat.
Hallett, who has tried over 500 unique beers in the last 18 months, asks the average Joe “Why are you satisfied with that beer or that wine that’s produced in a giant facility on the other side of the country?”
“[People] will investigate of their own accord and they’ll discover there’s something better — odds are they’ll like it better.”
Craft-brewed beer is considered by many to be superior to large-scale operations due to its quality level, which creates a better taste. “It’s one of those rare situations where the small craft-produced product is demonstrably better,” says Hallett.
Breweries that create these delicacies generally try many flavourful combinations and may brew many less common varieties of beer for their niche consumers and adventurous followers, like sour beers or Lambic beers, as well as the typical ales and lagers.
“The general rule is that if you’re brewing beer to be interesting and tasty as opposed to insipid and uninsulting you’re brewing craft beer and not macro beer,” says Hallett.
“Our philosophy is quality always,” says Central City Brewing brewmaster and partner Gary Lohin. “Don’t cut corners — give the consumer the best possible product at all times.”
“Macro isn’t so much a size it’s a philosophy,” said Hallett. “Fun fact: craft beer came about because the old term people used ‘microbreweries’ was no longer seriously applicable… The American Brewers Association changed the definition of good beer from ‘microbrewing’ to ‘craft brewing’ and then put in some stringent criteria for what is and what isn’t a craft brewery.”
About 20 months ago, Hallett noticed the global microbrew boom beginning to take shape as more interest in the smaller breweries began to bubble. “People are just interested in these hyper-local phenomena now,” he says.
This isn’t the first craze for craft beer – in the 80s microbrew veterans like Okanagan Springs and Horseshoe Bay Brewing opened their doors and began offering the likes that consumers had never seen before, striking success with adventurous drinkers.
“That was actually a fairly big thing because that laid the groundwork for what’s happening today,” said brewmaster Lohin, who began his beer career in the 80s during this expansion. “It opened people’s eyes up to what could be, and what could be is where we are today.”
“The market is looking for different flavours and stuff like that,” he said. “Flavours which people may or may not have seen and what they haven’t had the past.”
Vancouver’s craft beer success didn’t begin until quite recently. “Two or three years ago Victoria had a bigger beer scene,” said Hallett. “There’s a lot of room to grow still.”
The beer industry as a whole continues to grow as well, with Canada seeing an increase in gross beer sales from 2011 to 2012 of 3.4 per cent. Compare this to the United States, which had a drop of gross beer sales by almost 20 per cent. The B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch reported gross beer sales in 2012 to be $1.1B.
Most of our breweries are considered craft, according to standards set by the province. In B.C., a facility must brew less than 160,000,000L in order to be microbrew.
Only 3 companies are able to do this and are therefore macrobreweries: MolsonCoors, Sapporo (owner of Sleeman’s) and beer goliath Anheuser-Busch InBev, owner of over 100 brewing operations in Canada.
Macro or mass-produced beer is considered inferior largely due to the product’s indistinct flavours and blandness by many beer aficionados, including Hallett. “This model of brewing a product that doesn’t offend anyone,” he said. “They’re trying to make a beer that no one can taste and go ‘I don’t like this.’”
Despite having a bigger team, craft beer makes up about 20 per cent of the beer market in B.C., though that number is constantly growing. In 2008, craft beer’s share of the market in Canada was only about eight per cent.
But with the quick expansion of craft beer, the macrobreweries need to keep their stronghold somehow. “The big brewers haven’t been the quickest to adapt, says Hallett.
“They want that image,” said Lohin. “If you watch any of their advertising it’s all about the ad and not really about what’s in the bottle,” he said. “They’re not going to change the recipe. It’s based on the consumer enjoying it in the past and that same consumer is going to keep purchasing it.”
“Either they’ll purchase craft breweries and let them run they way they are to get the profit out of that or they will try to start a pseudo-craft beer… disguise themselves to the consumer and its working for them at the moment.”
The microbrew storm continues to try to rein Vancouver and the rest of Canada as the market for original ideas and tastes grows.
“Craft beer as a market is growing 40-50 per cent year over year, but the breweries aren’t growing 40-50 per cent so new breweries will kind of crop up to infill,” said Hallett and he’s right – this year more craft breweries are opening in Vancouver than ever before.
New breweries including 33 Acres Brewing set to open later this year are filling a gap in the market as the insatiable demand for craft brews keeps growing.
“Right now pretty much everyone can survive in craft beer,” said Hallett. “As long as you’re brewing it yourself, you’ll do okay.
“There’s no competition because they don’t have to compete with each other,” he laughs. “They each sell as much beer as they can possibly produce.”
Will craft beer continue on this trend? Yes, says Hallett.
“Portland is five or 10 years ahead of [Vancouver] and they’re still growing,” he said.
Portland, ‘beer mecca’ to some, has a vast multitude of beer bars and over 50 breweries within city limits – more than in all of B.C. By comparison, Vancouver has just 12 breweries, including those that are slated to open later this year.
“We can theorize what happens [in the future] — I suspect infighting will happen between the breweries. There’s a lot of room to grow — it’s too far in the future to tell.”
“It’s never going to go back to where it was,” agrees Lohin.