British Columbia is the hottest craft beer market in Canada, so it’s time to explore another new BC brewery. Over the past few weeks, I’ve taken the Wayback Machine to the breweries I visited the summer of 2014. However, it’s time to return to the present — I’m actually on Vancouver Island as I type this, and I have made it my mission to visit the three new breweries that have just opened in the Comox Valley area.
Comox Valley: ocean, mountains, wildlife, and now, craft beer.
Comox Valley is a large area of fertile land about half way up the mainland side of Vancouver Island. It was originally settled several thousand years ago by Coast Salish who called the area kw’umuxws (“plentiful”) because of the abundant fish, seafood, game and the rich soil. Now it is home to three towns — Comox, Courtenay and Cumberland — and about 65,000 people. It’s a beautiful piece of Canada that has been blessed with ocean, mountains, mild winters and dry warm summers, but little in the way of local craft beer until recently.
The first brewery on my list today was Cumberland Brewing Co., located in the town of Cumberland.
Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Cumberland was a happening place due to anthracite coal mining. However, when its major customer, the British Royal Navy, converted their ships from coal to diesel after World War Two, the price of coal plummeted, the mines closed and Cumberland’s population quickly dwindled. Today, Cumberland is a sleepy little town of about 3,500.
Well “sleepy” is probably the wrong word. Along the two short blocks that make up the town centre, there are no less than five coffee shops, and they seem to be full of customers all the time. I have no idea what people do for a living in Cumberland, but I’m willing to bet that it doesn’t involve much sleep.
(To be fair, caffeine is a bit of an obsession everywhere on Vancouver Island. Every town, village and hamlet has a coffee shop — or five — serving espresso-based joe.)
As I mentioned in a previous blog, when Elaine & I were on the Island last summer, there were no breweries in the Comox Valley, which was strange. Given the residents’ love of good local food and good wine, the table already seemed to be set for a good local craft beer and yet none was forthcoming. That all changed in December 2014 when Cumberland Brewing Co. opened its doors, the first of three Valley breweries that would start operations within months of each other.
We found Cumberland Brewing shoehorned into a repurposed building on the town’s main street. (And right across the street from the Cumberland Bakery, which makes the most amazing glazed jelly doughnuts. Seriously, these things are the size of dinner plates. Mmmm, doughnuts…)
Sorry, ma’am, wrong door: The tasting room is out back
If you step through the front door of the brewery, you will find yourself standing in the middle of the brewhouse. Visitors making this mistake are gently shooed around to the back of the building, where there is a tasting room and a small beer garden. (BC, which is light years ahead of Ontario in several ways concerning craft beer, allows breweries to sell beer by the glass, a potentially valuable revenue stream to small breweries that receive a lot of visitors. In Ontario, breweries can only give away small samples of beer to visitors in order to entice them to buy bottles, cans or growlers to be consumed elsewhere.)
Tasting room at back of building. Yes, you can see the front door from here
We went around to the back of the building, and were met in the tasting room by Darren Adam, one of the founding partners. (His business card says “Sells the Beer”.) Adam has lived in the Cumberland area for several years, and the choice of Cumberland as a location for a brewery seemed a natural one to him. He believes the area’s easy access to various outdoor sports like skiing, biking and hiking is unmatched, and the people who participate in those sports tend to finish their day with a beer. So a brewery seemed to be the perfect new business, especially for a town looking for new businesses.
Darren took us on a quick tour of the brewhouse. It was quick not because he was hurrying, but because you could see everything at a glance.
Two-vessel 12 hL brewhouse
The entire main floor of the building is perhaps 1,400 square feet. Take away the tasting area and there’s significantly less than 1,000 square feet in which to make and store beer. So things are crammed in tightly, starting with the two-vessel 12-hL brewhouse, built by Victoria’s Specific Mechanical Systems. To save space, the vessels are heated electrically rather than with steam, which does mean that caramelized sugar has to be cleaned off the heating elements after each batch.
As expected with any brewery start-up, there were a few engineering issues in the early days, including a small fire in the brewhouse control panel in the middle of a mash. But once past the initial shakedown period, it’s been full steam ahead, albeit without the steam.
The brewery also has five 12-hL fermentors, each capable of handling a single batch. They actually started with just three, with a projected need for another two FVs in three years. However, demand for product was so high right from Opening Day that they hit their expected three-year production goal after just a few weeks and realized that unless they got at least two more FVs right away, they would always be regularly plagued by dry taps.
Brewer Mike Tymchuk, assistant Anders Petersson and four of their 12-hL FVs
I also met Mike Tymchuk, the brewmaster. (His business card says “Makes the Beer”). Another of the founding partners, Mike has been a part of the Western Canada brewing scene for many years, having brewed at Spinnaker’s Brewpub in Victoria and started up Wild Rose in Calgary. He had been taking a break from brewing, becoming the chef of an artisanal pizza place he opened with his wife Caroline in Cumberland. However, the lure of creating a local brewery for the community was too strong to resist.
Mike originally designed Cumberland Brewing so that everything just fit perfectly in the very limited space. However, when they made the immediate decision to expand fermentation volume, Mike quickly found the space needed for the two new FVs by moving the grain mill from the main floor up into the attic. (Mike’s motto is “Don’t let the hardware push you around.”)
A flight of Cumberland beer
Mike, with his assistant Anders Petersson, a former homebrewer, brews three times a week, and currently has six very good beers in regular rotation:
- Red Tape, a northwest-style pale ale
- Forest Fog, an unfiltered American wheat ale
- Just a Little Bitter, an English bitter
- Tropical Hop, an India Session Ale (an IPA with a fragrant nose of Galaxy hops, but without the high alcohol or extreme bitterness)
- The Dancing Linebacker, an oatmeal stout.
Cumberland’s business plan is kind of interesting: They have no bottling or canning line, nor do they plan to ever build one. (And to be fair, where would it go? On the roof? Out on the front sidewalk?) No, Cumberland plans to sell most of their beer to walk-in visitors either by the glass or via growler.
Growler sales have taken off, and apparently Cumberland has several thousand of them out in circulation. Certainly while we were visiting, there was a constant line of people having one or two of their growlers refilled.
A soon to be extinct 8.5-litre “pig”
For a short while, Cumberland also will be filling 8.5-litre “pigs”. I have never seen these plastic pig-shaped super-sized growlers before, and unfortunately, it seems like I will not see them again — the company that has been making them for 15 years has just announced it is shutting down. Too bad, it seems to be the sweet spot between a 2 L growler and a 20 L keg. Great idea for a pool party.
Cumberland also fills a lot of one-litre containers, which they call “squealers”. (There is no industry standard name for this size — I have heard them called Boston rounds, growlettes, and now squealers.) And they fill a few kegs for some local restaurant and bar accounts in the Valley, but don’t want to look any further afield — the transportation costs and time needed for delivery to destinations outside the Valley quickly erode the economics of the sale.
The perfect present for the growler or squealer owner: a drying stand
On top of being able to serve beer by the glass, Cumberland also serves pizza from Caroline Tymchuk’s next-door pizza place, giving the tasting room a brewpub-like ambiance, albeit with a limited menu. (And pizza and beer, I mean, how perfect is that?)
Cumberland (and every other craft brewer in BC) is also feeling pretty good about the latest news from the provincial government this week: effective immediately, BC craft brewers are now allowed to serve other BC craft beer in their tasting rooms, as well as BC cider and BC wine. (In contrast, Ontario craft breweries are not only forbidden from selling beer by the glass, they also can only serve beer made in their own brewery.) I expect to see cider being sold at Cumberland in short order — it immediately solves the problem couples have where one person loves beer, and the other person is either gluten-intolerant, or is not a fan of beer.
I forgot to ask Mike about water treatment, a subject in which I had a professional interest due to a paper I wrote a few years ago about a theoretical brewery in Cumberland. One of the challenges I noted was Cumberland’s municipal water, which is drawn from a nearby lake fed by glacial melt; glacial ice being pretty darned pure, the water is amazingly free of trace elements. However, that’s not necessarily a good thing for a brewer — to guarantee healthy yeast growth and flocculation, a brewer would usually be looking for calcium (Ca2+) concentrations of 50 to 100 parts per million (ppm) and magnesium (Mg2+) concentrations of at least 15 ppm. Cumberland’s water has concentrations of calcium and magnesium of only 4.7 ppm and 1.2 ppm respectively.
The beer garden
While some people might see this as a disadvantage — the brewer has to add calcium and magnesium salts to every batch of beer — I pointed out in my paper that this also allows the brewer to custom build a water profile for each batch of beer. Need a soft water profile for a Plzen-like pilsner? Add this. Need a hard water profile like Burton-on-Trent for a good bitter British pale ale? Add this.
Whatever water treatment they use, it seems to be working — the beers all taste good, and locals have clearly made it their local watering hole. The business model of not packaging your beer, but also not going the whole brewpub menu of food & beer route, clearly is not possible in Ontario’s current legal setting,but it looks to be working under BC’s shiny new craft beer rules. I will be watching with interest to see if Cumberland can continue to thrive selling only by the glass and growler.