West Coast Journey: Storm Brewing

Following our visit to tiny Bridge Brewery in North Vancouver, we decided to quit the suburbs and head right into Vancouver itself. We only had a few hours, and traffic in Vancouver varies between bad and impossible, so we were happy to discover four breweries clustered within a three-block radius. As it turns out, they may be close geographically, but location is all that they have in common.

Storm Brewing

Brewery or motorbike repairs?

We started with Storm Brewing. In stark contrast to the shiny new suburban nano-brewery Bridge, Storm is an 18-year-old inner city brewery located in a gritty industrial area. The small single story brick building looked like it might house a tool & die shop, or perhaps a Harley-Davidson repair shop.

As I walked from the bright sunlight into the shadowy interior and wended my way around piles of spare parts, racks of tools and large machinery that seemed to have been bodged together, I realized that I was right — this was a Harley-Davidson repair shop. And the biker dude with bleached spiked hair in a purple t-shirt and leather pants, chains hanging around his neck was obviously the owner. Then my eyes adjusted to the dim light — no, wait, my mistake, the place was a brewery, and the biker dude was actually a brewery dude.

Tap handles

Semi-skeletal tap handles would look good in a Mad Max movie.

I am not kidding about the ambience. It sort of looked like a cross between a welding shop and a set for the latest zombie apocalypse movie, heightened by the presence many post-apocalyptic tap handles, as well as the steam rising from the mash tun. (I was lucky enough to visit on a Wednesday, which is brew day at Storm.)

I introduced myself and discovered that I was talking to James Walton, founder, owner, chief mechanic, brewmaster and sole employee of Storm. (At various times, James has had an assistant; however, at the moment, it’s just James.)

He had at one time been involved in the pharmaceutical industry, but soon realized that he was much more interested in his homebrewing, and decided to start up his own brewery. Instead of buying brewery equipment, James taught himself to weld and constructed his own. (I sensed a bit of the rebel in James —  okay, a lot of the rebel.) As a result, some of his equipment is, well… unique.

Grain hydrator

Lower part of grain hydrator, featuring a series of cascading steps

His brewhouse features the first ground level mash/lauter tun I have ever seen — yes, it sits right on the floor like a giant hot tub. The grain hydrator, which wets the grain with warm water before it falls into the mash tun, is also an interesting design, featuring a series of “steps” or “rungs” through which the grain cascades on the way to the mash tun.

Over the years, James has rebuilt, upgraded and redesigned the brewhouse. Its current capacity is 32 hectolitres, which has to make it one of the larger craft breweries in Vancouver, and a very substantial size for a one-man operation.

He offered me a sample of his unfiltered Hurricane IPA, and I have to confess that, given the hand-manufactured equipment, I wasn’t sure what to expect. However, I lifted the cup to my lips and — WHAM! Flavour exploded in my mouth. Wow. I love northwest IPAs, and have tasted and savoured a lot of them, but Hurricane instantly stormed its way into my Top 10.

Storm Brewing mash tun

James Walton, powerful warlock, casting spells over his 32-hL ground-level mash/lauter tun

Then I realized it. I had mistaken James for a biker dude, but he was actually a powerful warlock, standing in the dim light of his cavern, casting his mighty arcane spells over the steam rising from the mash tun. This explained everything. (Or perhaps it was simply the IPA casting its potent 7% spell over me.)

When James first started, there were not very many breweries in Vancouver, and he believed they were brewing a lot of uninteresting beer. He also strongly felt that filtering beer significantly reduced and changed the flavour of the beer. He set out to change both the uninteresting part as well as attitudes towards unfiltered beer. In 1995, his first beer, an unfiltered alt named Red Sky, thundered on to the scene and opened a lot of eyes to the possibilities of both unfiltered beer and brewing that pushed the envelope.

(He stopped brewing the alt many years ago, but has just undertaken a collaboration with nearby Parallel 49 Brewing to recreate the recipe as part of Vancouver’s annual Craft Beer Week in June.)

Over the years, James has brewed everything from a porter to a cherry lambic, always unfiltered. Besides Hurricane IPA, his current lineup includes a Scotch ale, a north-German style pilsner, a strong (8%) stout, and a huge (11%) Flanders sour red. Don’t bother looking in liquor stores for Storm beers — you are going to have to travel to Vancouver and search for the beers on tap at about 30 establishments. Trust me, the trip will be worth it.

Handmade equipment, unfiltered beer on tap only, huge 32-hL system manned by a single brewing magician — Storm is perhaps the most unique brewery I have visited.

(Addendum: After I published my blog about Bridge Brewing of North Vancouver, a reader pointed out that there is another Bridge Brewing on the East Coast of Canada, in Halifax. By coincidence, I discovered that there is also another Storm Brewing on the East Coast, in Newfoundland.)

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3 Comments on “West Coast Journey: Storm Brewing”

  1. Canageek Says:

    What did you think of his handmade gear? Were there any innovations that you’d copy if you were setting up your own brewery?

  2. James is amazing and so are his beer! Good thing you stopped in!

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