Comox Valley Breweries: Gladstone Brewing

I’m still in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island, checking out the three new breweries that opened in the past few months. The second of these was Gladstone Brewing, located in Courtenay, a small city of 24,000.

brewery

Former auto garage becomes a brewery

Courtenay is only a few kilometres from Cumberland but is a very different place — if Cumberland is a quiet town of outdoor enthusiasts and coffee shops, Courtenay is the bustling heart of the Valley, with modern malls, big box stores, transit buses and a lot of tourist traffic.

It’s not all modern urban landscape, though. Several buildings in the downtown core date back to the 1930s, part of a major rebuild after a devastating fire. One of those buildings to rise from the ashes was an art deco-ish gas station and auto garage, which now houses Gladstone Brewing.

Gladstone is the brain child of Daniel Sharratt and Alexandra Stephanson. The name is a bit of an anomaly: although the brewery is clearly dedicated to connecting with the local community, there is nothing in Courtenay called “Gladstone” — the name actually refers to a street in far-away Victoria where Sharratt was living when he came up with the idea of opening a brewery.

lamps

Lamps made from old license plates

In keeping with the previous history of the building as a garage, the tasting room of the brewery has an auto mechanic theme from the 1940s, featuring hanging lamps fabricated from license plates, and old tools turned into tap handles. Shelves are filled with garage-themed artifacts, and a vintage 55-gallon oil drum sits by the tasting bar.

tap handles

Old tools turned into tap handles

I like breweries that completely take on a theme — Left Field in Toronto, for instance, has taken baseball and related everything to it: the name of the brewery, the names of the beers (I particularly like Maris* Pale Ale — you have to be a baseball history fan to understand the inclusion of the asterisk in the name), the fact that they chose the exact time of the first pitch of the opening day of the 2014 baseball season for their official launch. Even Left Field’s tap handles are shaped like baseball bats.

Gladstone, on the other hand, has not totally immersed itself in the mechanic motif — although the tasting room has the look, the name of the brewery does not refer to the auto mechanic theme, most of the beers are unnamed, and those that have been named — Stirling Single and Evil Spirit, for example — don’t have anything to do with either the 1940s or a garage. It’s a head scratcher: the car mechanic theme has been well done inside the tasting bar, and has been utilised to some extent on their website, but that’s as far as it goes. Huh.

I had arranged to speak with co-founder Daniel, but unfortunately the business of managing a brewery apparently intervened. However, I was able to chat with his wife and co-founder Alexandra Stephanson, as well as brewmaster John Adair.

According to local news reports in 2014, Gladstone had planned to open sometime that year. However, the usual new brewery issues intervened, and they finally opened the brewery doors in early 2015, a few weeks after Cumberland Brewing. (Given the timeline of planning necessary to open a brewery today, it is quite probable that the concepts for both Cumberland and Gladstone were created almost simultaneously without either party realizing that another brewery would open in the area at almost the same time.)

brewhouse

Two-vessel 15 hL brewhouse

John, who used to brew at Vancouver’s Parallel 49, took me on a tour of Gladstone’s brewing facilities. The two-vessel brewhouse, like Cumberland’s, was made by Specific Mechanical of Victoria. This one has a 15-hL capacity, a fairly large size given that the mash/lauter tun has no power rakes — during mash-in, the grain has to be hand-stirred the old-fashioned way, by two people wielding mash rakes, and the spent grain is also cleaned out by hand following mash-out.

fermentor

The big one: Gladstone’s 60-hL quad-batch fermentor

Gladstone started with two 15-hL (single batch) fermentors, and like every other new BC brewery I have visited, discovered that their original plan for fermentation volume — only two batches’ worth, in this case — was woefully inadequate. Immediately after opening, they quickly ran out of beer, and having nothing to sell, they had to close the brewery bar for several days until the next batch was ready, a cycle that would be repeated several times. Gladstone immediately invested in another two 30-hL (double-batch) fermentors, and then installed in a 60 hL fermentor capable of holding a quad batch. It must have been a tight squeeze getting it in place — apparently there was quite literally only a half inch of free space on either side of the FV as it was being moved into the brewery.

The end result is that within 6 months of opening, the brewery had quintupled its FV volume from 30 hL to 150 hL.

Despite all this volume, they only keg enough beer to supply four local licensee accounts; otherwise, Gladstone sells the rest of their beer to walk-ins, either by the glass, or via growler re-fill. Are they planing to bottle or can their beer? John told me that the original business plan called for a packaging line to be in place by now, but at the moment, they have their hands very full selling all the beer they are making, so the added expense of packaging has been put off for the moment.

They, like Cumberland, have also gone the pizza route in order to provide something of a brewpub ambiance. Where Cumberland is able to bring in pizza from the pizzeria right next door, Gladstone actually leases space inside the brewery to a pizza maker. Again like Cumberland, technically Gladstone is not a brewpub since they are not making or selling the food; but because people are able to eat (albeit from a fairly limited menu) at the same time as they can drink their beer, it at least feels like a brewpub.

As for the new rule that allows craft breweries to cross-sell other BC craft beers as well as BC wines and ciders, Gladstone is considering putting cider on the menu. Much like Cumberland, they see offering an alternative alcoholic beverage as a way to draw more local couples to their bar.

flight

Starting at left: pilsner, Belgian single, IPA, porter

Having brewery chores to do, John left me with Mikael at the bar, who promptly poured me a flight of Gladstone beers: their unnamed pilsner, the Belgian single (“Sterling”), an unnamed IPA (cleaving to the old unwritten rule that every BC brewery must produce an IPA), and an unnamed porter that won a bronze medal at the recent Canadian Brewing Awards. (But look at the colour of the porter — surely some name play on “engine oil” or “grease monkey” could have been made here?)

Although the wide mix of styles may seem a bit scattershot, all of them were competently made and tasty.

growlers

Growlers: Gladstone’s main revenue stream

Despite geographical differences in their settings, Gladstone and Cumberland have remarkably similar stories — similar-sized breweries created in high visibility locations at almost the same time, with a business model focussed on a connection to the local community and sales by the glass and growler, with pizza on the side. Cumberland, however, seems to have their marketing mojo firmly on track. It will be interesting to see if Gladstone can move the clever use of their mechanic’s theme from the tasting bar into all aspects of their operation.

 

 

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