Posted tagged ‘BC craft beer’

The Game is Afoot (again): Another BC brewery

January 21, 2017

Well, here we are back together after a short absence of… … 14 or 15 months. When last I posted, I was working for the Brewmaster program at Niagara College. However, much has changed in the past month: Elaine and I recently decided it was time for both of us to hang up the gloves and retire, so three weeks ago, I officially entered my “golden years” — which mainly seems to mean finally getting a lot of chores done around the house. Then yesterday I visited a new brewery, and suddenly I realized that I now have time to post some new blog entries. So onward…!

Constant readers will recall that I spend a fair amount of time out in British Columbia, and lo! here we are again on the left coast of Canada. We are once more staying in the small village of Comox, about half-way up the eastern (mainland) side of the Island. Comox is right next door to the slightly larger town of Courtenay, which has a fair selection of big box stores; generally you can find what you need. Occasionally though, you may find that neither Comox or Courtenay has the little widget you are looking for, in which case you will need to travel. (Yes, you can order on-line, but where’s the fun in that?)

Your best bet is probably the city of Nanaimo, about 115 km (70 mi) to the south. However, if you feel lucky, you might instead head north to Campbell River, which is much smaller than Nanaimo, but only about half the distance.

Campbell River is the self-styled “Salmon Capital of the World”. Apparently if you’re the sort of person who goes out on the ocean in a small boat looking for tyee salmon armed only with a rod and reel, Campbell River is the place to be.

Beach Fire Brewing

Beach Fire Brewing

Elaine and I, not in urgent need of fresh salmon, but searching for a small widget unavailable in Comox/Courtenay, had decided to try our luck in Campbell River, and arrived around lunch time. As I drove down the main thoroughfare, Elaine trolled Google for places to eat. Google undoubtedly has a pretty good read on where I like to eat, because what it offered up to us was Beach Fire Brewing & Nosh House, a brand-new brewpub. It looked very modern and inviting from the outside, so in we went to order a flight of beer and some food.

dining area

Large-ish dining area done in West Coast Modern. (Check out hanging hop cone lamps.)

The interior is large-ish, high-ceilinged and open, with a couple of communal harvest tables that seat 6-8, and several smaller tables for 2-4. With another half dozen chairs at the bar, there is probably seating for about 30 people. Elaine has seen the inside of a lot of brewpubs and usually finds the decor to be very uninspiring — kind of a masculine “shut up and drink your beer”. However she was very impressed with Beach Fire’s look, which she found very modern and pleasant. She felt a lot of thought had gone into the aesthetic of the place, from the blown glass art on the walls, tables made from slices of tree trunks, and hanging lamps that look like hop cones.

Beach Fire is the brainchild of three Campbell Riverites who bemoaned the lack of craft beer in the area. Knowing that some of their friends were driving 55 km (35 mi) from Campbell River to Cumberland Brewing just to get their growlers refilled, the three partners decided a brewery would thrive here. The local town council, which has been trying to get some new business into the area, were on board with the idea, and without too many misadventures, the brewery opened in October 2016.

Flight

A flight of the blonde, red, pale and stout.

There are four regular beers on tap: a blonde, a red, a pale ale and a stout. (No IPA? Whaaa…? I thought there was some sort of provincial regulation stating that all BC breweries had to produce an IPA.) All four beers are competently made — no surprises, no issues, not a lot of complexity, just basic good beer.

I was able to have a chat with the brewer (and one of the three founding partners), Darrin Finnerty. He is a former homebrewer who has travelled the very difficult “homebrewer goes pro” road while putting together a nice-looking 12 hL 2-vessel Specific Mechanical system. The brewhouse does have some production limitations: he only has four single-batch fermenters, one for each style of beer, and only four serving tanks in the cooler (again, one for each style of beer). This only allows him to make the four basic beers currently on tap; if he and his partners decide to produce a new style of beer, they will have to drop one of the four. Darrin did point out a couple of glass carboys on the floor — he’s thinking about bringing in his homebrew system and whipping up a few casks of creative content from time to time, just to give the customers something new from time to time. Still, this is another brewery where the start-up team were very conservative in their estimate of how much beer they would sell. Now with things really flowing, I’m sure they wish they had more fermenters to increase their brewing capacity.

brewhouse

Beach Fire’s tidy 12 hL brewhouse. No HLT yet, and the single-batch FVs don’t leave much room for future expansion.

The other very evident issue with the brewhouse is the lack of a hot liquor tank (HLT). Just as your home’s hot water tank ensures you have enough hot water for your shower, the dishes and your other daily needs, so a brewhouse’s HLT provides enough hot water for the day’s brewing. (One of the questions my Brewing Calculations students had to answer last year while designing a brewery was what volume of HLT was needed.) Unfortunately for Darrin and his partners, their budget came a little unglued during the construction phase, and what got dropped from the brewhouse plan was an HLT. Without one, Darrin has to get a little creative. Before he starts brewing he obviously has an empty fermenter waiting to receive a batch of wort. So Darrin uses the empty FV as a temporary HLT: he heats water in his kettle, and transfers it to the empty fermenter. When he needs hot water during the brewing process, he transfers it from the fermenter to the mash tun. By the time he’s finished brewing, all the hot water has been used up, the fermenter is empty again, and Darrin can transfer the new wort to the empty fermenter. Of course, lack of an HLT is going to be a limiting factor if Beach Fire wants to ramp up production, so hopefully an HLT is high on Beach Fire’s shopping list.

Cooler -- lots of room for more tanks

Cooler — lots of room for more tanks

The cooler was very large — perhaps, given the lack of floor space out in the brewhouse, the cooler is a bit too large at the moment. Hopefully as an HLT and larger FVs come on-line, there will be more beer in the cooler too.

In addition to beer by the glass, Beach Fire also does growler refills, albeit from the tap rather than using a proper counter-pressure growler filler — something else for the future shopping list too.

It’s also obvious that the kitchen side of Beach Fire has received equal attention: the food menu, which changes daily, is creative, with an emphasis on small “sharing plates” (aka “tapas”) to go with the communal feel of the tables. Looking for a lighter lunch, we ordered ale-braised sausages with bacon sauerkraut, and chips with salsa. There’s also an extensive dessert menu (yay!) with items like “Cape Mudge Foggie” and and Apple-berry Walnut Crisp. Looking for another sharing experience, Elaine & I settled on the Lemon Cheesecake with Blueberries, which turns out to be delicious.

Great food, a very convivial atmosphere and well-made beer — I assume Beach Fire is well on its way to being a local focal point for both craft beer lovers and foodies. If that happens, the only issue for Beach Fire will be how to keep up with demand for their beer, and possibly how to offer more types of beer than their current stable of four styles. It will be exciting to see how they respond to the challenge. We must visit again… often.

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Comox Valley Breweries: Gladstone Brewing

August 4, 2015

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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