Posted tagged ‘British Columbia’

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: Forbidden Brewing

August 6, 2015

I’m still on Vancouver Island, and today it was time to visit the third small brewery to open in the Comox Valley in the past six months. The first two, Cumberland Brewing and Gladstone Brewing, turned out to be very similar in size and in their approach to sales.

Forbidden

Forbidden Brewing

Forbidden Brewing, which just opened a few weeks ago, is different — that much was apparent as soon as I drove into the parking lot: While both Cumberland and Gladstone enjoy a relatively high visibility and profile, Forbidden is somewhat out of sight, in commercial space leased from a Best Western hotel in Courtenay. It’s too bad it doesn’t have a bit more visibility from the street, since it is on a well-travelled city artery in Courtenay, and within spitting distance of the 17th Street bridge, a major nexus for Island traffic.

forbidden

T-shirt designed by Ian Adams

It’s obvious that Forbidden — or actually “Førbidden”, since they put a slash through the “o” to make it “Ø”, the international symbol for “forbidden” — has spent some time thinking about their marketing, going so far as to hire local graphic designer Ian Adams to create both their iconography as well as design a t-shirt for them.

Similarly, some thought was put into the name: In an effort to establish a connection with the Valley, the name “Førbidden” echoes Forbidden Plateau, a nearby area so named because it was taboo to the local K’ómoks people who believed that evil spirits dwelt there.

bar

Brewery co-founder Michael Vincent handles front of house

The tasting room, featuring a beautiful bar of local red cedar that contrasts with dove grey walls, is easily the most tasteful and stylishly modern of the three Valley breweries, again displaying a lot of forethought and planning.

Michael Vincent, one of the co-founders of Førbidden, had just opened the bar as I arrived. Michael was the person who originally came up with the idea of the brewery when he had the opportunity to buy a used brewing system. However, the equipment had to go into storage for several years until Michael found other people who shared his vision for a Valley brewery. That included Nicholas Williams, a homebrewer, who became the Førbidden brewmaster.

Usually when you write a business plan to attract potential investors or apply for a bank loan, you outline possible obstacles to future growth, including potential competition. Given that there were no breweries in the Valley when the business plans of all three of these breweries were written, I’m sure each one of them touted the fact that there would be no competitors. It must have come as shock to all three when they each realized that there would not be just one but three breweries opening almost simultaneously.

Michael was a bit busy when I dropped in — the regularly scheduled bartender had not shown up, leaving Michael to boot the point of sale system, ready the bar for the day’s business, pour beer and make change for the first customers of the day, while also trying to answer my questions at the same time. Luckily his assistant brewer, Nathan, was able to take me on a tour of the brewhouse while Michael held down the front of the house.

brewhouse

Very steam punk brewhouse

Of all the brewhouses I have visited — and they are legion — this was certainly the most unique set-up I have seen: six 50-litre vats lined up against the wall. It had a vaguely steam punk motif, reminding me of etchings of Victorian porter breweries with their Burton Union systems all hooked up in parallel. As Nathan explained it, although each of the six vats was only 50 litres, working together they formed a 300-litre brewhouse.

To make a batch, each of the vats is filled with hot water, then a bag of malt is lowered into each vat. To mash out, the bags of grain are lifted out of the water. Each vat then becomes a small kettle, where the wort is boiled. At the end of the boil, the wort that is left — about 250 litres in total after evaporation losses — is transferred from the six vats to a fermentor. Each batch of 250 litres takes about six hours. Because their fermentor has a three-batch capacity, this brewing process is done three times over two days to fill the fermentor with about 750 litres. That is a lot of time and effort for a minimal amount of beer.

To give that a bit of local perspective, Cumberland produces 1200 litres and Gladstone produces 1500 litres in about 4 to 6 hours — a lot more beer in about a third of the time.

FV

Assistant brewer Nathan shows me the plastic FVs

The fermentor turned out to be a large plastic cube. That again was a bit of a surprise — up until now, I have only seen homebrewers use plastic containers for fermenting. It’s not that there is a problem fermenting beer in plastic — for all intents and purposes it works just as well as stainless steel, does not cause off-flavours, and is impervious to both acid and caustic cleansers. But even a soft brush will cause microscopic scratches and abrasions during cleaning. Beer-spoiling bacteria can then hide in those abrasions, safe from caustic cleansers. And the number of these abrasions will increase with each cleaning.

The good news is that the brewing room is actually quite spacious, and should Førbidden decide to upgrade their equipment — either by installing a professional 2-vessel brewhouse or by switching to stainless steel fermentors (or both) — there would seem to be plenty of room for the new equipment.

beer

Forbidden Pale Ale

Given the effort they have to put into each batch of beer, it’s not surprising that Førbidden makes only two types of beer — a west coast-style IPA, and a west coast-style pale ale. I had a glass of the pale ale, single-hopped with Cascade, and my gosh, despite the “homebrewer” look of the brewhouse, it was very good — aromatic, juicy and with a good bite at the end.

At the moment, Førbidden only sells beer by the glass, and does not fill growlers. (Apparently growler fills will start in due course.) And in a step up from the other two Valley breweries, who offer pizza with their beer, Førbidden is able to offer a short menu of food that goes a step beyond pizza to nachos, fish tacos and burgers.

However, the tasting room at the moment is only open afternoons and evenings three days a week (Fridays thru Sundays). I haven’t seen or heard of Førbidden beer available at local bars or restaurants, and I forgot to ask Michael if they have any outside sales accounts.

That, in a nutshell, is Førbidden, the smallest of the Valley’s three breweries. In terms of marketing and style, they are easily far ahead of the other two. The beer on tap is certainly of good quality. However, the amount of time and effort it is taking them to make a small amount of beer is troubling. Can they make enough beer with their present equipment to turn a profit? Since they are open only three days a week, can they attract enough drinkers to their fairly low-key location to sell the beer they make?

Tasty beer, great bar, I have the t-shirt — now I look forward to following their efforts over the next few months.

Comox Valley Breweries: Cumberland Brewing Co.

August 1, 2015

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

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…)

Cumberland Brewing

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

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.

brewhouse

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

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.”)

flight

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.

pig

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.

stand

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.

beer garden

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.

 

West Coast Journey: Tofino Brewing

May 11, 2013

As I mentioned in my previous post, just a couple of days after finishing my Brewmaster exams, family business took me to British Columbia for a couple of weeks. In retrospect, the timing was not perfect–I flew out of Toronto just a few days before the Ontario Brewing Awards, and left B.C. just a few days before the Canadian Brewing Awards in Victoria. However, on the plus side, once my family commitments were completed, I had some time to explore some of the craft breweries on the West Coast.

Nurtured in the Northwest craft beer movement of the 1980s, B.C. craft brewers have always been about five years ahead of Ontario in terms of consumer attitude and marketplace penetration. So if you think the craft beer scene is burgeoning in Ontario, you need to visit B.C., where the craft beer scene is exploding. This year alone, nine new breweries and brewpubs are scheduled to open in Metropolitan Vancouver, bringing the city’s total to 20. And new breweries are popping up around the province as well.

I decided to start my journey of exploration by driving out to Tofino Brewing on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Tofino is one of a handful of small villages that cling to the harsh mountainous western coast of Vancouver Island. With nothing between it and Japan except several thousand kilometres of Pacific Ocean, Tofino is lashed by fierce storms in the winter; even summer days are usually accompanied by a daily blanket of morning mist, rain and cool winds. Fifty or sixty years ago, there was only a tiny fishing village here, connected to the populated east coast of the Island by a bone-shaking, white-knuckled, 6-hour drive over a tortuous gravel road clinging to sheer cliff faces.

Long Beach

Long Beach: 20 km of hard sand and big waves

Then in the 1960s, hippie surfers discovered the big ocean waves endlessly rolling onto Long Beach, a 20-km stretch of hard tidal sand just outside Tofino. The Clayquot Sound old-growth forest controversy of the 1980s, pitting loggers against the nascent eco-movement, brought attention–and even more visitors–to this part of the world. The gravel road was paved and improved, cutting the 6-hour drive to about 90 minutes. Now Tofino is a busy tourist town offering eco-adventures via kayaks, floatplanes, and whale-watching boats. A new generation of surfers has arrived, and like their snowboarding ilk at Whistler and Banff, they eke out a living waiting tables and doing odd-jobs between surfing sessions.

Tofino Brewing

The big door is open: C’mon in!

Tofino Brewery is located in a section of an industrial building just outside of town. Like several other small breweries we visited in B.C., if the big delivery door was shut, the brewery was closed. If it was open, come on in! As luck would have it, the brewery was open, and when I introduced myself, I was given a quick tour–not quick in the sense that they were eager to get rid of me, but quick because it is a pretty compact set-up.

I confess that, given the young average age of the locals, and the laid-back lifestyle of a population more interested in rippin’ the primo rollers around nearby Incendiary Rock than in getting a science degree, I half-expected to see the brewing dudes at Tofino Brewing standing around a 50-litre pot, stirring the mash with a piece of driftwood.

Grain tower

The mill tower (and motorcycle stand). Bags of grain are carried upstairs and poured into the two-roller mill. Milled grain slides into large funnel where it is pre-hydrated as it falls into mash tun.

However, what I saw instead was a clean, professional state-of-the-art brewhouse. The single room contains the sampling bar/retail operation, the grain tower holding a two-roller mill (whimsically topped by an ancient motorbike frame), the brewhouse, and fermenters.

(A confession: As my fellow Brewmaster students know, I am usually an avid note-taker. I distinctly remember taking notes during my visit to Tofino Brewing. And yet, perhaps a legacy of the several samples of beer I tasted, those notes–which included the size of the brewhouse, the name of my guide and various other pertinent details–cannot be found. On the plus side, my wife Elaine volunteered from this point forward to be my note-taker and blog co-author during brewery visits.)

The brewery was founded a couple of years ago by three friends who were tired of financing their surfing habit with arduous odd jobs around town. Having between them various business degrees (but no brewing experience), they put together a business plan for a local brewery, and convinced brewmaster David Woodward of Whistler Brew House to move to Tofino.

The brewhouse has a mash/lauter tun of perhaps 10 hectolitres (due to my lack of notes, I’m guessing at capacity based on my photos), and I seem to remember my guide mentioning that they could push capacity to a typical knock-out of 13 hectolitres of wort.

mash/lauter tun, kettle, whirlpool

(L to R): Electrically heated mash/lauter tun, kettle, whirlpool

Tofino has a shortage of fresh water–although a lot of melted snow comes off nearby mountains, most of it ends up in the ocean well before it has a chance to reach the town. Even in this wet climate, the large number of tourists puts a huge strain on the water system each summer. For that reason, the brewery vessls are electrically heated rather than steam-fired. (My guide did allow that this added a certain flavour of caramelization to their Tuff Session Pale Ale, and that cleaning the elements after every batch was a pain.) Water is also saved by recycling warm heat exchanger water into the hot liquor tank to be used in the next batch of beer. (Niagara College’s Teaching Brewery also uses the same water-saving method.)

Tofino Brewery does not filter their beer; for that reason, rather than having a combined kettle/whirpool, they have a separate kettle, and a dedicated whirlpool to remove as much trub as possible. (Many small breweries combine the kettle and whirlpool in order to save money on capital expenses–however, the inevitable design compromises means the kettle doesn’t heat as efficiently, and the whirlpool doesn’t remove trub as efficiently.)

Fermenters

Fermenter farm. Smallest FV at far end was one of originals. Largest on the right is the newest.

From the whirlpool, the wort flows through the heat exchanger to one of eight fermenters. The brewery started with three FVs–one horizontal and two cylindrical-conicals–each capable of handling a single batch. They have since invested in several double batch cylindrical conicals, as well as one capable of handling a triple batch (or perhaps it was a quad batch). The horizontal fermenter has been converted into their hot liquor tank.

The brewery initially didn’t have enough room (or the money) for a bottling line, so the original business plan envisioned direct sales at the brewery via refillable growlers–consumers would buy a growler, then bring it back to the brewery to be refilled. Apparently the recycling aspect of that plan struck a strong resonant chord in this eco-friendly community: the brewery originally bought 300 growlers, thinking that would last them a month–those sold out in less than a week. They ordered another 600–those were gone in another week. Local demand for Tofino beer was–and continues to be–overwhelming. In the 30 minutes I was there on a Saturday mid-afternoon, an endless stream of casually-dressed locals arrived to have a growler (or two) filled.

Demand being strong, when another unit of their industrial building became available, the brewery quickly moved in, turning part of the space into a cooler capable of holding dozens of kegs for delivery to local restaurants. The remainder of the new space gave them the room they needed for a 6-head Meheen bottle filler. Although this is probably capable of filling more than thirty 650-mL bottles a minute, the small table-top bottle labeller really slows the process down, since each bottle has to be individually hand-inserted and removed.

Lounge

The open-air lounge. Casual dress encouraged.

The tour finished, samples were quickly offered at the in-house bar, and gratefully accepted by this thirsty traveller. (Hence the lost notes.) Tofino’s flagship beers are a fairly mainstream blonde, a nice English-style pale ale (with the aforementioned caramel notes), and a snappy northwest-style IPA–de rigeur for this part of the world. They also had a coffee porter bottled–another clever addition to the lineup, since good strong coffee is a huge part of the West Coast lifestyle–but alas, none was on tap. Curiously, you can’t buy a single 650 mL bottle at the brewery–the minimum purchase is four bottles, which is more than my poor suitcase would hold for the flight home (unless I discarded all my clothes, a concept with which I briefly toyed). In any case, I left without a bottle of the coffee porter, but I did buy a logo t-shirt, since I do not have enough t-shirts with brewery logos.

The last phrase of the previous sentence is a complete lie.

Locals love the growlers

Locals love the growlers

In a nutshell, despite the added expense of having ingredients shipped from mainland to the Island, and then shipped to the far side of the Island, Tofino Brewery seems to be a rollicking success, buoyed by the strong support–and thirst–of the local population. At a glance, the brewery seems to be brewing close to capacity, and it will be interesting to see if this results in a further expansion–perhaps a larger brewhouse or more fermenters.

Well-made local beer, made in tune with local sensibilities. Now that was a well-thought-out business plan!


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