Posted tagged ‘Comox Valley’

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.

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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.

 

 

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.

 


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