Behind the Beer
A conversation with Matt Phillips of Phillips Brewing and Malting Co.
As the story goes, Matt Phillips started his craft beer empire with a dream and a maxed-out credit card, producing beer in stainless steel fermenters he welded himself in a non-descript industrial unit in Esquimalt. Cut to 20 years later, and Phillips Brewing and Malting Co. is a craft beer juggernaut, selling beer across North America, with its Willy Wonka-
esque headquarters spanning almost an entire city block in Victoria’s Old Town neighbourhood.
We spoke with Phillips (virtually, anyways) about the past, present and future of craft beer in Victoria and across the province, and what he had to say might surprise you.
Good Beer Gazette: What was your vision for Phillips Brewing when you first started out 20 years ago? Did it differ from the multi-pronged beverage (and malting!) empire you and your team have built today?
Matt Phillips: I had wanted to start my own brewery since very early in my brewing career, motivated by wanting autonomy on the kinds of beer that I was brewing at a time when most craft breweries were making three beers: one of each colour. The original vision was for a brewery that made very niche beers (think IPAs, etc). To make that viable, the brewery was originally focused only on the bomber (650 mL) format. That vision didn’t work from a business standpoint, and it needed to change after a couple of years, but the focus on creative beer and ingredients hasn’t changed at its heart and has driven the direction into other areas such as malting and soda.
GBG: How has the craft beer industry changed in the past 20 years since you first started?
Phillips: In some ways, the industry is still very much the same; in others, it is significantly different. That’s to be expected. I think the most obvious change is the size of the industry. When I started, there were around 20 or so breweries in B.C.—we all knew each other—and there was a tight sense of collegiality. It’s inevitable that with several hundred breweries in the province, we don’t have those tight relationships that we once valued. On the other hand, the technology that we have access to is lightyears ahead of what was available, or at least attainable on budgets for breweries as small as we all were back then. It’s hard to argue that it hasn’t resulted in better and more consistent beer.
GBG: What were some of the biggest challenges the brewery has faced in that time?
Phillips: Challenges have varied over time. In the early years, the biggest challenges were certainly cash-related: convincing suppliers to sell to me and then finding the cash to pay, trying to scrape together enough cash to weld up another fermenter, or just pay rent. Later, there were periods where we were simply trying to figure out how to keep up with demand and not piss off our retailers. We’ve had hop shortages from warehouse fires. Tank ruptures (twice). Moving a brewery in the middle of summer (twice). Every chapter has had some adventure, and that’s what keeps it interesting.
GBG: What are some of the brewery’s biggest accomplishments that you’re most proud of, personally?
Phillips: Of course, I am proud of the awards we have won over the years, and I’m very proud of the culture of inventiveness and fun at the brewery. But I’m also very excited by our longstanding push to sustainability. We have been monitoring our CO2 life cycle analysis for over 10 years now, and it has helped to guide a lot of our decisions, such as installing a mash press to reduce barley consumption (which turns out to be the most significant factor within our control), building a CO2 reclaim plant in 2015, and investing in a malt plant so we can process locally-grown barley. And most importantly it has led us to have a very low CO2 footprint.
GBG: What about the craft beer scene here in Victoria? How has it matured in the past 20 years?
Phillips: I think one of the interesting things about the craft beer scene in Victoria is that it hasn’t changed nearly as much as it has in other places. Victoria was a very early adopter of craft beer, I suspect much of this is due to the Great Canadian Beer Festival. Victorians were adventurous in beer and supported their local breweries, such as Spinnakers, Swans, Vancouver Island, Lighthouse, and Canoe. Breweries have opened since, but not to the scale that there have been in other places. Because so many of us were open long before tasting rooms were allowed, our taproom culture has been slow to develop, but I think that is starting to change.
GBG: Phillips has become a big part of the cultural fabric of Victoria, even more so since you opened the tasting room and started hosting major events like HOPoxia and the Backyarder. Are there any major changes planned for the brand or the brewery itself in coming years? Any new plans to connect with your home market post-Covid?
Phillips: The one thing to be sure of is that things can’t stay the same for too long! Certainly, we are hoping to be producing shows in the backyard again this summer and really hope the Covid conditions allow us to throw a proper celebration this summer. As for new things for the brand or brewery – they are one and the same for us. We have some new beers this year that we are really excited about, and that will be our focus for the next few months, but we hope that as summer comes, we will be able to start having some more adventure!
GBG: What is the best beer Phillips ever brewed, in your opinion? What Phillips beer is most underrated?
Phillips: Hmmm. Well, I think the best beer we’ve ever brewed is Blue Buck. There is something about brewing the same beer 3-4 times a week that allows you to get really good at making it consistently and without off-flavours, and have it balanced every time. One-off beers are usually exciting, but there is something about a beer that is right on the money every time. In terms of underrated beers… I don’t know, I don’t look at ratings, but I would say one of the beers that we don’t really talk about much are the beers that come out of our sour barrel reactor—very complex sours from the resident microflora in the barrels. We only sell them in our beer shop as the volumes are low and they take quite a while to make, but they are memorable beers.
GBG: What’s your favourite B.C. craft beer NOT brewed by Phillips (and why)?
Phillips: Favourite is a hard concept for me… I want an IPA one minute and a pilsner the next. But I had a
Passive Aggressive from Brassneck the other day that had the hops doing all the right things, and every time I have that beer, it just tastes right to me.