Why you can’t get that beer here (and why that’s a good thing)

by Sonia Montisca

Victoria, BC’s capital city, is also the capital of BC’s craft beer movement. Home to the Great Canadian Beer Festival, Canada’s oldest beer fest, and Spinnakers, Canada’s first brewpub, the movement has been brewing in our little city for nearly four decades. We’re about to welcome Herald Street Brew Works, our 17th craft brewery to the fold, but even since its humble beginnings, it’s been clear that craft beer has an avid audience in Victoria. 

The great news is that the audience is getting bigger, not just in our city, but in the province as a whole. Craft breweries are opening up in small communities across BC, creating the same type of craft beer culture that we’ve been lucky enough to imbibe in for a while now.

The state of BC’s craft beer industry

Craft beer in British Columbia has become quite the phenomenon in the last two decades. According to the BC Craft Brewers Guild, a “craft beer” is defined as being produced in BC at an annual quantity of less than 200,000 hectolitres (hL) in a brewery that is at least 51% BC-owned. Small-scale breweries, also known as “microbreweries,” usually produce up to 15,000hL. With more breweries focused on small batches of quality craft beer opening up, the phenomenon is evolving.

BC currently has around 180 craft breweries and the number ticks upward with every passing season. Organizations like CAMRA BC, the BC Craft Brewers Guild, and the BC Ale Trail, to name a few, have also established themselves and grown in support of craft beer’s proliferation. The BC Ale Trail, a marketing project that promotes craft beer-focused tourism, has recently launched its very own app that gives users points when they check in at a participating brewery which can then be redeemed for special rewards. Other businesses that produce brewing ingredients, manufacture brewing equipment, or make use of brewing byproducts like spent grains have been able to develop on the periphery of the industry too.

Victoria and Vancouver showcase what craft beer can achieve, given a few decades to work with. In both urban centres dozens of craft breweries are open, sometimes even side by side like they are on Brewers Row in Port Moody where four breweries operate within a span of three blocks. These businesses have become allies in the craft beer movement instead of competitors.

In smaller, more remote communities where the amount of consumers is much more limited and access to larger markets is more challenging, the opening of a craft brewery has had similar results. Consumers in both urban centres and rural communities are able to enjoy top quality beer right where it’s made, supporting what are often hyperlocal businesses.

Oversaturation in the market?

With more craft breweries opening across BC, it’s reasonable to expect that the market could become oversaturated with quality craft beer (the horror!). However, the rise of the craft beer industry has made it a prime example of how focusing on local sourcing, production, and limited distribution can actually be better for everyone involved.

With “locavore” culture becoming more prevalent in the purchasing habits of consumers, as well as the production processes of businesses, growth becomes an interesting question for most small-business owners. As more people prefer to eat, drink, and shop local, a mutually beneficial relationship is developing between craft beer producers and consumers and it’s a relationship that should be paid particular attention to.

The distribution dilemma

A problem for many small breweries comes in the form of distribution. Reaching a larger consumer market is important when aiming for growth in sales, but a larger market in an already large province comes with its own challenges.

The starting costs of a brewery are high and rigid rules and regulations make finding or constructing a suitable location expensive as well. Add tapping into established distribution channels on top of that and it’s easy to see why most small breweries shy away from distributing beyond their immediate vicinity.

While this might be much to the consumer’s chagrin when leaving a tap takeover event with the thought “Dang, I wish I could get more of that beer here…”, it turns out not focusing on wider distribution is actually better for everyone involved. It reduces the environmental impact of greater production and emissions created from shipping products far distances. It also means that consumers need to visit a brewery to sample its brews, drinking them while they’re at their freshest, best quality, while also contributing to tourism revenue by spending their money at a local business with local employees and perhaps staying at a local hotel and checking out other nearby attractions.

Craft beer works for its community

A new craft brewery opening in any community is exciting, but the first or second in a small town is especially impactful as the brewery’s tasting room takes on the role of a new community gathering space. Becoming a hotspot for locals and visitors alike, as well as an ideal events venue for local groups and organizations, the opportunity for further economic stimulation in the form of business partnerships develops as well.

Perfect examples of the impact that a craft brewery has on a small community can be found all over the province – take Chemainus, Cumberland, Port Alberni, Powell River, or Prince Rupert, to name a handful. Each town is home to one craft brewery at the moment. Since opening in their small communities, populations ranging between approximately 3,000 and 18,000, locals have rallied around these businesses to help them take off in what are often trying economic environments. Many of these places were built around extraction industries, with pulp mills or mines being the main employers. As these industries have slowed, closed down, or automated, the communities around them have been affected too.

But craft breweries add more than just new jobs and quality beer to a place. They add a deeper level of education about beer that encourages a different mindset towards how products get made, sold, and enjoyed. Being able to engage with a brewery’s owner, the brewer, and/or the server as they teach you about their beer styles, their particular history in the community and industry, and their own personal brand becomes a much more lasting experience for patrons.

Get a taste of the movement at GCBF

Victoria has been an influential player in the evolution of craft beer culture in BC. Its history and ties to the movement’s earliest beginnings make it an amazing place to familiarise oneself with what craft beer has to offer. If you’re looking for a taste, all of these things – history, locavore culture, and great Canadian craft beer – can be enjoyed at the Great Canadian Beer Festival.

And if you can’t make it out to that, check out one of the seventeen (and counting!) BC Ale Trails for inspiration and start exploring the hometowns of community-focused craft breweries to get your fill.