beer god: Central City brewmaster gary Lohin is ... - Thirsty Writer

beer god: Central City brewmaster gary Lohin is ... - Thirsty Writer

eer god: Central

City brewmaster gary

Lohin is revered by beer

fanatics and last year

he brought home a

national brewery of the

Year award

58 BCBusiness September 2011


Craft brewers can’t keep up with demand

as the craze for all things local sparks a staking rush

in the race to claim the hearts and minds –

and wallets – of a whole new beer demographic


[ drink up! ]

me another

hen the doors open at 11:00 a.m.,

there is already a lineup in front of the Central City Brewing Co.

brewpub, beside the main entrance to the Central City shopping

mall in the heart of Whalley. Men and women, young and old, hand

over their $30 prepaid tickets, collect a tasting glass, and then go

in search of the event’s focus: cask ale.

Spread throughout the spacious restaurant are stations of three

or four firkins – aluminum, barrel-shaped casks that hold about

40 litres of beer. Two dozen unique, cask-conditioned beers are

on tap, representing as many breweries. Most are from B.C., but

some have travelled from Washington, Oregon and even northern

California. Over the course of this rainy early summer afternoon, a

sold-out crowd of 300 will taste some, or perhaps even most of the

beers, paying $1 per sample after they’ve used up the three tokens

included in the ticket price.

by Joe Wiebe // photography by Adam Blasberg

September 2011 BCBusiness 59

Cask ale is the holy grail for craft beer

lovers. It undergoes a secondary fermentation,

which expands and deepens the

malt and hop flavours. The resulting beer

is usually richer and more complex than

typical beer from a keg or bottle. Brewers

often experiment by adding something

special to the cask or by testing a new


Craft beer is a growth industry in B.C.

Over the past five years, microbrewers’

sales through the Liquor Distribution

Branch (through which all beer flows) have

doubled from about $56 million in 2007 to

$111.5 million in the 12 months ended March

2011. And beer drinkers are increasingly

swapping their Labatts and Molsons for

local brews: microbreweries’ slice of the

beer pie in B.C. has grown from 6.4 per

cent in March 2007, to 12.7 per cent as of

March this year.

Surrey’s Central City is one of the dozens

of B.C. microbrewers riding the wave.

Brewmaster and co-owner Gary Lohin says

the company’s revenues have grown from

$650,000 in 2008, when it had just started

selling its full line of Red Racer beers outside

the brewpub, to a projected $3 million

this year. The impact of this boom can be

seen all across the beer industry: not only

are new breweries popping up with regularity,

but restaurants specializing in local

beer are doing brisk business, as are private

liquor stores catering to the demand

for B.C. beer.

Some of B.C.’s oldest and newest

craft breweries are represented at Central

City’s cask tasting. Spinnakers and

Swans brewpubs in Victoria date back to

the 1980s; Tofino Brewing, which opened

just a few months ago, is offering its new

India Pale Ale; and Coal Harbour Brewing,

which isn’t even fully open yet, is on hand

with a test batch of brewmaster Daniel

Knibbs’s Pandora’s Box Rye Saison, brewed

with yeast he propagated from a bottle of

Fantôme Printemps, which he describes as

“the best Belgian saison in the world.”

There are some very unusual concoctions:

Tofino’s IPA is infused with handpicked

spruce tips; Vancouver’s punk

brewery, Storm Brewing, has prepared a

cask of potent (and tooth-achingly sweet)

Root Beer; and Salt Spring Island Ales has

added stinging nettles to its Whale Tail Ale

for the occasion.

60 BCBusiness September 2011

It’s hard to say what the nettles add to

an already tasty brew, and the same goes

for Tofino’s IPA – is that spruce I’m tasting,

or the pine-like flavour of the hops? In any

case, both are my favourites from the day,

along with Knibbs’s Rye Saison and Belle

Royale, a fruit beer made with sour cherries

by Victoria’s Driftwood Brewing.

Lohin is on hand at the Central City

tasting, and I point out to him that some

patrons may have spent the entire afternoon

at his brewpub without even tasting

any of his beer. Tall, straight-backed

and fit at 50 thanks to the mountainbiking

addiction he acquired growing up

in North Vancouver, Lohin chuckles in

response. “You’re right,” he says, looking

around at the crowd. “It’s a very collaborative

atmosphere, all about celebrating

the beer.”

Lohin has good reason to celebrate.

Central City Brewing was named national

Brewery of the Year at the Canadian Brewing

Awards in late 2010, taking home gold

medals for three of its brews: Red Racer

IPA, Imperial IPA, and Thor’s Hammer Barley

Wine, which also won Beer of the Year.

Lohin, who is revered among the province’s

craft beer geeks, is also respected

and admired by his fellow brewers as one

of the industry’s leaders.

Central City is about to break ground

Over the past five years, microbrewers' sales through

the LDB have doubled from $56 million to $111.5

million, and beer drinkers are increasingly swapping

their Labatts and Molsons for local brews

on a new brewing facility that will more

than quadruple its brewing capacity to

35,000 hectolitres a year from the current

8,000 hectolitres squeezed out of its tiny

brewhouse in the Central City mall. (A

hectolitre, the standard measure of output

in the industry, equals 100 litres.) The

new brewery, which Lohin expects to be

operational by the fall of 2012, will include

storage space for barrel-aging and bottleconditioning,

and will allow Lohin to bottle

his specialty beers, whereas currently his

brews are only available in cans, on draft

or in the occasional cask.

When Central City first opened next to

the second-to-last stop on the SkyTrain line

in 2003, craft beer drinkers barely noticed.

Sure, people knew Lohin was a good brewer

from his days at Sailor Hagar’s in North

Vancouver, but it wasn’t until 2008 when

Central City began selling its line of Red

Racer brews – in various-coloured cans all

featuring the same alluring illustration of a

buxom lass on a retro bicycle – that people

took notice. The White Ale and IPA were

on everyone’s to-taste lists that summer,

and before long, Red Racer IPA, in its distinctive

green can, became the standard

against which all other beers in B.C. are

measured. SkyTrain ridership to Surrey

took a decided bump as Vancouver’s beer

geeks started making regular pilgrimages

to the pub for brews that weren’t available

off-site: a nitrogenated stout; Extra Special

Bitter (which was finally released in cans

last year); and specialty brews, including

an authentic Czech Pilsner, a powerful

Imperial IPA and an even more potent barley

wine aptly called Thor’s Hammer.

Lohin says Central City can’t come close

to meeting demand for its brews. “We’ve

actually had distributors from the U.S.

saying, ‘I’ll send you some empty kegs. Fill

them and send them back,’” he recalls. He

reports reluctantly turning down a request

from Earls Restaurants to supply its chain

of restaurants in B.C., and says the Liquor

Control Board of Ontario offered to stock

his beer in all of its stores, but he could

only spare five pallets of the IPA this summer,

which the LCBO planned on selling as

single cans for a marked-up price.

With demand for craft beer outstripping

supply, Lohin says there is a good camaraderie

among the province’s brewers, but

with a dash of healthy competition. “Everybody

is pushing each other to make good

beer; I think it’s a good thing. It’s healthy.”

HigH voLume:

Central City brewing

(left and below) is

ramping up production

to quadruple its

capacity; gastown's

the Alibi room (right)

offers 44 local brews

on tap to help beer

nuts quench

their thirst

That said, Lohin also recognizes that

Central City has to play a leadership role

in the community, thanks to its burgeoning

success. “We do see ourselves in that

role, absolutely. We are trying to set a good

example as we open up our new brewery.”

Vancouver’s Alibi Room has

built a reputation as Vancouver’s mecca

for craft beer lovers. On a sultry Friday

evening in late July, a dozen people are

waiting for tables – mostly skinny-jeanclad

hipsters in their 20s. I spot c0-owner

Nigel Springthorpe behind the bar, and

pull up a stool next to Gerry Erith, manager

of the Brewery Creek Liquor Store,

known for specializing in local craft beers.

I settle in next to him and we proceed to

polish the bar with our elbows for the next

few hours.

Once mainly a haunt for the Hollywood

North set, the Alibi Room has retooled

itself into B.C.’s best craft beer restaurant

What is

Craft Beer?

“Craft beeris more a

marketing term than

a formal classification.

About six or seven

years ago small regional

brewers began replacing

the term “microbrew”

with “craft

beer,” spurring one of

the most successful

rebranding campaigns

in recent history. The

beer and the brewers

didn’t change, but by

associating the product

with the artisan

and local food scene,

regional brewers connected

with vast new

markets. September 2011 BCBusiness 61

eer tHerApist:

Alibi room co-owner

Nigel springthorpe

gladly dispenses advice

for newbies who

don’t know their tripel

from their hefeweizen

62 BCBusiness September 2011

over the past five years, since Springthorpe

advanced from employee to co-owner. “It

was never really the plan,” Springthorpe

admits, his accent matching his ultra-British

name perfectly, “but as my own tastes

changed and I started to discover the

wonderful world of craft beer, I decided to

explore the possibility of putting all of the

best breweries, near and far, side by side

in one location.” And that he did: the bar

boasts a long line of 44 draft taps and three

beer engines pulling cask-conditioned ales

up from the cellar

On this Friday night at the Alibi Room

the crowd is young, and getting younger

by the hour. Gerry Erith and I joke that the

two of us, in our early 40s, are the oldest

people there by far, but I have seen folks

in their 50s, 60s and beyond on other visits,

probably on evenings when the lineup

wasn’t as long. And it’s an even mix of

women and men, clustered in couples or

groups at the popular communal tables.

Two women in their early 20s take the

unoccupied stools next to me, and Springthorpe

asks what he can pour for them.

Overwhelmed by the two-page beer list

they ask for his suggestions and Springthorpe

offers a “frat-bat sampler” – four

small glasses served on a wooden paddle

for $9. I watch as Springthorpe chooses

four options from the 20-foot row of

taps behind the bar. In the end, he picks

a stout, an IPA, a raspberry wheat and a

hefeweizen, providing a nutshell description

of each before leaving the two to their


These two twenty-somethings are

typical of a whole new demographic the

craft-beer craze has welcomed to a market

traditionally dominated by men. One tells

me she’s already a fan of craft beer, while

the other is still experimenting. “There are

so many exquisite beers out there,” she says

while her friend nods in agreement. When

I point out that the pair hardly represent

the typical beer market demographic, she

states the obvious: “That’s really changing

with craft beer.”

While craft beer has breathed new life

into the Alibi Room and a handful of others

specializing in local brews, a number

of specialty liquor stores have carved out

a similar niche. In Vancouver, Brewery

Creek was named Best Local Liquor Store

by the Vancouver chapter of the Campaign

for Real Ale Society of B.C. for three years

running. Others favoured by beer connoisseurs

include Firefly, with a location

on Cambie Street and another store in

Maple Ridge; Legacy, one of the first businesses

to open in the Olympic Village; and

others in Victoria, North Vancouver and


Gerry Erith became manager of the

Brewery Creek store at Main and 15th in

October 2005, just a few months after it

opened. Back then, he says, it was a typical

“cold beer and wine store,” offering a

small assortment of popular brands at a

premium, mainly serving locals outside of

government-run liquor store hours.

At the time, it was a small store with only

six beer fridges – and only two of those had

craft beer in them. “I was finding nooks and

crannies to put things in,” Erith says with a

chuckle, describing how he chopped back

the cashier counter at one point to add a

shelf to accommodate more craft beer.

In 2008, the store expanded consider-

ably, taking over a former massage parlour

next door. Of 16 coolers in the beer section

today, 11 are devoted to craft beer, along

with several shelves holding single bottles

of unique Belgian and North American

beers that are not kept cold.

The store’s realignment is a microcosm

of the B.C. beer market. Erith explains that

mainstream brands like Budweiser and

Kokanee “used to pay for everything else,”

adding, “They don’t any more.” And it isn’t

just a newly minted crowd of craft beer

geeks who have pushed this change, Erith

says: “The guys who live nearby aren’t

buying Kokanee anymore. They’re the

ones we’ve converted. Now they’re buying

west coast IPAs.” Erith points to a handful

of restaurants in the area that have similarly

risen with the craft-beer tide: Habit,

Cascade, Slickety Jim’s, Burgoo and others.

Craft beer, he says, “is the interconnectedness

of what all of us are doing.”

Inside Brewery Creek, it’s clear that

craft beer has not only expanded the beer

market, but upped the price point. One

shelf holds a wide range of bottles that sell

for $15 or more, comparable to the price

of a decent bottle of wine. There are several

unique brews from Dogfish Head, a

U.S. craft brewery that recently curtailed

exports to Canada, selling for around $30

per 650 ml bottle. The most expensive

bottle – a three-litre magnum of Chimay

Bleue, a Belgian trappist ale – is priced at

$68.75. Brewery Creek has three bottles

in stock right now, and Erith says he has

probably sold seven of them since the

store’s expansion in 2008.

Although Erith humbly insists that his

role in the craft beer boom is minimal, he

is also one of the founders of Vancouver

Craft Beer Week, another bellwether of

craft beer’s success locally. Inaugurated

in 2010, the second annual version took

place May 6 to 14 this year, featuring 50

events in venues all around Vancouver.

Mayor Gregor Robertson tapped the first

cask of Collaboration Beer, which 28 B.C.

breweries co-created. More than 5,000

people bought tickets to 50 events – twice

Craft beer has not only expanded the beer market,

but upped the price point. One shelf holds a wide

range of bottles that sell for $15 or more, comparable

to the price of a decent bottle of wine

as many as in 2010 – including special tastings,

brewmaster dinners, seminars and a

two-day beer festival that closed the week

with 1,350 people attending over the final

two nights.

For all of the evidence supporting

craft beer’s burgeoning popularity,

there are still some voices of dissent.

One belongs to Paddy Treavor, the current

president of the Vancouver chapter of the

Campaign for Real Ale Society of B.C. He

believes that B.C. craft brewers are a disjointed

lot, blind to opportunities to work

together for the common good of the industry.

“I do think it’s booming,” Treavor says,

“but I’m afraid they’re missing the boat and

they’re not taking advantage of the boom.”

The best place to start would be a strong

industry association, he says, but the existing

B.C. Craft Brewers Guild, which was

formed in 1997, is largely inactive. Its website

( doesn’t appear

to have been updated in years and does little

other than provide a membership list,

which doesn’t include such prominent craft

brewers as Lighthouse, Driftwood, Howe

Sound and Crannog. September 2011 BCBusiness 63

Big Beer

Micro and Macro brewerS

are worldS apart

The B.C. Liquor Distribution

Branch defines as micro any

brewery that produces less than

15,000 hectolitres annually

(1 hectolitre = 100 litres). A

regional brewer is one that

produces between 15,000 and

150,000 hectolitres, and

macrobrewers produce more

than 150,000 hectolitres. Some

examples: Surrey’s Central City

Brewing is a micro, producing

8,000 hectolitres a year; Surrey’s

Russell Breweries Inc. is a regional,

with capacity of 25,000 hectolitres

a year; Molson Coors Brewing Co.

is a macro, producing 18 million

hectolitres last year.


Central City



64 BCBusiness September 2011


russell Brewing




Molson Coors



The Ontario Craft Brewers website, by

comparison, offers information about its

members, an interactive map, an iPhone

app for finding stores, a podcast, restaurant

and bar listings, recipes, events and

lists classifying local craft beers according

to styles, breweries, regions, awards, and

even which restaurants and bars serve

which craft beers. The Ontario association

also lobbied the provincial government

to great effect, securing $5 million in

funding from the province over five years

when the organization was formed in 2005.

In 2008 Ontario’s provincial government

announced an $8-million Ontario Craft

Brewers Opportunity Fund aimed at helping

fledgling breweries get off the ground.

Ontario craft brewers also have a champion

in the provincial legislature: Speaker

Steve Peters has hosted an Ontario craft

beer tasting event annually for the past

four years, in which dozens of the province’s

beers are sampled by MPPs, provincial

staff and special guests, who vote on

their favourite brews. The winners of six

categories are served in the Legislature

dining room and other provincial government

venues throughout the coming year.

Ontario craft brewers also collaborate

to put out the OCB Discovery Pack, featuring

beers from six Ontario breweries. They

even advertise together, with print ads

and radio spots promoting their wares as

a group. They publish an OCB Style Guide

brochure listing more than 150 member

brews with check boxes next to them (perfect

for encouraging craft beer geeks to try

them all). Finally, their beers all feature a

special OCB seal, similar to the VQA symbol

found on premium B.C. wines.

Chairman Tod Melnyk, who owns Tree

Brewing in Kelowna, says the B.C. Craft

Brewers Guild is working on several initiatives,

but doesn't have the kind of money

its Ontario counterpart does. Nonetheless,

he describes three initiatives that include

ensuring the quality of B.C. craft beer, joint

marketing efforts and working with government

to explore ways of growing the


But for the moment, B.C. craft brewers

are so busy scrambling to meet demand

that they have little time for industrywide

initiatives. Central City’s Gary Lohin

acknowledges, “We do need a more effective

guild,” but adds, “I get a little sense of

apathy, but I don’t know what else to do.

I’ve got to run my business.” n

Growth Industry

local brewerS ScraMble to Meet deMand

Central City

Brewing Co.

in Surrey has seen

revenues grow from

$650,000 in 2008

to a projected $3

million in 2011. it

is about to break

ground on a new

brewing facility that

will more than quadruple

its capacity to

35,000 hectolitres a

year from its current

8,000 hl.



Inc. in Surrey has

seen sales grow from

just $174,000 in

2004 to $7 million

in 2010, although

those numbers include

sales from Fort Garry

brewing in winnipeg,

which russell bought

in 2007.

Howe Sound

Inn and

Brewing Co.

in Squamish has

more than doubled

its annual revenue

from $2 million to $5

million in just three

years, expanding its

staff by 20 employees

over that time.

R&B Brewing

Co. in Vancouver

reports a steady

growth of 10 per

cent annually over

the past five years.


Brewing Co.,

which opened in

Victoria in 2008, has

doubled its capacity

each year since then.


Brewing Co. of

Victoria now employs

35 people, compared

to just five in 2006.

Tree Brewing

Co. in Kelowna

reports doubling its

business over the

past four years.

Nelson Brewing

Co. in nelson

claims a relatively

modest seven per

cent annual growth

over the past three


Mt. Begbie

Brewing Co.

in revelstoke has

nearly doubled its

production since

2007 and increased

its brewery staff

from three to nine. September 2011 BCBusiness 65

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