A very good BC craft beer finally hits SK

by Jason Foster

Back in 1984, Canadian beer was uniformly yellow, fizzy and boring, and Mitch Taylor and Bill Harvey were not pleased — so they decided to change things.

After two years of preparation, which included lobbying both provincial and federal governments to change laws to even allow them to do it, the pair opened the doors to Canada’s first microbrewery. Vancouver’s Granville Island Brewing started humbly, but was driven by big ideas.

Granville was not only the first Canadian microbrewery (it was quickly followed by a handful of others), they were also the first brewery in Canada since World War II to commit to brewing only with barley, hops, water and yeast: no corn syrup for them (which is, sadly, a main ingredient in most commercial lagers to this day).

Canada has hundreds of small breweries today, and the idea of making beer devoid of preservatives, adjuncts or chemicals is commonplace. But back in 1984 it was a revolutionary step.

Granville Island didn’t remain in Taylor and Harvey’s hands for long, unfortunately. Cash shortages and the need for more capital to finance operations and new equipment forced them to sell a portion of the company on the stock exchange, and then in 1989 the entire company was sold to a large distilling corporation.

Through the 1990s, the brewery expanded rapidly, reaching beyond BC but never making it to Saskatchewan. But with beer consumers hungering for more craft beer, Granville struggled to keep up with demand even in its home province, and in the early 2000s pulled back to being a BC-only operation.

What’s the point, you ask? Well, Granville has quietly returned to selling their beer outside of BC recently. In fact, their distribution now stretches across multiple provinces, as far east as Nova Scotia — including Saskatchewan!

This expansion (“re-expansion”?) is a consequence of the brewery’s purchase by Molson in 2009. Officially, Granville was bought out by Creemore Springs, but Creemore is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Molson-Coors, making that distinction fairly moot.

With the added heft of Molson’s distribution network, additional capital and technological  knowledge to maximize production, Granville has been able to return to markets it abandoned a few years back. Currently, two Granville products can be found in SLGA stores, but they plan to add other beers — including their “small-batch” seasonal offerings — in the coming months.

The two currently here are longstanding brands in the Granville line-up. The English Bay Pale Ale is a bit timid as an English pale ale, but it’s still a flavourful copper ale with a nice caramel malt and delicate hop. The Kitsilano Maple Cream Ale has a sweet note from maple syrup added to the beer, which accents a malty amber beer base.

A key question any time an independent brewery is bought out by a mega-corporation is whether the quality of the beer will suffer. Interference definitely has precedent: for example, when Okanagan Springs and Upper Canada were purchased by Sleemans, both changed significantly for the worse. (To be fair, Sleemans has kept their hands far away from Unibroue’s recipes and process after buying it, allowing the Québec brewery to keep churning out world-class beer.)

So far (fingers crossed!) Molson hasn’t messed with Creemore Springs’ Premium Lager (which it bought in 2005), and it retains its original, refreshing taste. Early signs suggest that the hands-off approach applies to Granville Island as well. They’ve even expanded Granville’s line of small-batch one-off beers, permitting some experimentation that was lacking under the previous owners.

Molson has also recently spun both Creemore and Granville into a separate corporation called Six Pints — a good sign that just might mean the big boy brewers are finally learning that the methods and metrics of craft beer are vastly different than mass-produced lager, and that their usual cookie-cutter approach simply doesn’t work.

The corporate brewers have grown increasingly concerned about the growth of craft beer: they’ve seen the market share of craft grow exponentially over the past few years, affecting their bottom lines. As a result, they’ve grown both more serious and more panicky in their effort to stem the bleeding.

Some of their efforts are ham-fisted (does anyone seriously believe that Bud Light Lime is a sophisticated beer?), some are disingenuous (all of those new Keith’s beers are still just lagers, despite what they say), and a few are honest efforts to produce more interesting beer (some of the latest Rickard’s products fit here).

I think the trend towards the corporate buying of some of the first-generation microbreweries needs to be seen in that context: this is no longer about gobbling up and assimilating the competition — it’s about trying to get in on a part of the craft beer action in a legitimate fashion. The accountants at Molson and Labatt don’t know how to brew craft beer, but the folks at Granville do, which means giving more space and support for the people at Granville might just be a win-win.

And with Granville now in this province, we can finally be part of that win.