There's something brewing in the Cowichan Valley. More than one thing, in fact.
The shockwaves from British Columbia's craft beer explosion are being felt in the Valley.
With one brewery about to open, another well in the works, and the potential for more, this could be just the tip of the iceberg for local beer fans.
For more than one reason, the intrepid brewers in the Cowichan Valley have their work cut out for them. For one, this is wine country, and it might take some convincing that there's room for beer in Canada's Provence. For another, beer drinkers here definitely have their allegiances. "We want to get people drinking craft beer," says Lance Steward, an owner of both the Craig Street Brew Pub and the new Red Arrow Brewing Company.
"This is a Lucky Valley, but we've got to break that."
Red Arrow in Duncan is so close to opening that the taps might be pouring as this story goes to press.
The brewery has its roots in the Craig Street Brew Pub, a venerable drinking institution in the Cowichan Valley on its own. Lance and Liz Steward started the pub in 2006, 15 years after first opening their restaurant, Just Jakes. Chris Gress came on board as the first brewmaster.
Gress was recommended to Steward by Sean Hoyne, then the brewer at Victoria's Canoe Brewpub and now the operator of his eponymous successful and highly regarded craft brewery. The Stewards hired Gress on the spot the first time they met him.
"We interviewed about three brewers before we got to Chris," Lance Steward recalls. "He showed me the little shack in his yard where he was brewing beer like some kind of mad scientist."
The first equipment was ordered from the Dominican
Republic, and Gress and Hoyne assembled it together at the Craig Street location. Although there were some initial hiccups, they proudly say they've never had to dispose of a batch - and they've brewed about 350 since 2006.
"One thing about Chris's brewing is it's so systematic, so clean," Steward says. "There are no flaws in his beer. It's authentic."
Warren Hulton, who used to run the kitchen at the Brew and Just Jakes started helping Gress out, and gradually lost interest in the
kitchen. He eventually took over brewing at the pub, while Gress started looking into starting his own brewery in Victoria. Those ventures never materialized, and finally Steward suggested they open something together in Duncan as equal partners.
"I tricked about 20 other people in town into giving us a whole pile of money," Steward explains. "And Chris runs things."
Red Arrow is located in, and named in honour of, the old Arrow Custom Cycle building on Chaster Road. Inside the ivy-covered brick structure, in addition to the brewing equipment, are a tasting room and shop, with a sizable patio outside.
The goal is to turn Red Arrow into a destination brewery. Initially, they will be bottling 650-mL bombers and filling growlers, and they eventually want to can some of their brews. There are four Red Arrow flagship beers: an India pale ale, umber ale, kolsch and hefeweizen, and plans for new seasonals every six weeks or so. Fans of Craig Street Brew Pub will be pleased to know that Craig Street's Arbutus Ale and Cowichan Bay Lager will also be available in bottles.
"It fills in the gaps," Steward says.
"It's a nice array and portfolio." Joe Wiebe, a.k.a. the Thirsty Writer, is a beer columnist for several publications and the author of Craft Beer Revolution, the award-winning and bestselling definitive guide to craft breweries in B.C. The book's second edition came out earlier this year, and includes 40 breweries that weren't in the first edition that came out just two years ago, an indication of where the industry is going in this province. Wiebe is a fan of Craig Street's products, but is glad to see more craft beer action taking place in the Cowichan Valley.
"It's been great having a place in Duncan, a stop between Victoria and farther up the Island, but because they're not distributing beer, they're off the radar," he says. "This will be a chance to put Duncan into the general awareness of the craft beer community in Victoria and Vancouver. It will expand the profile of Duncan as a craft beer spot."
Wiebe is excited to see what Gress can create under the Red Arrow banner.
"Craig Street is on the more conservative side in terms of the craft beer spectrum," he says.
"Red Arrow is going to be a bit more interesting, more challenging. I'm hoping we'll see more interesting and cutting-edge brews. They've got a solid foundation to build from," says Wiebe. Red Arrow's appropriately named Heritage River Hefeweizen pays tribute to the Cowichan River, the source of one of their key ingredients: Duncan's award-winning water, which was named the best in Canada in 2010.
Red Arrow would love to incorporate more local products in their beers, but as of right now, some of the key ingredients - that would be hops and malted barley - are a little difficult to come by. That hasn't always been the case, so it could change.
"There were lots of hop farms on the Island in the early days," marketing manager Adam Ball points out.
The Red Arrow people do have a list of about a dozen hop farms in the area, including some on Thetis and Pender Islands, and there are thoughts about creating a "hop cooperative," which would give brewers access to several varieties of hops to work with.
Other local produce, such as blueberries and blackberries, could be easier for Red Arrow to acquire and work with in their seasonal beers, and they have certainly considered some of the possibilities.
"It's definitely something to look at," Gress says. "We want to do something local and supportive and connect with these people."
Competition between craft breweries is remarkably friendly. It's not at all uncommon for brewers to collaborate on beers.
In fact, Vancouver's Parallel 49 Brewing Company earlier this year released the Brews Brothers pack of 12 beers, each one brewed by Parallel 49 in conjunction with another B.C. Brewery.
"It's a community of people that communicate with one another," Steward relates.
So Red Arrow isn't at all dismayed that another brewery is planning to begin operations in the Cowichan Valley later this year.
Aly Tomlin and Ralf Rosenke, a pair of B.C. beer community veterans, and a third partner, Morgan Moreira, will realize a dream more than five years in the making when the first beers are poured at Riot Brewing in Chemainus.
"It's been a really long go for us," Tomlin laughs. "It's a tough thing to open a brewery when you have no money of your own."
Tomlin has worked at Granville Island Brewing and RB Brewing in Vancouver, and has been in the industry since she was 19 or 20, in roles ranging from assistant brewer to general manager. In 2004, she attended the Siebel Institute of Brewing in Chicago, the oldest brewing school in North America, on a full scholarship.
"I was the only girl in the whole class," she recalls.
The duo had wanted to start a brewery in the craft beer hotbed of Vancouver, but weren't sure they wanted to spend the rest of their lives there.
"We were planning to open in Vancouver, but we knew if we opened there, we'd be stuck there," Tomlin says. "So we wanted to get out while we could." They contacted Cowichan Valley Regional District economic development manager Kathy Lachman, who put them in touch with North Cowichan manager of planning and sustainability Brian Green. Immediately, both Tomlin and Rosenke and the community realized it was an ideal partnership.
"Chemainus seems like a really cool town," Tomlin says.
They found a developer and are in the process of designing a brewery building, complete with lounge and patio, that will go in the Village Square commercial area. If all goes well, the brewery should be open before the end of 2015.
"We're still hoping for this year," Rosenke says. "If it's around Christmas, it will be a Christmas beeracle."
Riot plans to kick things off with a lineup featuring an India pale ale, a hop-forward Northwest pale ale, and a pilsner all in cans, and English dark mild and Belgian blond ales in bombers. Seasonals and new releases will also appear in bombers, such as barrel-aged beers and sours. They will also be filling growlers and one-litre Boston rounds. The fiveyear plan includes the addition of a distillery.
Tomlin and Rosenke were involved in the creation of CAMRA BC - the Campaign for Real Ale Society of British Columbia, a non-profit dedicated to the promotion of craft beer - and hope to start a chapter in the Cowichan Valley. Like Red Arrow, they want to advocate craft beer, and not just their own products.
"We want to be community based and extremely beer-education based," Tomlin says. "It's nice being involved in the industry and having so many contacts. We're pretty fortunate that way."
Having a pair of production breweries right here in the Valley is a boon for locals, whether they are into craft beer or not.
"It's a great opportunity for residents of the Cowichan Valley to expand their craft beer awareness; people who have been going to Craig Street, but not getting into craft beer from further afield," Wiebe says. "They can try more styles, get a foot in the door. Generally, the more options people have, the more interest there is."
There's no reason to stop at two. Smaller communities in the area, like Cowichan Bay, could support their own storefront breweries as well, Wiebe suggests. Cumberland Brewing Company in the Comox Valley, he says, is a perfect example: drinkers can enjoy a beer brewed onsite and pizza from the restaurant next door, and fill their growlers. They don't have to package anything for retail sale.
A farmhouse brewery, similar to Sorrento's CrannÃ³g Ales could also thrive in the region. They grow their own hops and barley and do their own malting. With its agricultural bounty, the Cowichan Valley could certainly accommodate something like that.
"There's definitely room for more," Wiebe says.