Whistler Village Beer Festival: Brew It and They Will Come

Whistler’s Inaugural Craft Beer Festival Storms out of the Gate

Derrick Franche remembers the exact second when his palate changed. An instance he describes as a “eureka moment.”

“It happened back in Alberta in the early 90s when I was drinking a regular six pack of North American lager,” he recalls, nursing a pint of a raspberry witbier — his own creation.

“My girlfriend at the time, her dad gave me a bottle of Traditional Ale by Bigrock (a craft brewery in Calgary). It clicked in me that day. I never went back to drinking an insipid lager after that, it was all about the flavour.”

He hovers his nose over his glass before taking another sip. He’s pleased with this batch.

Franche is the brewmaster at Whistler’s Brewhouse, where he alone develops his recipes and chooses his ingredients. The beer made in the tanks upstairs flows nowhere but into the pint glasses of customers downstairs, there’s no kegging or off-site sales. Unlike a lot of the larger craft breweries, Franche doesn’t need to justify his methods as being as cost effective. This gives him absolute creative control over the beer that flows through the taps in this building.

“This batch had $400 worth of fresh Squamish raspberries added to it,” he says, pointing to the glass in front of him. The colour is deceptively light for the fruity aroma it exudes.

“I could have cut the corner with syrup or frozen berries, but $400 over 1,600 litres is really not that bad. It works out to like five cents (extra) per pint. For a bigger brewery that may eat into their margins. But this is craft beer and people are willing to pay a wee bit more for it.”

At this weekend’s inaugural Whistler Village Beer Festival (WVBF) Franche will be showcasing his award winning 5 Rings IPA (India Pale Ale for those not versed in beer jargon) at the High Mountain Brewing Company booth. Last year his beer caused a bit of upset at the B.C. Beer Awards when Franche managed to edge out both Driftwood’s Fat Tug IPA and Central City Brewing’s Red Racer IPA through a blind tasting by an expert panel.

“IPAs are all about balance,” he says, the enthusiasm in his voice picks up now that we’re back on the technical subject of brewing beer.

“Balancing out residual sweetness with a big schwack of hops. A lot of the best IPAs are nice big, strong beers. You want a big punch of hops upfront, you really need a fair amount of residual sweetness left and you can’t get that when you make a light alcohol beer.”

Franche’s 5 Rings IPA weighs in at seven per cent Alcohol by Volume (ABV), considered to be a double IPA by most brewers’ standards. The hoppiness of this brew hits you like a punch to the guts, and it takes an acquired palate to make your way through an entire pint. It’s a beer for true IPA aficionados, but not one that Franche expects to win the WVBF attendee judged “Best in Fest.” There are 104 other beers that folks can sample, and many of them will be considerably “easier” to drink.

But brewer’s bravado aside, Franche couldn’t be happier with Whistler’s first craft beer festival taking place just metres from his workplace at the Brewhouse.

“Since we’re playing on our home field here I’m pretty excited to see the attendance that we are going to have. Younger Whistler people are definitely interested in drinking, but we’re here to showcase that it doesn’t have to be all about quantity, it can be about quality as well. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive.”

Taste over consumption. A phase shift in the culture of beer drinking indeed.

Eye of the Beerholder

I’m sitting at one of the back tables of the Dubh Linn Gate with two Whistler gentleman. Liam Peyton, special events manager for Gibbons Hospitality, is working his way through a pint of White IPA from Oregon’s Deschutes Brewery. Harrison Stoker is the general manager of the Dubh Linn Gate and is obviously still on the clock, given the water in his pint glass. These two long-time locals are the brains behind the WVBF, and their eyes can not hide their excitement about launching Whistler’s premier craft beer festival.

“All of our electronic ticket sales are coming in from the Lower Mainland, Washington, Interior B.C., even Los Angeles,” says Peyton.

“We’re doing double-digit sales every day, well underway to sell 2,000 tickets in advance and hoping to have a few hundred on the door.”

The capacity of 2,500 people is due to the festival having changed its venue to the open lawn of Whistler Olympic Plaza. The original space was slated to be in the Village Square in front of Cittas’ and Araxi, but after getting the go ahead from the RMOW and the RCMP, the 45 attending breweries will be able to spread out their booths this Saturday.

“The Village Stroll would have been a little congested and a bit of logistical challenge, but we really wanted to involve the centre and the heart of the Village where it all started,” says Peyton.

“But we got given the opportunity to move it to Olympic Plaza, to increase the size of it and give it the opportunity for growth in coming years. We’re only using about 40 per cent of the entire site to serve 2,500 people, including about 150 staff. In the coming years we can crank the number at that site to around 6,000 people.”

Adds Stoker: “We were logistically limited by the space we had our eyes on.

“Forty-five breweries made sense (for the Village Square) and still makes sense for year one. But now that the Olympic Plaza is the limit, watch out for year two. We’re promising Beer in the Mountains, and that’s what you’re going to get.”

With the 45 attending breweries sampling 105 beers, the fenced off Olympic Plaza will transform into a beer “farmers’ market.” Background music will play from a discreet DJ booth, but there will be no dance floor or live bands. Just a few picnic tables and a lot of beer lovers sipping samples from four-ounce tasting glasses, and a lot of talking to the brewers. Again, the emphasis of the WVBF points back to quality over quantity.

“We want to make this a brewer’s festival,” says Peyton.

“That’s the focus, making it the best festival for them and everything else will follow.”

The prize for the “Best in Fest” beer will be a draught beer contract at several of Whistler’s bars and restaurants, including the Longhorn. This particular Gibbons Hospitality Group venue served one of the highest volume of draft beer during the 2010 Olympic Games, second only to GM Place in Vancouver. It’s a big incentive for the attending craft breweries and will be judged by the 2,500 attendees on Saturday.

“We like connecting with the community and really dealing at the consumer level,” says Aaron Wirth, the events marketing manager for Ninkasi Brewing Company, out of Eugene, Oregon.

“We do things like social media and sponsoring podcasts but a lot of our marketing is just letting people make the decision for themselves whether they like the beer. The best way to that is to get the beer on the street.”

The drive from Eugene is quite a bit further than the regional beer festivals that Wirth’s marketing staff attend (up to five festivals a week in the summer), but Wirth admits that his visit has somewhat of an ulterior motive.

“We’re big mountain bikers and I’ve never actually been to Whistler,” he says.

“We sponsor a couple of Canadian Transition riders, we’re going to bring them some beer and throw them a party on the way up. They’re going to lend us a couple of bikes so we can go do some shredding on the mountain.”

Ninkasi will be showcasing its signature Total Domination IPA as well as its popular Oatis Oatmeal Stout, Believer Double Red Ale as well as Wirth’s personal favourite, the Tricerahops Double IPA.

Showing off some of Oregon’s finest craft beer in Whistler and spending the rest of the weekend riding in the Whistler Bike Park was an opportunity Wirth was not willing to miss.

“It’s the perfect combo, I feel really lucky that this is my job,” he laughs.

Riding the Wave of B.C.’s ‘Beerconomy’

Craft beer has been around in B.C. since the early ’80s but it has only been in the last few years that the movement has exploded into a full-fledged industry. According to reports by the B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch (BCLDB), since 2006 craft beer sales have grown by 20 per cent each year while mainstream beer sales have fallen flat or declined slightly. The share of craft in total beer sales has also tripled from six to 18 per cent during the same time period.

“(The province) is starting to react to the interest in craft beer, I don’t know if they’re being proactive and recognizing the strength of the industry as much as they could,” says Joe Wiebe, beer writer and author of “Craft Beer Revolution: The Insider’s Guide to B.C. Breweries.”

“(The Ontario government) supplied millions of dollars in marketing money to the Ontario craft brewers association a few years ago, B.C. is not doing anything like that. I’d love to see the government recognize and support it as they have the wine industry for years.”

An article in the National Post in June suggests of a bubble forming around the Vancouver craft beer industry, but to counter this notion Wiebe points to the success south of the border. In Portland, the percentage of craft beer consumed has been as high as 40 per cent, he says.

“We could grow another 10 per cent and still not be anywhere near Oregon. That’s huge. I think there’s a lot of potential left, I don’t know if it will continue at this pace much longer but I think it will continue to grow and that growth can be sustained.”

The review of B.C.’s near-century old liquor regime points to a positive change for the industry, but there is still plenty of progress to be made. Draft beer distribution has become easier with many bars and restaurants allocating more taps to craft breweries, but government liquor stores still insist on keeping craft beer boxed into the far corners of the retail floor.

“The national beer brands have been on the decline for the last decade yet the government and the BCLDB gives them the lion’s share of real estate in the government stores,” says Don Gordon, director of sales for Whistler Brewing Company and director of the B.C. Craft Brewers Guild.

“We need to educate the government, and bar and restaurant associations, on craft beer and the changing palate of the consumer.”

The economic benefits of the craft beer boom also needs to be recognized and endorsed, says Gordon.

“For every brewery that opens up, there’s another hop farm that’s opening, another metal fabricator making tanks, trades people building breweries and trades people making beer.”

Back in Whistler the rise of craft beer has been challenged in the past by the tourism being confined to the peak winter and summer seasons.

“Prior to a few years ago, Whistler was a destination place and the shoulder seasons were so (quiet) and it was it was dominated by big brewers,” says Gordon.

“Now there’s more people coming to Whistler and more traffic in the shoulder seasons than ever before. There’s more people coming in from the Pacific North West looking for exciting beer styles and more flavours.”

The rebranding of the Whistler Brewing Company also helped revitalize the local market. Since the overhaul of the recipes by brewmaster Joe Gutz (the man behind the early success years of Granville Island Brewing) and the opening of its Function Junction location in 2009, locals and tourists alike have begun to identify with the locally made beer. You can also tour the brewery and sample everything on tap.

“The brewery really helped the Whistler community appreciate all the different craft beers that are out there,” says Gordon.

“We’re educating tourists, but we’re also talking to the staff in the bars and the restaurants.”

Converting mainstream beer drinkers to craft is what has fuelled its massive growth, both in Whistler and the entire province. Stoker has turned the Dubh Linn Gate from being just another Irish pub into Whistler’s premier beer boutique. The change has turned some heads among local beer drinkers and he intends the WVBF to do just that, but on a much larger scale.

“Hopefully, what this is going to do is really shake the culture up here, wake a lot of people up and realize that this craft beer thing is here to stay and it’s better than what we’ve been doing,” says Stoker.

Breaking the Shoulded

In Whistler’s ever-expanding events portfolio, the WVBF’s September date sits on an ideal weekend to help the slow but sure elimination of the shoulder season. GranFondo has wrapped up the major sporting events for the summer and the now 10-day-long Cornucopia is still two months away.

“We consulted with Tourism Whistler and found out what the quiet weekends were and how we were going to fill them,” says Peyton.

“The two weekends we found in September just happened to be wedged between the Great Canadian Beer Festival in Victoria and Hopscotch (whisky, beer and spirits festival) in Kelowna. It’s perfect.”

But the planning and execution of this festival — including the move to Olympic Plaza — could not have been possible without the support of the community stakeholders. The RMOW, RCMP and Tourism Whistler have all given their support, not only to get the overarching heads-in-beds count up during a quiet September weekend, but because there are beer lovers on their staff who want to see the festival succeed.

“It hasn’t really been an uphill battle,” says Stoker.

“The fact that it’s ‘Beer in the Mountains’ probably puts a sparkle in most people’s eyes. It’s pretty easy to get behind that concept when it’s so wholehearted.”

The mandate for every event in Whistler is to not only get visitors for the day but to extend that stay into multiple nights. The WVBF itself may only be taking place for four-and-a-half hours on Saturday afternoon (1 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.), but plenty of other events are planned in Whistler’s restaurants and bars to let attendees interact with brewers and encourage those travelling from out of the region to stay a bit longer in Whistler.

After-parties to the festival are planned at the Longhorn and the Amsterdam, as well as several beer dinners taking place at the Dubh Linn Gate including the “The Butcher and the Brewmaster” — a pairing of cask beers with artisan meats and cheeses and the “Still in Bed with Beer” hair of the dog brunch on Sunday morning.

The beer and food pairing movement may not yet have the cultural prestige of wine, but evolving the WVBF from a beer “farmers’ market” into a literal beer cornucopia is definitely something on the minds of Stoker and Peyton.

“It’s not just craft beer, it’s this whole craft culture of making it from scratch and building it with passion,” says Peyton, who sees the WVBF as returning stronger for next year and beyond.

“We’re a lot more confident with the newer venue in regards to the success of the event. This is one of the few events in town that’s born and bred in Whistler.

“We’re passionate Whistlerites that want to make Whistler bigger and better and bring more people here to experience what we have granted to us every single day. That is the vision.

“And if there’s a few cheeky beers involved, even better.”

— Vince Shuley

Brittia Thompson