As Vancouver hits 'peak beer,' craft brewers in Northern B.C. band together for growth

From oil-and-gas country in the east to the North Coast in the west, B.C.'s craft beer scene is expanding well beyond the Lower Mainland.

From Fort St. John to Smithers, B.C.'s craft beer scene is expanding well beyond the Lower Mainland

Brewers from Barkerville Brewing in Quesnel, Sherwood Mountain in Terrace, Three Ranges in Valemount and Wheelhouse in Prince Rupert met in Prince George to release a northern B.C. collaboration four-pack. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

As business analysts warn some Canadian cities are becoming saturated with craft breweries, beer-makers in northern B.C. see plenty of room to grow by tapping into markets not served by their big-city counterparts.

"We've got many restaurants in the north that don't even have taps," said Bjorn Butow, one of the owners of CrossRoads Brewing, the first and so far only craft brewery in greater Prince George, which has a population of more than 86,000. 

"We're trying to blaze trails, as it were, into these areas."

CrossRoads opened in downtown Prince George in 2017. In 2018 it will be joined by Trench Brewing and Distillery. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

CrossRoads held its grand opening in 2017, just as the conversation in larger centres turned to whether there are too many breweries.

"We are actually starting to achieve or reach peak beer, or market saturation," Western University's Larry Plummer told CBC's business desk

"I don't think the [growth] is sustainable." 

He did, however, add one caveat: "There is always the geographic dimension to this story," he said. "If you can find a place where the demand is high but there is no local supply, that would be the play."

Established in 2013, Prince Rupert's Wheelhouse Brewing Co. has found success catering to the North Coast market. The closest craft brewery is Sherwood Mountain in Terrace, 150 kilometres away. (Wheelhouse Brewing Co.)

Butow agrees. One reason he opened CrossRoads was to demonstrate a craft brewery could succeed in a smaller city, openly inviting other entrepreneurs to join him in Prince George. 

There is no reason why every single town in this province can't support a craft brewery- Rob Mangelsdorf, editor of the Growler

That call is being answered by Trench Brewing, set to open just a few blocks from CrossRoads. It is one of three northern B.C. beer-makers included in industry magazine The Growler's list of the ten most anticipated brewery openings of 2018.

"There is no reason why every single town in this province can't support a craft brewery," said editor Rob Mangelsdorf. "I hope to see one on every main street."

Brewers from Valemount, Prince Rupert, Terrace and Quesnel gather at Trench Brewing in Prince George ahead of AleFest to assemble a northern British Columbia collaboration pack. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Northern B.C. is on its way. When Butow organized the first annual Prince George AleFest in 2015, there were only three regional brewers involved: Barkerville in Quesnel, Wheelhouse in Prince Rupert and Three Ranges in Valemount.

Common challenges

This year they are being joined by brewers from Smithers and Terrace in the northwest, and future editions could include two Fort St. John breweries launching in the span of twelve months.

Although separated by hundreds of kilometres, Butow said small-town brewers form a community all their own.

Northeast B.C.'s first craft brewery opened in Fort St. John in 2017. A second, Mighty Peace Brewing Co., is scheduled for spring 2018. (Beard's Brewing Co.)

"We talk about our common challenges and how to work together to make things better," he said. 

"When you're opening a craft brewery in Vancouver you have a much bigger market you can address. There's more taps and more things in place in terms of the culture... we're still in a developing area."

Tourist draw

Breweries can also act as a tourist draw. In 2017, the inaugural B.C. Bike Road North tour came to the region, offering participants days of mountain biking in northern backwoods, followed by evenings of "unlimited craft beer" from the new local brewers.

Although separated by hundreds of kilometres, northern B.C. brewers work collaboratively, sharing challenges and successes in breaking into new markets. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Butow hopes the experience of visiting the north will one day be akin to a recent trip he took to Hawaii, where every pub and restaurant offered their own local beer and people seemed proud to champion their hometown brews.

"Ten years from now, if people go out to any restaurant in the north, [I hope] there will be at least the option for a local craft beer," he said. 

"That will be a win for us."

Explore the breweries of northern B.C. in an interactive map and listen to some of the brewers in the audio clip.

View a larger version of the map.

CBC meets beer brewers from Prince Rupert, Terrace, Valemount and Quesnel who have gathered in Prince George for a special collaboration and to talk about making beer in smaller communities. 3:50

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About the Author

Andrew Kurjata

@akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is a radio producer and digital journalist in northern British Columbia, situated in the traditional territory of the Lheidli T'enneh in Prince George. Email: andrew.kurjata@cbc.ca | Twitter: @akurjata | Secure PGP: http://www.akurjata.ca