Breweries bring awards, pride and community spirit to small-town B.C.
Twin City Brewing has helped spark revitalization in Port Alberni
It's fair to say the city of Port Alberni, B.C., isn't often blessed with good news.
In recent years the Vancouver Island mill town has been ranked as the worst place to live in Canada by one magazine and one of the most dangerous by another, while it's had to deal with years of roller-coaster uncertainty in the area's dominant forestry industry.
But amid the gloom, Port Albernians have been handed a rare glass-half-full of civic pride with the knowledge that their city is home to some of the best beer in the province.
That's according to the judges of the B.C. Beer Awards, who last year awarded Twin City Brewing Company — as of October 2019, the city's only brewery — the coveted best in show prize for its Late Bloomer strawberry hibiscus sour ale.
It was one of three Twin City beers that won awards last year and, as brewers gear up for the 2019 B.C. Beer Awards in Vancouver on Saturday, there's every chance it will be adding to its haul — and swelling Port Alberni's pride even further.
While the awards put Twin City on the beer map and opened up opportunities like collaboration with other breweries, Aaron Colyn's business has added a galvanizing spark to the community since it opened in early 2017.
"We have a lot of people that really, really feel at home at our brewery. It's like a local hub," says Colyn, a born-and-raised Port Albernian who is also Twin City's head brewer. "This is a place to meet up with your friends. It's a social hangout."
The brewery's lounge, which also serves food from a full kitchen, attracts a wide range of residents and tourists through its doors, according to Pat Deakin, the city's economic development manager, from business owners talking shop, mountain bikers or hikers stopping for an end-of-day pint, and families playing board games.
Long tables and a lack of TVs encourage conversation.
"There's a whole range of ages and people I probably wouldn't run across in my normal work day," says Deakin, a Twin City regular who favours the brewery's Swedish Gymnast blonde ale. "You're sharing a table and meeting somebody new, so it really kind of fosters community spirit in a way, or just new relationships."
'Sense of familiarity'
Port Alberni is not the only small B.C. city with a buzzing community brewery.
Around a third of the almost 200 breweries in B.C. are located outside the major population centres of the Lower Mainland, Victoria, the Okanagan and Prince George.
From Tofino in the west to Valemount in the east, Rossland in the south to Fort St. John in the north, small-town B.C. has embraced the brewery as a community-minded, community-oriented business that locals make a point of rallying at.
"You've got this contained audience that also takes great pride in their local brewery," explained Ken Beattie, executive director of the B.C. Craft Brewers Guild.
If you're a local, "you know the people, you probably know the owner, for sure you know someone on the staff … so there's that sense of familiarity that also drives traffic," he said.
Breweries benefit the community by offering employment and spin-off sales opportunities, and they often source ingredients from local farms, Beattie added.
'It's been a blessing'
In Port Alberni, Twin City is also driving revitalization, Deakin says.
"I think it's fair to say that it's inspired people and has opened up possibilities for people as they see how successful the business is," he said, adding that Twin City has given tourists more reasons to linger.
"As people pull in, they do see restaurants and they see other services ... It's been a blessing," he said.
That revitalization will soon include a second brewery, Dog Mountain Brewing, which is under construction in the city's uptown.
It's another step toward reversing the fortunes of Port Alberni, which Colyn describes as a "hidden gem" that's attracting young families with affordable house prices and opportunities for outdoor recreation.
"I've seen a lot of people doing similar things to what I'm doing, putting an emphasis on turning the reputation around, drawing people in to be positive, seeing what Port Alberni has to offer," he said.
Whether that includes another best-in-province beer will be announced late Saturday.