British Columbia

Why John Mitchell's legacy is sure to extend beyond founding Canada's first craft brewery

The legacy of John Mitchell is sealed in his creation of Canada's first independent brewery of the modern era. But the effects of his love for beer and brewing will continue long after his recent death, with the establishment of a scholarship for budding brewers and plans for a brewpub and museum in his name.

Mitchell, who established Horseshoe Bay Brewing in 1982, died June 16

John Mitchell died June 16 at the age of 89. (Supplied/John Ohler)

It's June 17, 1982, in the cool cellar of a West Vancouver pub. Two ex-pat Englishmen are holding small glasses of a dark amber liquid, while a packed room of customers wait expectantly upstairs.

They take a sip together. Both of them begin to smile.

"You've done it, my boy! You've done it!" shouts John Mitchell, grabbing hold of Frank Appleton before they dance a little jig among the kegs serving the taps of the Troller Pub.

Pub co-owner Mitchell and brewery designer Appleton had just taken the first sips of what was, in essence, the first craft beer in Canada — the first few drops of what would become a deluge of all-natural beer at the start of the 21st century, by which time both men would be viewed as pioneers.

Not that Mitchell or Appleton — who detailed the scene in his autobiography Brewing Revolution — had any inkling at the time of what they'd set in motion. 

"I thought, I'd done my job, everyone's happy," Appleton tells CBC about the evening they took their first sips of Bay Ale, which an elated Mitchell then began slinging out for free in his pub.

"I didn't expect it to become any big-time thing anytime soon." 

Frank Appleton (left) and John Mitchell at Horseshoe Bay Brewing in West Vancouver in 1982.

That it happened at all is largely down to Mitchell, who died June 16 at the age of 89.

His legacy is assured in the creation of Horseshoe Bay Brewing, Canada's first independent brewery of the modern era in 1982; and, two years later, of Spinnakers, the country's first brewpub, which is still thriving today on the shores of Victoria Harbour — and where Mitchell's Extra Special Bitter, a successor to Bay Ale, is still served.

But the effects of Mitchell's dedication to quality beer will continue long after his death, thanks to the recent establishment of a scholarship in his name, and plans for a brewpub and museum that honour his life and career.

It's fitting for a man who is remembered for his persistence.

"He was an amazingly energetic guy," Appleton says. "Like myself, when he got the bit between his teeth and he thought he had a good idea, he would do it to the best and utmost of his abilities."

Appleton may have built the Horseshoe Bay brewhouse and brewed the beer, but it was Mitchell's dogged lobbying of the B.C. government and Liquor Control and Licensing Branch to relax Prohibition-era liquor laws that made both Horseshoe Bay Brewing and Spinnakers become reality.

John Mitchell and Frank Appleton cleaning Horseshoe Bay Brewing kegs in Mitchell's backyard in 1982. (Jenny Mitchell)

But Mitchell, a trained chef, was also determined to give beer drinkers better options, something that was lacking in Canada in the early 1980s.

Bay Ale, for example, was modelled on the famous London Pride bitter made by Fuller's Brewery in England. It was an instant hit with Troller Pub regulars, outselling big-brand lagers two to one, and very soon the problem became keeping up with demand, Appleton recalls — an issue still faced by fledgling breweries today.

After Horseshoe Bay Brewing and Spinnakers, Mitchell went on to several other beer projects, including establishing Howe Sound Brewing in Squamish, B.C., in 1996. One of the people who helped him on that project was John Ohler, who would become, in Appleton's term, Mitchell's "flame-carrier."

John Mitchell at Horseshoe Bay Brewing in 1982. (Frank Appleton)

Recently, with the help of Ohler and Trading Post Brewing in Langley, Mitchell set up an annual scholarship for students in the brewing diploma program at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. 

"John really always wanted to give back to craft beer in a bigger way. And he thought education and being educated in brewing was very important," says Ohler, who involved Mitchell in many of his own brewery projects.

Ohler has even grander plans to commemorate Mitchell, with a brewpub/museum concept in his name that would celebrate the history of craft beer in B.C. and Mitchell's part in it — what he calls a "craft beer shrine."

He says it's no less than Mitchell deserves, considering craft beer has become a nationwide industry supporting thousands of jobs, and a "major part of Canada's culture."

"John really was an agent of change. He really did lay the foundation that has allowed craft beer to grow to where it is," Ohler says.


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