As Vancouver hits 'peak beer,' craft brewers in Northern B.C. band together for growth
From Fort St. John to Smithers, B.C.'s craft beer scene is expanding well beyond the Lower Mainland
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 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."
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."
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.
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.
"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."
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.
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."
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