In the middle of last year, we began to hear rumours of a new brewery opening up on Vancouver’s eastside. Before long the rumours solidified into a few news articles, a Twitter account, website and a name: Powell Street Craft Brewery. And then, heaven be praised, an opening date was set: Saturday, 15 December. As it happened, I was escaping Vancouver on that same day to sequester myself at a friend’s cabin in Whistler in a vain attempt to write my thesis. And what could be better fuel in this endeavour, than a growler (or two) of Vancouver’s freshest beer? The simple answer? Nothing.
Run by David Bowkett and Nicole Stefanopoulos, Powell Street is a nanobrewery, and nano is the key term here. They produce only three beers on a rotating basis. Typically, they sell out of one beer before the next beer is ready due to their small capacity but also, and more importantly, due to the high demand for their beer. Clearly, the people behind Powell Street are keenly focussed on producing the best beer they can. So, to learn more about the inspiration, concept, operation and future of Powell Street Craft Brewery, we recently sat down with David Bowkett for the following conversation.
The Facing Page: To start off, could you talk about the inspiration and background of Powell Street Craft Brewing?
David Bowkett: The background for me was just starting out as a homebrewer: experimenting at home, learning the process, essentially being self-taught. I read a lot of books, gained as much information as I could on the process, and through that gained a good enough base of knowledge. I suppose, the concept actually came from a trip to Portland, I was up late and saw a show on TV called Brewmasters. It focussed Dog Fish Head, a craft brewery in Deleware, and it’s owner Sam Calagione. Sam had started his brew-pub with a small one-keg system in the back where he was just brewing all day. When I saw that I got more into it and started looking into what it takes to open a brewery, seeing if I could start doing it at a small scale myself. Then after a lot of research I found that going any smaller than I did here was just not going to make sense from a business perspective.
TFP: I can definitely see Portland being a good place to get into the idea for craft brewing!
DB: It’s sort of the Mecca of craft brewing.
TFP: British Columbia has a reputation for being quite restrictive with liquor licensing laws. Was it particularly challenging to start a nano-brewery here in BC?
DB: Surprisingly, it isn’t hard to get through the process. However, it’s the same for any size brewery. As long as you have all your ducks in a row it’s pretty easy to get through the provincial liquor control branch. The hardest part for me was actually the city. They haven’t dealt much with a small brewery like this and so they’re used to much larger breweries. Dealing with someone like me they were apprehensive in what I needed to include or exclude from the brewery. So one of the things for me was that my trade waste interceptor is the same size as any other brewery, despite that I’m producing about 100 to 150 times less beer than some of them.
TFP: There are a lot of breweries opening up in the Vancouver area. Do find this is a hinderance or a help that there are so many places starting up around the city?
DB: I think it’s helped. The city has started to get used to the process, so for me it was tough because I was the first small guy, but I think for newer breweries it is going to be a little easier because the city has gone through it now with me.
TFP: So do you think we’ll see more nano-breweries opening up in the next while?
DB: Yeah! There’ve been a few contacting me to get information about the process. I think the more breweries out there the better for the industry so I’ve been more than glad to help out.
TFP: Definitely better for the consumer!
DB: The best example is that on our opening day in December I heard Paralell 49 had their best ever day for sales. All the overflow from us went right there. So we’re trying now to get everyone to set up their storefronts around us!
TFP: Storm Brewing is just around the corner on Commercial Drive, but doesn’t have a storefront. Do you see them opening one up?
DB: Yeah, I hope so.
TFP: So there’s a sense of community among the breweries in this neighbourhood?
DB: Yeah, definitely
TFP: In a way, it’s like a brewery district.
DB: The breweries in areas are actually trying to classify it as the brewery district. We have been talking about getting in touch with the city and hopefully we’ll be able to call this the brewery district. I know Main Street has been having a few open up too, and that area was originally known as Brewery Creek. There used to be a creek that ran right down there, and a lot of breweries would get their water from there and used it to drive some of their brewing machinery. There were a lot of breweries in that district but also down here as well. There is a gas station just around the corner from here that sits on the site of Vancouver’s first ever brewery.
TFP: Is there a big difference when you’re setting up having a storefront or not? Do you have to jump through extra hoops to be able to sell on site?
DB: It’s a separate license from the manufacturing license, but in terms of jumping through hoops not really, no. Just keeping tally of what you sell from the storefront.
TFP: In Vancouver right now there’s a push towards craft beer. Not only drinking it but also producing it. What do you think is driving that passion?
DB: I think people want to drink really good beer. Not just the same old stuff people have been drinking for the last 50 years or so. They’re looking for things with more flavour. People like things to be local. Eat local, buy local, drink local.
TFP: At the moment you’re making just the three beers right now: the pale ale, the porter and the IPA. How did you choose these?
DB: I love IPAs, I love a nice hoppy pale ale, and I’ve always been a dark beer fan so the porter was right up my alley. I didn’t want to go with just a traditional porter, I wanted to go on the side of having a little more caramel, toffee flavors in there, kind of giving it a full flavour. For the pale ale I found there aren’t a lot of malt based but still quite hoppy pale ales in the Vancouver, or indeed the West Coast market in general, so I wanted to do something like that. I really like Sierra Nevada and breweries like that. And for the IPA, I just wanted to make something super hoppy. High alcohol content, high in bitterness.
TFP: So do you have any plans in the future to add a different beer or perhaps switch one of these out?
DB: I’d like to keep these three going for now, I’m not sure if they’ll keep going for ever, and I’d like to add in some seasonals. I’m thinking for spring doing a Belgian witbier with 50% wheat, 50% barley, a little orange peel and coriander and some other spices. And maybe something new for the summer. I’d like to do a pilsner but we don’t quite have the capacity for that.
TFP: In terms of capacity, do you have any intention to increase your capacity in the future or are you happy being at the scale of a nano-brewery?
DB: Happy being a nano! I would like to eventually get another fermenter though, it’d just be nice to be able to do two batches a week. We’re selling so much beer right now that we just can’t keep a steady supply, and we’d like to be able to provide that. Right now there’s a long wait period between beers coming through to market.
TFP: In terms of distribution, right now it’s just storefront, Legacy and Brewery Creek right? When you’re doing such small batches is it possible to get into bars and pubs or do they require a more steady supply?
DB: It’s possible. Some bars will do one-offs, or a feature tap. They’ll take a couple kegs and just try to sell those. They understand that we’re a small scale, so right now we’re in talks with a couple bars and restaurants and we’re hoping to get a couple of kegs out there.
TFP: When you’re out in Vancouver and need a beer, where would you turn? Is there a place with a beer list you particularly like?
DB: Definitely the Alibi Room.
TFP: Good choice, that’s definitely our favourite.
DB: Hands down best in the city
TFP: So on that selection, what’s your go-to beer if you can’t have your own beer?
DB: That’s a tough one. I really can’t pick. Every time I go out I don’t have the same beer. I like to vary it a lot.
TFP: We can understand that! Thanks so much for sitting down with us.
– AP + CK
Powell Street Craft Brewery is located at 1830 Powell Street, Vancouver, BC. Their tasting room is open for sales and growler fills from 1pm to 7pm, Wednesday to Saturday.