From draft to craft

A talk with Vancouver Beer Week’s marketing director.

By Brian Evancic
[associate news editor]

Vancouver Craft Beer Week (VCBW) starts at the end of May, and no one is more excited than Chris Bjerrisgaard, its marketing director.

Bjerrisgaard defines craft beer as an artisanally-produced product in which additives are only added to enhance flavour and whose brewery is at least 20 per cent independently-owned. Besides the independent-ownership qualification, how does he exclude the mainstream lagers from this definition, whose owners will surely claim they care deeply about the taste?

“I think an educated palate knows the reality. McDonald’s will tell you it’s about the taste too, but deep down inside you know it’s not … It’s not about shareholder value [with craft beer], it’s about producing the best product you can.”

According to him, the industry is all about lifestyle enhancement, run by people who are legitimately passionate, and he believes craft consumers buy into this authenticity.

This different focus in the craft-beer culture also has the appeal of not treating beer as merely something “to get you drunk,” but more like “a nice set of cheeses or meats” that you can savour and experimentally match with different kinds of food.

In fact, one of the main events that Bjerrisgaard recommends for newcomers to the VCBW, and to craft beer in general, is one that has just this concept in mind. It is “Cicerone vs. Sommelier” and it is a competition between Don Ferion of Biercraft and Sebastian Le Goff of Cactus Club to decide which goes best with a meal: beer or wine?

Another entry-level event he recommends is the closer at the River Rock Casino. Four-ounce samples of beer from over 60 breweries will be available for patrons to taste. Unlike other notable VCBW events, tickets are still available for these events at their website, for $75 and $35 each respectively.

It is in part because of events like these that Bjerrisgaard says Vancouver is Canada’s leading craft beer city. VCBW was the first event of its kind in Canada, and since then has galvanized local enthusiasm and innovation.

He still thinks Canadians have a ways to go if they want to compete with the thriving craft-beer culture of some American cities – like Portland, Philadelphia and Chicago – but believes they are rapidly gaining on them. As things are, though, Bjerrisgaard says that Vancouver has an 80/20 ratio of mainstream-lager drinkers to craft ones, compared to a 60/40 ratio in the aforementioned American cities.

VCBW is hastening the proliferation of craft culture, in spite of the B.C. “prohibitionist” liquor laws that Bjerrisgaard laments. While he believes the festival shouldn’t be exempt from such regulations, he does think a little less stringency would go a long way. Running one of these events requires filling out “lots of weird pieces of paperwork,” bringing in fire and liquor inspectors, applying for a liquor license and putting special disclaimers on the event website – among other things. And “if there’s one guy [among the regulators] having a bad day, then you have to start all over again.”

“We like to think our consumer is a quality-educated consumer, and because of that we would like a bit more of an adult treatment, but we understand that the government can’t pick and choose favourites,” he says.

Another challenge for the culture is the “macro” beer companies, using their big wallets to exclude craft products from bars by buying tap handles. These companies also market faux-craft beers – like Molson’s “Wheat” beer, which Bjerrisgaard denigrates – that lure people away from the real thing.

These challenges do not pose an existential threat to the culture; Bjerrisgaard cites the fact that macro companies’ revenue has been declining one to two per cent in the last few years while that of craft breweries has been increasing by 20 per cent in the same period. While he does admit that beer sales overall are down, he believes it is a result of people turning away from “crap beer products” to craft ones – or wine and cocktails.

The festival will also be featuring a charity beer from local brewery Parallel 49. All proceeds will be used to purchase Save On Meats meal tokens that will be distributed by the VPD and Downtown Eastside women’s shelters. Bjerrisgaard says that the token aspect helps quell people’s fears that their money might only be used to purchase drugs and alcohol by the destitute.

But besides having a charitable aspect and promoting craft beer, Bjerrisgaard says the festival is all about having fun. He emphasizes that it is not a snobbish, “stuffed-shirt” event and that the goal is to be the “antithesis of a wine festival.”

Once you get a taste for the stuff, you can take part in the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) events that are meant for true connoisseurs. As he puts it: “Beer Week sets you up, CAMRA knocks you down.”

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