Catching Up Over a Few Pints with Local Beer Legend Nigel Springthorpe

The Vancouver brewery scene was still in gestation when we last interviewed the Alibi Room’s Nigel Springthorpe eight years ago. Fast forward to the present and his other co-venture, Brassneck Brewery, is a cornerstone of the Mt. Pleasant neighbourhood and the city’s beer scene at large, not to mention a destination for beer drinkers from around the world. We caught up with Springthorpe over celebratory pints as the brewery was preparing to mark its four year anniversary on October 2nd (today). Cheers!

Where did you grow up? Formative years were spent in the North East of England. “Eaglescliffe” – a village suburb of a town called Middlesbrough. You may never have any other reason to know it’s a place that exists.

Where do you currently live and what makes it home? I share a duplex with my family and my brother and sister-in-law’s family (who also happen to be my business partners – ewww! I know. Nepotism-tastic.) It’s over by Trout Lake in Vancouver. What makes it home…? My wife, my three kids, my big auld dawg, the afore mentioned extended family, the comings and goings, the yard, the neighbours- it always feels busy at my house.

Why Vancouver? I came here in 1996 to get to know my dad. He was here already but I’d never really met him. Besides, things were a little grim in my Middlesbrough universe. I was going nowhere fast in my home town. There weren’t too many prospects and the effects of a misspent English teenagehood were starting to take hold. At the time, it was not a planned permanent move, but like so many other Vancouverites I quickly made the very easy decision to make it my home.

It’s been about 8 years since we last interviewed you on Scout. Woah. How have things changed since then? I like this question because it is really cool to be able to mark time this way. I feel very privileged, so thank you guys for caring. I’ll have to re-read that interview, it’s been a long time… But yes! 8 years is crazy. The brewery….actually, hold on, I’m gonna go read it…back in 10mins – OKAY! I totally just read it and there were a couple of cool things that I think are worth pointing out: You guys asked about something I wished I was good at, and I answered boxing and ballet! Haha. I’d never boxed at that point (and I’m not saying I’m good at it) but since that interview Aprons for Gloves and Beer Wars have happened; both of which I’ve trained and boxed in! (I would recommend the experience to anybody interested, by the way). Here’s the other question you asked: How do you waste time at work? “Dreaming up ways to get the dosh I need to own a brewery whilst intermittently picking on my business partner.” Well, the dreaming worked, I guess. Okay, that’s the two cool things. One not-so-cool thing: I look about 30lbs lighter and 20 years younger in the photo from 8 years ago!

Nigel Springthorpe at The Alibi Room, circa Spring 2009

Where do you see yourself in another 8 years? I would love for The Alibi to still be rolling. I feel like Vancouver is lacking when it comes to *slightly* rough-around-the-edges, well used, well loved, dive-y institutions and I think The Alibi is well on its way to becoming that, which may sound like a bit of dubious thing to be aiming for but I think you know what I’m getting at. To be that place where people feel just so comfortable and at home I think is a true service industry feat. I’d be over the moon if Brassneck just carried on the way it is. Not looking for huge expansion; we just like to keep things modest, busy and consistent. I’ve been dreaming of trying to go one more time with another place but it’s pie in the sky at this point. Sometimes I see other Vancouver restaurant folks take on too much and it seems to kinda dilute the original places and then they all seem to suffer a little. There’s a few warnings to heed, I think, so I’d have to be pretty sure it would work.

If you could open a brewery anywhere in the world, where would it be? Hmm. Probably just somewhere you get to be one of the first again. Relive the glory days of the 2013 Vancouver Brewery scene gold rush! Haha. All those years ago when everything was so exciting. When we first opened we actually had this older woman come in. She had no idea we were a brewery. She’d just seen droves of people roaming around the neighbourhood with these pretty jars of stuff with a nice tag on it (growlers) – she thought it was jam! She didn’t even care what it was, she just wanted one. A growler of jam!

How important is branding to you, professionally? I do think it’s important, but more so on a kind of principle level. Like, would I refuse to put a great tasting beer on at The Alibi because I hated the branding? I guess it depends. If there were social connotations that I disagreed with (sexism being the obvious one) then yes, I would avoid. If I just hated their bullshit copy, that so many breweries seem to love splashing all over their cans, bottles and websites, then possibly. I also get irritated by just plain lazy branding.

OK, then how important is branding to  you, personallyI am a sucker for good branding but if it’s a good beer, I don’t give too much of a shit. Although these days it’s kinda rare to find one without the other. I feel like if the same care and attention has gone into the type of branding I find appealing, then there’s usually that same level of care and attention gone into the beer. You can usually tell when it’s an imposter (or “mutton dressed as lamb” as me old Nana would say).

What’s the first thing that you want people to think of when they hear the word “Brassneck”? Pride. There’s no bigger compliment than having a Vancouver native showing a visitor around our brewery. Could be their Mum and Dad, a friend they met on their travels, or an old friend who hasn’t visited Vancouver in a while. But when somebody is literally pointing things out around the place as if it is their own it gets me all warm and fuzzy inside because you know they’re proud of their little neighbourhood brewery.


These archived images show the inside and outside of Brassneck Brewery four years ago, just a few days before it opened to the public…

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How much do you believe in the “brand lifestyle”? Oh god. Those two words together like that. Like right next to each other in a sentence, makes me feel kinda queazy. Especially when it comes to beer. To each their own but there’s just something so contrived and dishonest about trying to curate moments around your brand. I much prefer some candidacy, humility and honesty.

Brassneck growlers, shirts and jackets, pins, hats – what’s next? Stick n’ poke eyelid tattoos? Free with every 4-pack.

Why does a brewery need to have merchandise? I don’t know but it’s a pain in the arse. We’re in the beer business not the clothing and bric-a-brac business! Tourists seem to like it, though it’s certainly not a real extra revenue stream for us. But look at a brewery like Tofino Brewing. That makes sense. It’s so much more fun getting a Tofino Brewing tee as a momento of your visit than a fridge magnet from the ferry terminal. You’ve inspired me. No more merch! (Actually, what am I saying. I have like ten Brassneck shirts for every day of the week). Another thing I thought of: the way people connect to beer brands is different to other products….MORE TO SAY HERE!!

I’m impervious to hangovers and that’s the double truth.

The Vancouver and BC brewery seen has grown immensely over the past several years. How has that affected your business(es)? I think both Brassneck and Alibi have stayed relevant through all the rapid changes and the fickle nature of the beer scene. Because of this the affect has been very positive.

Can the brewery scene get too big? Is there such a thing as too much beer? Have you got all day?? I could talk about my theories on this for a long time….

What has your experience been like with the Vancouver and BC brewery community? We have lots of friends.

Favourite Vancouver brewery, besides Brassneck? I can’t play favourites with so many breweries supporting The Alibi. I love ’em all for different reasons!

Your hangover cure? I’m impervious to hangovers and that’s the double truth.

Your late-night drunk snack? Sadly. Horrendously. It’s a quarter pounder (s) with cheese.

Favourite beer label? It would probably be a Dageraad label if I could think of any one in particular. I think their labels actually do an amazing job of capturing the essence of their brewing philosophies and influences.

Nigel Springthorpe and Maggie Boyd at Brassneck

Favourite brand? Ours: I’m pretty sure that every brewery thinks their branding is the best but I am really proud of our can design work from Post Projects and the influence of friends like Maggie Boyd. Theirs: Dageraad, Four Winds, Other Half, Brus, Tool beer, Superflux.

Your favourite customer? Gotta be the George. Yes, he panics a little if his seat at the bar is not available, which can cause some slightly erratic behaviour. Okay, okay, so he brings his own “vintage” bottled beer to enjoy and share with customers at the bar sometimes (usually on a Friday or Saturday night when those bar seats are a pretty hot commodity!). He may have also been known to bring his own special tumbler when he has a whiskey because it doesn’t taste right in our rubbish glassware. Then there was that phase where he was demanding a cup of hot coffee to put in his imperial stout to George-ify it…There have been times he’s talked an unsuspecting, non-George-savvy customer into a beer information-induced coma. And, yes, he has the world’s nastiest sounding cough about 80% of the year. But deep down we love him and he loves us right back.

Why beer? Beer is honest. Beer connects you with all walks of life. It’s an everyday good like coffee or bread or bananas or milk but there’s all this room for creativity when you produce and sell it. Creativity in the infinite styles of beer to be attempted and creativity in the way you wrap it all up and pass it along to your customers.

Your dream collaboration? I’m a big fan of Adam and Matt at Superflux. It’d be nice to do a beer with them some day. Other than that, any brewery in a far away land who invites us. Who doesn’t want an excuse to go drink beer in another part of the world?

Words to live by? What would Conrad do?

Best advice you’ve received? All the advice I ever ignored.

Favourite dive bar? Roadside Attraction – Portland.

Beer connects you with all walks of life. It’s an everyday good like coffee or bread or bananas or milk but there’s all this room for creativity when you produce and sell it.

Place you go for a fancy meal/drink? Love Savio Volpe.

A Vancouver restaurant that you’re dying to try? Not really.

 

Favourite non-beer beverage? Negroni. Mescal.

Best beer and food pairing? Dirty Burger and a Brassneck No Brainer at Camp Up.

Worst hangover story? ….I’m a hangover-free zone, remember?

If you could have a drink with anyone, living or dead, who would it be? Me ol’ Nana Edna – I’d say sorry for being such a selfish little shit and putting her through hell when I lived with her as a teenager.

Same question, but this time think of a fictional character. Trump – just so he wouldn’t be real in this alternate universe that we just created together.

If you could only drink one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be? Well….water if I was being a cheeky smart ass. Desert island beer would probably be the Brassneck No Brainer. (Unless I was stranded on said island with Conrad. Then I’d choose something else because he would drink it all before I got chance).

Did you go to school and, if so, what for? If you didn’t then why not? No significant post secondary education. Left school at 16. I was too busy fluking my way through life.

Preferred mode of transportation? Walking – with Wilma (my big ol’ dawg).

First beer? In a pub? Probably something from Samuel Smith available at the Green Dragon – the pub in my home town that would serve any bum fluffed 15-year-old that walked through the door. Down the park when I was even younger?? Probably some budget pissy euro lager available at the corner store – Holstein Pils or something.

Best beer you’ve EVER had? Impossible question. Beers taste so different depending on the circumstances.

Worst? I would never say publicly – there’s one in recent memory that tasted like blue cheese, though. It took me a while to trust that brewery again.

Neighbourhood haunt? My neighbourhood sucks for neighbourhood-y type places. Seriously, it’s always a bit of a conundrum of where to go if I don’t want to drive. Usually end jumping on the Skytrain and heading to Camp Up, Mamie Taylor’s, Boxcar or Pourhouse.

Best bar in the world? For me, it’s gotta be In De Wildeman in Amsterdam, followed a close second by the Alibi, of course.

A weird ingredient that you’d like to incorporate into a future beer? I once asked Robert Belcham if he wanted to do a collab pigs brain rauchbier for Halloween, but for some reason it never materialised. Can’t think why. Maybe one for the future. (Never is in the future right?)

Place you go to lay low? Have a family place in Garden Bay surrounded by lakes. An ideal place to be to take a break from work and the city.

How do you unwind? Boxing, when I’m focused on a healthy life. I like to listen to Nils Frahm, Piano Cloud and Angus MacRae when I want to relax at home.

Aprons for Gloves tryouts, April 2012 | photo by Guy Roland

A trend you’d like to see die off? It suddenly being okay to be a shitty human.

A trend you’d like to see take off? Being fucking nice to each other for fuck sakes!!

If you weren’t doing what you’re doing, what would your career path have been? I would be absolutely in the gutter if I hadn’t been so lucky in restaurant world.

A hidden talent? My kids say I’ve got a wicked elephant impersonation going. (That’s not some weird thing where I turn my trouser pockets inside out by the way…)

I would be absolutely in the gutter if I hadn’t been so lucky in restaurant world.

Skill you wished you possessed? There are so many. Just an inkling, the tiniest semblance of musical talent would be nice for one.

A piece of technology that you couldn’t live without? Nasal hair trimmer. (Just got one for my 40th. There’s no turning back now).

Social media: love or hate it? Gaaaaaah. Love it for useful info bytes. Hate it for always knowing you’re only two or three hash tag clicks away from middle American, gun-toting, Jesus-loving snowflake haters.

Your favourite word? Babysitter.

A book you’d read a gain? Confederacy of Dunces.

A song you have on repeat? Taking a shower: Nick Cave “Hallelujah.”
Sending People to sleep after last call at Brassneck: Nils Frahm, “Screws” album.
Emptying the dishwasher: Black Mountain, “13 Walls.”
Get jolly!: The Clean, “Anything Can Happen.”
Meditative moments: Forest Swords’ “Compassion” album.
Blasting in the minivan: Leftfield x Sleaford Mods, “Head & Shoulders.”
Pumped for boxing: anything Run the Jewels.

The thing you’re most proud of, to date? Excluding the kidlets, my part in the story of Vancouver’s incredible food and drink culture.

Something you hope to accomplish by the end of the year? Back to the boxing gym, get some pounds off.

There are 2 comments

  1. Nigel is a fantastic human being, and Brassneck holds a special place in my heart.

    I remember one Saturday, getting to Brassneck right at opening for a quick fill with two small humans in tow – a medium(ish) one who was there for the pepperoni, and a smaller one who clearly didn’t want to be in his stroller. Nigel saw me struggling with both of them and the growlers, and graciously offered to give the younger one a stroller tour of the brewery. I gladly accepted, and off the two of them went while I took care of the fills (and got an oyama sausage or two). Such a simple gesture, but one I will always appreciate. Cheers Nigel!

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