‘Collaboration’ is a bit of a buzzword in the craft beer world – and for pretty good reason.
From a steady stream of collab beers, to endless stories of shared ingredients, shared knowledge, and shared equipment, BC’s craft beer boom is being driven by a collective desire to create the kind of industry and the kind of community that people want to be a part of.
There’s probably no brewery out there that epitomizes this spirit of collegiality and connectivity more than East Van’s Callister Brewing Co..
Named after Callister Park Stadium, a long-demolished facility on the site of present-day Callister Park in Hastings-Sunrise (where the grandfather of co-founder Chris Lay was live-in caretaker from 1949-1970), Callister Brewing Co. has become one of my absolute favourite local breweries since it opened its doors last summer.
A collaborative ‘brewery incubator’, Callister’s model is pretty unique, and sets it apart from every other brewery out there in Canada.
As co-founder Chris Lay told me, “When we first had the idea of the brewery, we were pretty involved with Van Brewers (the City’s biggest home brewers club). We were just so impressed by the amount of skill and knowledge that they had – here were a bunch of hobby brewers making some of the best beers we had ever tasted. It very quickly led to the idea of starting a brewery that could be a hub for multiple brewers. We had heard of a similar project in Houston, Texas where brewers were invited to come in on short-term contracts. We thought ‘wouldn’t it be amazing to access Vancouver’s great home-brew community, and allow them to build their skills and gain access to a wider audience’? After a lot of thought, (and a lot of back and forth with the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch), we ultimately ended up with a two-tier structure: first there’s Diana and me (Lay’s partner and co-founder Diana McKenzie makes Callister’s organic sodas), and then there’s our ‘associate brewers’ who sign up for one year terms and sell their beer under their own, unique brands. It’s really about bringing all of these people in to give them access to knowledge, equipment, and, of course, the public.”
And what a lineup Lay and McKenzie have put together in their first year at Callister.
First off, there’s ‘Machine Ales’. Consistent purveyors of some of BC’s finest IPAs, (sporting names like ‘Dank Williams’ and ‘Toucan Slam’), Machine is the handiwork of Adam Henderson and Matt Kohlen. Both award-winning home brewers, Henderson is the founder of Copper & Theory, an import agency that has really raised BC’s beer game by bringing in some of the best beer available in our province (think Brasserie Cantillon, Cascade Brewing, The Commons, and Gueuzerie Tilquin.). Machine’s ‘Happiness’ IPA has – quite deservedly – become legendary in some circles (mine included), and every new IPA that Henderson and Kohlen put out is eagerly anticipated.
Then we have ‘Brewery Creek’. An offshoot of Vancouver’s premier bottle shop, the man behind Brewery Creek’s beer is Chester Carey. Canada’s first cicerone, and a highly respected beer educator, Carey’s focus at Callister has been on Belgian-style table beers. His Brett IPA and his ‘Raspberry Tart’ kettle sour are both fantastic.
Next there’s ‘Real Cask’. As someone who loves proper, low ABV English cask ale, I’m a pretty big fan of what Adam Chatburn is doing with Real Cask. The former head brewer at an all-cask brewery in Blackburn, England, and a past president of CAMRA Vancouver, through producing delicious and honest English cask ale at Callister, Chatburn has filled a gaping void in BC’s beer landscape. If you haven’t tried his Blackburn Best Bitter or his Burnley Bastard Mild, you really should.
Then, of course, we have ‘Callister’ itself. In addition to helping create an industry training ground and an inclusive, community hub along with his partner McKenzie, Lay is also an incredibly versatile brewer, and has hit a number of high notes over the last year in a variety of styles. His award-winning Midnight Porter and his Dunkelweizen are both personal favourites. Diana’s array of delicious organic sodas are always popular with the assorted bambinos and half pints that frequent the tasting room on weekends (and are a thoughtful and much-appreciated option for the non-drinkers who find themselves at Callister with friends yet still want to sample some of the artisanal wares).
And while the beer and soda may be pretty delicious, what really sets Callister apart is its role as a ‘brewery incubator’ – a space where home brewers can learn the ins and outs of operating a brewery without putting up a million dollars in start-up costs. As Carey told me, being part of Callister has left him free to devote his time and attention to the craft of brewing “without being tied down by all the other aspects and costs of running a venture of this size.” For Henderson and Kohlen, the experience has similarly allowed them to bridge the gap between making great beer at home and making great beer that people will actually pay for – all without having to give up your day job. “The interesting thing about making the transition from being a home brewer to being a professional brewer,” Kohlen noted, “is that once people start having to pay for your beer, you realize how good of a brewer you actually are. It really makes you up your game, become more efficient, and understand what it takes to make brewing good beer a viable business.”
For Chatburn, Callister’s model has provided an opportunity that he doesn’t think he would have found anywhere else. “Partnering with Chris and Diana has been exceptional. Sharing knowledge and pitching in together to build a collaborative, community-focused brewery has been wonderful, but I think the biggest advantage for me is that this is the only way I could have done this style of brewery. My beers are pretty niche and hard to market, so if I had dropped a million dollars on my own place, I doubt I would have lasted more than a few weeks. The freedom to brew what I want, in the style I want, and served the way I want has been a dream come true. It has also been very validating to see how people have really taken to drinking classic British cask styles. I honestly had no idea if people would want Bitters and Milds served from a cask, but I knew I wanted to drink them myself! British beers aren’t as sexy as Belgian Lambics, or as popular as a West Coast IPAs, but those who know how great they can be have found a home with Real Cask at Callister.”
The benefits of Callister’s model to Lay and McKenzie are also pretty clear. As McKenzie told me, “We get to have four different brewers really focused on two or three different recipes that they’re really good at, instead of having one brewer trying to deliver on ten different things.” “From a business perspective,” Lay added, “having our associate brewers buy into this project is a really nice bit of help. Plus, the bar gets staffed with the brewers – who typically do a shift or two a week – so you get to talk to the person who made the beer you’re drinking. As a brewer, it’s also pretty amazing because help is always available, and we’re constantly learning from each other. I think that we’ve all become better brewers because of this model, and it’s made brewing a lot easier and a lot more fun. That collaborative spirit really permeates every aspect of Callister, and I think that’s what really sets us apart – no other businesses could ever be so collaborative at its core and yet allow all of its parts to be so expressive and so successful.”
In the end, it all comes back to collaboration. As Henderson aptly noted, “We’re all just trying to create an industry that we feel should exist – as opposed to just going along with what’s already out there. We want to make something else, something different, and something we can all be proud of. Through places like this, and the many amazing other things happening here in Vancouver, I think we’re making that happen.”
There’s probably no better way of summing up what’s happening at Callister and beyond, as the proliferation of neighbourhood craft breweries shows no immediate sign of abating in our city and our province. And while I’m saddened to report that both Machine Ales and Brewery Creek won’t be back for a second term as ‘associate brewers’ as of July 1st, I have some pretty good intel on the replacements that Lay and McKenzie have lined up, and if what I’ve tried from their brew masters in the past is anything to go by, Callister’s loyal customers will continue to be in good hands when the brewery’s first changing of the guards goes down in a few months’ time.