Paul Hadfield, had it good: the Vancouver Architect worked out of his Granville Island office and spent weekends at his ski chalet in Whistler. Life was magical. Then, in 1982, the housing market crashed and suddenly Hadfield’s client pool dried up.
As a make-work project, his office started thinking about opening a brewpub—and Spinnakers—Canada’s first (and now legendary) craft brewpub was born. This year, Spinnakers is celebrating its 30th Anniversary and with its reputation for its beer-soaked gastronomic cuisine, cozy guesthouses, and plans to build a production brewery, it has a lot to show for three decades.
I had the pleasure of staying there this summer and I sat down with Hadfield to get the goods on Canada’s first, and most successful, post-prohibition brewpub.
Here’s Part I of our two-part interview.
Spinnakers is a craft beer pioneer. How did it all begin?
It’s been a fascinating experience. I got into this by way of being an architect. The housing market crashed in 1982 and I was working in Vancouver in an office in Granville Island. Then, all of a sudden, we had no work.
We made this up as a job for the office back then. We were following in the footsteps of John Mitchell, who opened up B.C.’s first microbrewery in Horseshoe Bay—he had some serious issues with his equipment, and was often searching for stuff in the UK. He came back with some leads on some things plus a suitcase full of beer. He had two bottles each of 14 different English beers, so with a group of aficionados we sat one night and drank them all. Then we tried half a dozen North American beers, and then we got into a homebrew.
Two things happened for us that night: first, there was this extraordinary range of flavours that did not exist in our vocabulary; second, the best beer we drank was made by the homebrewers. So that told me, we had an awesome idea, and we had the technology in the room. My job was to figure out how to make it happen.
So was the idea always that you’d stay on as publican?
No! The idea was on opening day, I would get to go home, and John would stay here and carry on, but that lasted for about 15 months. John was from West Van, his family was there and his wife didn’t like Victoria. In October of ’85 we recognized we had a crisis coming on. I went home after a partners meeting and said to my wife, “We need to be here and not be owners from a distance,” so we put our house on the market and were here by Christmas. John left in the springtime.
How has your approach to making beer changed since then?
In the early days we used to say it was cool to make beer, then after awhile, you had to make good beer, then after awhile you had to brew your beer to style; now styles are simply reference points to aid in descriptions of what people are trying to do.
The current generation of beer is characterized by the absolute freedom that people have to go explore and create new flavour profiles. It’s really where the energy, the dynamism, is coming from at this point. So it’s a more exciting time today than it was 30 years ago, it’s a very, very different world that we live in.
What is the biggest difference between then and now in terms of how beer is being made and sold?
What fascinates me today is how we are growing the market not by taking away from Labatts and Molsons but by expanding the definition of what craft beer is.
When we think back to the early days of craft brewing here in Canada, we thought of the English and Europeans, the keepers of the styles. We brewed our versions of the benchmark styles that were out there in the world; and because of the nature of the raw materials and the chemistry, you can virtually reproduce a beer from anywhere. By doing so, we provided reference points for people. Some breweries are still doing those beer styles, but at Spinnakers, we didn’t lock ourselves into that time. We continue to mess around and evolve as time goes on, as varieties change, and as new opportunities emerge. We just don’t really feel compelled by that notion to be true to a benchmark style. We think it’s more fun to get out there and mix it up.
So what’s your approach to brewing these days?
Being such a small brewery, our opportunity is to make small batches and one-off’s, and put them out there in the marketplace. We don’t have enough tankage to let beer linger in the building so the sweet spot for us is seasonals. Over the past 18 months we have really been on a schedule of rolling out one or two of them all year long and just exploring all the time.
Up until a few years ago, you were only on-premise sales right?
So what motivated you to say that we got to brew around the clock in order to get beer into stores?
We own a couple of stores as well and through the store sales, we could see where that beer was going and what the opportunities were. We knew the opportunity was always out there for us to grow the brewery. My brother was my partner, and about five years ago he said he wanted his money out. He wanted to sell and suggested I retire. I decided I wasn’t ready to do that. So we went through about a two-year period of negotiation to come up with a deal. Ultimately, I knew I could make it work because our brewery was growing and the market was just starting to really catch fire.
This was a couple of years ago?
Yeah we bought some trucks and decided to go to market. Between April and June, we doubled our sales. The next year, we went through about a 400% increase.
Is it tough to grow that fast?
No, we had the capacity for it. We hit the wall last year so that’s why we brought the new fermenter outside and another one that’s ready to be shipped to us. Those will double our fermentation capacity.
How long will it take you to use all that capacity or are you almost there?
We’ll hit it right away. Strategically what we’re doing is setting up to be in a new brewhouse in two years. We’re not going to go big like Mark James, I have no desire to spend $25 million on a new facility. I always wanted to build something that’s maybe in the 30 HL range, and use that for the kind of production that we send to market. Then this place will goes back to more specialty, more casks, more sours, more barrels, that kind of stuff that we don’t want to do on a distribution scale.
So do you keep the brewery here as well as a working one and just for the brewpub for smaller batches? That’s cool. It’s kind of the weird and the wonderful.
Yeah, the imagination is the only constraint in what we can actually make. We’re applying for a wine license, which will allow us to make cider, and by the time we have that plus our distiller license, we can essentially make anything we want with no rules. It’s a matter of creating a space for the imagination in an environment that enables that kind of experimentation.
If you were to give advice to someone today who wants to open a brewpub in Canada or in BC specifically, what would you tell them?
Having a brewery in a pub is the same as having a kitchen in a restaurant. It’s the ability to make your own product from materials that are readily available and to give distinguish your product from the guy down the street. To anybody that’s thinking of it, go homebrew for awhile and then jump in, just do it. The more of us there are, the bigger our market is gonna become. If we all made Pale Ale, none of us would find shelf space and that forces us to make beers that are not Pale Ale; in doing this, we all find the beers that we like and we end up developing a market place in the process.
Each of us brings our passion and specialties to the market. The reality is that there are far more beer styles out there than there are brewers. As a consumer, we got brought up to cherish diversity, so we’re just feeding people’s aspirations by making different kinds of beers. The more competition there is, the better we’re all gonna be so, everybody wins by having more players in the market.