Ontario Brewer PodcastSince 2010, I have been preparing and hosting the Ontario Brewer Podcast series for the Ontario Craft Brewers Association. These podcast feature interviews with Ontario brewers on a range of different topics.
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Posted September 13, 2011 | 1:37 am, by nadine
In 1980, on the west coast, one man decided that it was about time Canadians had access to a wider variety of beers. Over the course of the next two years, assisted by a few men who shared his vision, this man lobbied to have laws amended, assembled a brewhouse from used dairy equipment and started brewing. His passion and drive opened the door for the current craft beer movement. His name is John Mitchell and in the spring of 1982 he opened the first modern craft brewery in Canada.
At the time, Mitchell was already co-owner and manager of the Troller Pub in Horseshoe Bay, BC. It’s hard to imagine now, but the beer selection at the time was extremely limited: “There were no imported beers. We didn’t have them in BC,” explains Mitchell, “we only could get beer from Molson, Labatt and Carling in those days. It was an interesting era.” To make matters worse, most licensed establishments were nothing more than drinking holes: “The cultural norm in Canada was miniature beer parlours. Nobody had ever thought of serving food there.” Mitchell’s team broke the mold, inspired by the pubs in England where he grew up before moving to Canada in 1954. The Troller Pub provided a convivial atmosphere, good service and great food. As a result, the Troller was quite popular among locals and there were often lineups to get in. Mitchell, however, still saw room for improvement.
He had read an article in the London Illustrated News about a successful brewpub in England and was thinking about adding a brewery to the Troller Pub. This was easier said than done. At that time, provincial law stated that a brewery owner could not own an establishment with a license to sell beer. Although he knew it would require a lot of time and energy, in 1980, a series of events convinced Mitchell that the timing was right to put his plan into action: “I think it was at the end of ’79 all the breweries went on strike. They stopped serving beer. The three of them got together on this. And the poor pub owners didn’t get beer at all. For the first 2 or 3 weeks we had cider and then the LDB (BC Liquor Distribution Branch) brought in American beer to stem the tide. And after 6 weeks it went back and I said to myself “this is ridiculous”. Shortly thereafter, Mitchell received another bit of interesting news: “In 1980, they announced that expo 86 would open up. I walked across the pub floor and I thought “these people are going to be coming from all over the world, They’re coming from England, from Australia and Europe and China and god knows where and all the beer we’ve got to serve them is this rubbish that we call beer here in Canada which was an ersatz fizz. I was pretty ruthless.”
In the wake of the recent strike, Mitchell felt that the timing was right to start lobbying for a brewpub license. His first step was to approach Alan Gould, who was the general manager of the liquor board at the time. Mitchell set off with another of the Troller pub owners, Dave Patrick, to share his vision with Gould and was very surprised with general manager’s reaction to his proposal: “He was a chain smoker at the time and he got up from behind his desk and he walked two circles of the desk mumbling to himself and smoking his cigarette and he said “John, I’ve listened to you for an hour and as far as I’m concerned, I can’t see why you can’t do it, but you can’t stop here, you’ve got to put your presentation in to the minister. He’ll have to change the legislation” ‘cause no licensee was allowed to have a brewery. It was against the law.”
Now that it appeared his goal might be attainable, Mitchell was a bit concerned about what he had gotten himself into: “I thought to myself, my god, I can’t even brew, I don’t even know what a brewery is and standing at the end of the bar, this is sheer luck, Roger Cross, a regular, said “oh I’ve just read an article in Harrowsmith magazine written by this man Frank Appleton who left O’Keefe and is now brewing his own beer and telling everybody how to do it”. I rang Frank up and went up to see him and he said yes, he’d give me a hand.” Together, Mitchell and Appleton draughted a letter to the minister, Peter Hyndman, outlining their proposal for a brewpub and sent it off. Looking back, Mitchell is very thankful for the help and support he got from Appleton in the early days “My main forte was with Frank Appleton getting all the legislation through the provincial government and the Feds and all that.” Later on, Appleton would also provide invaluable help in assembling the brewhouse, teaching Mitchell how to brew and designing the recipe for the first craft beer in Canada since Prohibition.
Mitchell finally got the go-ahead to brew his own beer in the fall of 1981, but the legislature stated that there had to be a commercial road between the brewery and the pub. Mitchell obtained a license and opened Horseshoe Bay Brewery in “a little store down on the waterfront” and started to brew. Mitchell produced one beer at Horseshoe Bay brewery. It was an English Bitter called Bay Ale: “In a way, it was cask-conditioned, we used to have to re-prime the kegs and leave them for a week before we delivered them to the pub, the yeast was at the bottom of the keg.” Mitchell produced thirty kegs a week, which he would drive up to the Troller Pub in his Toyota truck. Against everyone’s expectations, the brewery was an instant success: “The locals came in and tried it and liked it and that was that!” The pub sold eight kegs on the first day, and it wasn’t unusual for the Bay Ale to run out: “I remember there was a soccer team in Richmond and they decided they’d charter a bus and come over to Trollers and get a pint and when they arrived we had none left! Thank god I wasn’t there when they turned up.”
Mitchell’s stint with the Horseshoe Bay Brewery was short lived. In 1983, he was invited by Ray Ginnever to help found Spinnakers, Canada’s first in-house brewpub. It was there that John Mitchell was able to realize his dream. With the help of Frank Appleton, he designed and brewed four Spinnakers brands: Mitchell’s Bitter, Mt. Tolmie Dark (which he describes as an English Mild), Spinnaker Pale and Empress Stout. “I was lucky to be there in 86 which was Expo and I had all the beers that I dreamt about in Horseshoe Bay to serve the people for Expo. I was very proud and very fortunate to be able to do that. I really was.”
When asked about his accomplishments, John Mitchell, now 80, says: “Well I wanted to brew 100% barley mash real ale and that was my dream to do this and I did it.” He admits that he wasn’t thinking of the bigger picture when he started fighting to open a brewpub: “The time had come for this to happen. Whether I kicked the door in or somebody else kicked the door in, it had to be done. We couldn’t carry on as we had done in the past as sort of relics of the prohibition era. I had no idea that it would take off like a rocket, which it has done…and I think to myself that’s quite wonderful.”
Publication: TAPS Magazine
Date Published: Fall 2009