Vancouver brewers and distillers benefit from a sharing spirit. Part of a series.
Inside Odd Society Spirits, one of two Vancouver craft distilleries. Photo: Odd Society.
For Vancouverites, 2013 could easily be known as the Year of the Growler. Thanks in part to a trend surging upward from Oregon and Washington, and aided by recently-eased liquor regulations, the city is now in the midst of a craft beer revolution, with at least four new breweries opened in 2012 and an additional six opening throughout 2013. Province-wide, craft beer sales have jumped 55 per cent since 2012, and are now responsible for approximately one-quarter of B.C.'s total beer market. Microbreweries and brew pubs are scattered across the city, as well as the North Shore, the Okanagan, across Vancouver Island and the Fraser Valley.
But if you talk to Gordon Glanz of East Vancouver's Odd Society Spirits, he'll tell you the Lower Mainland is poised for an alcohol renaissance of a different kind, one directly assisted by local breweries: the rise of the craft distillery.
"There's about to be an absolute explosion of distilleries," Glanz predicts from behind the bar at Odd Society's facility at Powell and Commercial. The B.C. government recently changed the taxation rules for craft distillers, he explains, eliminating provincial mark-ups that would have formerly bumped bottle prices up by 170 per cent. Also helpful are new rules enacted in February that allow distilleries, like craft breweries, to have an attached tasting lounge, where they can serve cocktails made with spirits produced on site.
"Before, it wasn't a viable business," Glanz says. "But six months from now, there'll be 10 of us."
With its grand opening less than three weeks ago, Odd Society is one of only two craft distilleries in town (the other is Yaletown's Long Table Distillery). Its full range of products, produced primarily with provincially-sourced ingredients and slated for release in coming months, include vodka, gin, an un-aged, moonshine-type spirit known as Mongrel, and eventually barrel-aged whiskey.
For now, the company produces a single product, East Van Vodka, and its operation consists of three fermentation tanks (where wort, a mixture of grains and water is placed, with yeast, to produce a low-proof alcohol), and two copper reflux stills -- vessels designed to extract the alcohol vapour in the ferment, collecting a spirit that is much more highly concentrated (it can come out at up to 95 per cent).*
"I found them on the Internet," Glanz beams, pointing to the stills. "The company that used to have these was a Swiss company that made liqueurs for the chocolate industry. They did fruit brandies and schnapps, and they had 35 or 36 of them. It was incredible."
Odd Society is a small company, employing Glanz and two others, brewer/distiller Joshua Beach and General Manager Miriam Karp. And at least for now, it remains reliant on neighbouring craft breweries for one crucial element of the process. Lacking the equipment to make it in-house, Odd Society buys its wort from two local breweries: Storm and Coal Harbour.
"I take my totes, and I go to Storm or Coal Harbour," Glanz explains, "they pump it full, and then I bring it here, and then I put it into my fermenters, and pitch my yeast. There are a fair number of distillers who do it in the States as well. You just buy your mash from the brewery, so you can get up and running faster, and more cheaply."
Making hard alcohol is a three-stage process, one which involves mashing (mixing grains and immersing them in hot water to make wort), fermentation (mixing the wort with yeast to produce alcohol), and distillation (concentrating the alcohol through boiling off much of its water). And because brewing and distillation are nearly identical in the beginning stages, Odd Society can outsource the work to expert brewers in the early stages, to save both money and time.
"They've already got their stills, they already have their fermentation tanks -- they just don't have what we call the 'hot side'," explains Coal Harbour head brewer Ethan Allured. "We get a little bit of publicity from him. But also, [we're] helping another local business establish itself."
It's an abundantly local arrangement. Coal Harbour and Storm breweries are both small operations located minutes from Odd Society's headquarters. And it benefits both sides: beer sales typically spike in the summer months, leaving local craft brewers scrambling to keep up. However, with the arrival of colder temperatures, sales typically dip in the beer market.
"Your volume is going to go down in the winter regardless of what you're making," Allured notes. "Especially with the long summer we had. And then it got really cold, and we saw sales drop off pretty dramatically... You pretty much plan around what you can sell in the summer, for building your capacity, and then know that you're either not using those tanks in the winter, or find something else you can do with them."
This sort of recycling and repurposing is widespread in the craft brewing and distilling industries. Scotch and Irish whiskey, for example, have historically been aged in used bourbon barrels imported from the U.S. (by law, a bourbon barrel can only be used once). Some breweries now age their beers in those same types of barrels. Many distilleries (including Odd Society) even recycle their own water -- a process that's not only more environmentally friendly, but also makes business sense. A distiller Glanz worked with in Switzerland took the water from his attached cooling tower, and used it to heat his outdoor swimming pool.
It takes a bit of a village to make Odd Society's East Van Vodka.
"The distillation process uses thousands of litres of water to cool the condensers," he explains, "and a lot of times, that just gets dumped. Back in the old days, that's why all the distilleries were by rivers. So they could take the water, use it, and then dump it back again."
Considering the high cost of operating a brewery or distillery, such pragmatism is essential. Initial investments are estimated in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and in the beginning margins are small, which makes alliances such as those between Odd Society and local brewers crucial.
"Mashing is a science unto itself," Glanz admits. "What goes on in the brew house is a whole separate piece. So, if someone isn't familiar with mashing, and they're more familiar with distillation, it's an easy way to add another expert to the process. That way, we can focus on what we're good at."
These brewers and distillers don't just share wort; they share experience. Glanz has a masters' degree in brewing and distilling from Edinburgh's prestigious Heriot-Watt University. Storm's owner and brewmaster James Walton has been in business in East Vancouver for close to 20 years, won multiple awards, and is credited with influencing the current generation of local brewers. Coal Harbour's products have won a number of awards in the two years since the company was founded, including a Gold Medal at the B.C. Brewing Awards in 2012.
Still, their businesses remain relatively small; Coal Harbour has less than 10 employees, and both Storm and Odd Society have less than five. They started as labours of love, and remain that way. Glanz, whose family supported Odd Society's start-up, continues to supplement his income with work as a technical writer for the high-tech industry.
"My dad put in some money; my brothers put in sweat equity," Glanz explains. "[They] basically built the whole distillery. They have a construction and renovation company, so they were able to do it more or less at cost."
Coal Harbour has similarly humble beginnings, starting from brew kits in the basement of owner Ken Boparai's former establishment at the corner of Main and Georgia.
"At first, we made some pretty bad beer," explains Boparai, shaking his head. "I didn't go to brewing school or anything, just started learning it practically... We started off using dairy tanks, and unfortunately the welding wasn't done properly, so you'd get bacteria. But by 2008, we'd started making some decent beer and decided to take the next step. We closed up shop there, and it took us about a year-and-a-half to start this up."
Coal Harbour has done well in its first two years of operation, winning awards, racking up nearly 100 restaurant accounts, and rapidly reaching the limits of its 500,000 litre annual production capacity. For Odd Society, too, business is growing and there's already talk of expansion.
"The challenge for us is to get our products out there," Glanz says. "We've got vodka, and we can barely keep up with that. But we also have to finish our other products, like our gin and our whiskey. When you're doing it all, and you also have to run the front -- we're going to need somebody to run the front while we're working in the back."
When Odd Society's brewing and mashing equipment arrives in the next three months, its sharing arrangement with Storm and Coal Harbour will end. But those months will be crucial to the company's development, and in that time, Glanz, Beach and Karp aim to move forward with Odd Society's products, with the hope of ushering in a new era for Canadian liquor -- both locally and abroad.
"I want us to be known for making really unique stuff, whiskey in particular," Glanz concludes. "There's Canadian whiskey, but all you have are the big guys. And surprisingly, Canadian whiskey has a great reputation around the world. Almost better than we think of it here. It's drunk in huge amounts in the States and in Europe; it's very well-regarded. But there's hardly any choice, compared to Scotland where they have this great whiskey-making tradition. I think there's room for some really great little stuff to come back."
*Corrected Thursday, Nov. 21 at 11 a.m.