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Growing a Brewery: Sunshine Coast’s Persephone Brings Farm-to-Table to Beer

Sustainability and social responsibility provide base for thriving social enterprise.

By Tyee Staff 2 Nov 2016 |

Brian Smith is the CEO and co-owner of a brewery. But one of his favorite tasks at work is sitting on a tractor, moving the used grain and malt onto farmland for compost.

“It feels good,” said Smith, who says he likes watching the compost steam. A simple pleasure.

Unusual work for the CEO, perhaps, but the Persephone Brewing Company isn’t your usual craft brewery. The company does everything farm-to-bottle — almost all ingredients in its beer are produced on its own land.

Gibsons on the Sunshine Coast is home to Persephone’s Beer Farm. It’s an apt name: brewing operations and tasting-room are housed inside a red, barn-like building, and the 11 acres of land are used for its own hop yards, bee farm, apple trees — and even chickens, providing eggs for pizza and breads made on-site.

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Brian Smith: Highlighting “the importance of local agriculture.” Photo submitted by Persephone Brewing Company.

But there’s a lot more brewing here than just fresh beer. Thanks to its business model, Persephone recently won the Real Estate Foundation of BC’s 2016 Land Award in the private sector category. In addition to composting, Persephone reuses wastewater; it leases surplus land to local farmers; hires local people with developmental disabilities; and is a social enterprise owned by 132 individuals and organizations.

And Persephone had already earned B Corp certification for its commitment to social responsibility and sustainability, joining companies like Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

Smith said Persephone is all about keeping agriculture close to home — “reducing food miles, connecting people to local land, using agricultural land in a responsible way.”

The company name is a nod to two Persephones that represent its values: Persephone the log salvage boat from CBC’s The Beachcombers, as a tribute to life on the coast; and Persephone the Greek goddess of vegetation.

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Setting up the hop yard. Photo submitted by Persephone Brewing Company.

Smith is no stranger to the world of land use or social enterprises. He has a master’s degree from UBC’s planning school and worked at the non-profit Building Opportunities with Business, which was active in Vancouver neighbourhoods like the Downtown Eastside and Strathcona. That was how he met Save On Meats proprietor Mark Brand.

For a while, Smith and Brand flirted with the idea of a craft brewery in the Downtown Eastside. After Smith moved to Gibsons, the idea transformed into the Beer Farm.

But trying to make farm-to-bottle beer isn’t easy.

“The Beer Farm moniker makes it sound rather simple,” said Smith, “but it’s not.”

One important task: growing hops, which require a special array of giant supports.

That’s where Dion Whyte came in.

“I’ve been home brewing for years,” said Whyte. “It was like a dream come true for me.”

Whyte was the manager of sustainable services at the Sunshine Coast Regional District when he took a job at Persephone as general manager. He set up the first hop yard with the help of staff, volunteers and clients from the Sunshine Coast Association for Community Living, which is one of Persephone’s owners and provides services for people with developmental disabilities.

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Dion Whyte: From regional district to brewery GM. Photo submitted by Persephone Brewing Company.

“It was very neat for the community,” said Whyte. “Our property is right up against North Road, and there were vehicles coming off the ferry watching this crazy installation. We had stuck a sign on the side of the road that said ‘Beer Farm’ and they were driving by honking their horns.”

It was a small shift for Whyte, who worked on water conservation, zero-waste, and climate change mitigation for the regional district.

“All of that I’ve been able to put into practice here, which is great, because I was very much at a policy and planning level there,” he said. “It’s not often you get to roll up your sleeves and push things forward yourself.”

On Aug. 21, 2013, Persephone sold its first beer.

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Gleaming tanks in the barn. Photo submitted by Persephone Brewing Company.

It’s been three years since then and Persephone is close to maxing out on production from the Beer Farm. The company may expand to another orchard and industrial property.

And it’s not just Persephone that’s growing. So is the brewery scene in B.C. There are about 130 in the province today, but unlike Persephone, they’re located mostly on light industrial land.

“What I like most about this approach is the way I see our customers and members of our community connecting the dots about the importance of local agriculture,” said Smith. “You can bring the kids to check out the chickens, look at the hop yards, see the gardens, watch the bees, check out the ducks eating the spent grains in the compost pile. It brings people back to a simpler place. It’s kind of like removing the curtain that covers the black box of how all the stuff we eat and drink is made.”

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Farm to bottle to glass. Photo submitted by Persephone Brewing Company.

The Tyee has been a media sponsor for the Real Estate Foundation Land Awards Gala for the last three years. This article is part of an advertising and promotions package.  [Tyee]

This article is part of a Tyee Presents initiative. Tyee Presents is the special sponsored content section within The Tyee where we highlight contests, events and other initiatives that are either put on by us or by our select partners. The Tyee does not and cannot vouch for or endorse products advertised on The Tyee. We choose our partners carefully and consciously, to fit with The Tyee’s reputation as B.C.’s Home for News, Culture and Solutions. Learn more about Tyee Presents here.

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