Brewing a burgeoning business in Peace Region

GP Brewing president Matt Toni and head brewer Jim Lague in their newly opened tasting room.

Grain Bin Beer and GP Brewing Company both opened early this year into a market previously untested for its appetite for local craft beer. Both teams did what research they could to make sure there was enough interest to sustain a business, but ultimately opened their doors on faith. Both have already surpassed early sales expectations.

“We’re where we thought we’d be one to one and a half years in,” said Dalen Landis, head brewer at Grain Bin Beer that opened in February.

“We opened with capacity for 1,600 gallons a month, and very quickly sold more beer than we could produce.”

Just last week Grain Bin increased capacity by another 1,200 gallons monthly and expect to add another 1,200 gallons this summer.

“We thought most of our business would come from wholesale in the beginning, like restaurants and bars, but it’s been about 50/50 with growler fills” Landis said. Growlers are a reusable 64 oz. jug most breweries will fill from their taps. “Our location is hard to find, and our hours are horrendous, but people still make the effort to come find us for growler fills.”

Their most recent “democracy” beer, voted for by customers and fans online, was a Double IPA: a high alcohol, super bitter ale. The portion of the batch they’d reserved for growler fills sold out in a single day, and of the 500 bombers (22 oz. bottles), all but eight sold in just a week.

Their spring seasonal brew, Ale Spruced Up, was made with spruce tips harvested by Landis and his kids, aged 3 and 1, from budding spruce trees around Grande Prairie. Next up is a sour ale made with rhubarb.

Ale Spruced Up seasonal beer in process at Grain Bin Beer. – Grain Bin photo

This kind of experimental craft beer is exactly what Landis and his friends had been doing for the last 10 years as a hobby until Alberta’s liquor laws changed, removing the restriction on volume of beer required to stay licensed.

“We was doing it just for fun, but then the law changed, and we wondered if we could turn it into something. Our friends all liked our beer, but of course everybody who gets free beer will say that,” Landis said. “We started to wonder if we could charge for it.”

Turns out they can; Grain Bin is on tap at a handful of restaurants in Grande Prairie and they’ve just invested in bottling equipment to expand into retail. Five liquor stores carry their bombers, and customers come to the brewery for growler (and howler) fills regularly.

GP Brewing Company had quite a different start. None of the GP team were hobby brewers before. The now-president Matt Toni was working as a chef at Madhatters and trying to distill whiskey at home, but he failed miserably he says, and switched to homebrew. It took a lot of trial and error, but eventually he had a product he was happy with.

“Some of it was pretty bad,” Toni recalled. “To make good beer, there’s a lot of bad beer. So we dumped a lot of it.”

He and the Madhatters’ owners initially planned to supply beer to their own lounge, but through the process of brewing and tasting and tweaking and tasting, they got really excited.

“I think what really got us spiraling into the volume we’re doing now is just how excited we got for the business, and possibilities of being bigger and doing it right from the very beginning,” Toni said.

“But the more we looked into it, it didn’t make sense to produce one or two barrels at a time. It just got bigger and bigger and bigger.”

They opened their shiny new brewing facility and tasting room this March, and are already distributing canned beer to 220 liquor stores throughout Alberta. They also fill growlers and supply a few restaurants in town.

Toni’s careful not to call GP Brewing a craft brewery. It’s all about really good every day beer for these guys.

“I want to produce a beer that you can literally drink the hell out of every day. And produce it right, with local ingredients,” Toni said.

Hops and Barley

Hops and barley malt are the two key ingredients in beer, as well as yeast and water. Sourcing local barley, despite being surrounded by barley fields, is not as straightforward as it first appears. Currently GP buys from a maltster that uses Alberta barley, but have no connection with the farmers which is something they want to change. Within the next three years, Toni plans to develop direct relationships with barley farmers and do the malting in-house, so they get more control over the product.

Double IPA in the malting stage with extra hops at Grain Bin Beer. – Grain Bin photo

Consistency is critical for GP to make six main brews, so they need long-term supply of the same type of hops. This makes locally sourced hops harder to integrate. “Local hops could supply us for maybe three weeks,” Toni said. “Then we’d have to go back to something further away. The flavour would change.”

Grain Bin has more flexibility as a craft brewery. Aside from their three core beers, their menu can change as often as they sell out of a seasonal brew. So they take advantage of some of the unique strains developed by farmers. Lots of their supply comes from Chilliwack and Abbotsford in B.C., but they also have a small hyper local source: Landis’ backyard.

“They’re a great plant, you can watch them grow a foot a day in the spurt phase,” Landis said. “And they have this aroma that naturally keeps pests away, but bees love them.”

Grain Bin Beer hopes to use some of these homegrown hops in fresh hop beer, where hops are picked the same day they’re added to the mash.

This article was originally published July 14, 2016 on the Dawson Creek Mirror.