It was either my excitement, or the bottle of Brookyln Brewery Local One I had beforehand, but I kept brewers Jason Meyer (CEO of Driftwood) and Kevin Hearsum (president) talking for over an hour. Loathe to leave much on the editor's floor, I will publish the interview in three parts. Today I'll cover the Driftwood way™ as well as Jason's and Kevin's ideas about the beer industry on Vancouver island and beyond.
The exterior of Driftwood is about as anonymous as it gets, tucked into the corner of an industrial complex with only a small sign distinguishing it from a cluster of warehouses. Jason welcomes me in to the 3,500 square-foot space that has housed Driftwood since it was launched in 2008. Kevin is busy hosing something down between two enormous tanks. I feel aware I know next-to-nothing about the brewing process, and am bewildered by the array of tanks, machines, and sheer noise I am witnessing. "Can I get you a beer?" asks Jason. Ah. Familiar ground. I receive a lively pint of Farmhand Ale from a tap mounted in the side of their on-site chiller, and the interview begins.
I ask about the Driftwood philosophy. Jason pours himself a pint and tells me that he and Kevin recognized an opportunity to establish the only producer of traditional Belgian-style beers in BC. In addition to the Southern-Belgian Farmhouse Ale I am happily drinking as we talk, Driftwood's permanent four-strong line-up comprises a Belgian wheat beer (White Bark), an Alt-style amber ale (Crooked Coast), and a "quintessential" Northwest ale with dry malts and bold hops (Driftwood Ale).
Respect for tradition hasn't prevented Driftwood producing some interesting seasonal beers (the Sartori Harvest Wet-hopped IPA being a standout). But Jason is quick to distinguish innovation from gimmickry, something that clearly irks him about current production trends.
JM: This bullshit of honey beers. You gotta use so much honey to make it taste like beer. It's uber-fermentable, it's fructose, it's gonna ferment out. It's just marketing, to me it's kind of crass. It's not sincere or authentic. Our whole MO is authenticity. We don't filter our beers. Yet we don't run around saying "we don't filter our beers," we just don't filter it.
– So you're opposed to trends?
JM: I'm in favour of a trend toward double IPAs and imperial pilsners!
– Driftwood's beers contain special ingredients, don't they?
JM: We brew to traditional Belgian recipes, which include Curacao orange peel and pepper. That's not to say that if an intriguing ingredient presented itself to us we wouldn't be prepared to use it. But there's a line between finding an interesting new botanical or a spice, and choosing an ingredient so you can overtly fly a flag about the fact this shit is in your beer.
Driftwood was established on the principles of providing fresh, quality beer for local people. Jason's enthusiasm is palpable as he recounts how he began brewing at age 19, was influenced by a creative brewing scene in Edmonton ("they were doing stuff like triple decoction mashes, stuff that no commercial brewery can do, it was just incredible"), and gained experience working in several breweries, including Victoria's Lighthouse Brewing where he and Kevin hatched the plan for Driftwood.
It was their experiences working in commercial brewing operations that inspired Jason and Kevin to build a brewery with the needs of workers very much in mind.
JM: We wanted to produce a space, a nice place to be, we wanted the people who work here to be proud of what they do, to promote this because they believe they are doing something meaningful. [At Lighthouse] Kevin spent three years hunched over a plate and frame filter inside a giant walk-in cooler, filtering beer, in the dark.
KH: It sucked.
JM: So when we built this place we designed it with lined walls, to create a decent, open, warm space for everyone. We don't have people working at weekends. We don't want people working graveyard shifts. That puts a limit on how big you can get. But it's a moral and good and fun place to be in.
"Getting big" is not the aim, but commercial success is clearly important when an operation on Driftwood's scale will cost upward of half a million Canadian dollars to get going. I ask whether well-publicized hikes in the cost of hops and other brewing-related crops are a challenge to the sustainability of craft beer outfits, but Jason and Kevin dismiss raw material prices as a lesser issue. Craft brewers might not generally get rich, but a good living is still there to be made with hard work, passion, and most importantly a receptive market.
– So what is the Vancouver Island beer market like?
KH: It's a more sophisticated drinking culture here these days. There are so many taps in this city and pubs are putting new ones in all the time. They're more than happy to put out every new product we make.
JM: In Victoria 20 years ago chicken cordon-bleu was the most exotic food item you could get! But it's all changed now. The internet age has made us more sophisticated, more suspicious of manufactured messages, of commercialism. Now there's a really active support for local producers and we're lucky we fit right into that.
Part two of this interview will be published soon