Sunday, April 25, 2010

Phillips Interview #1: Obligation to the Beer

Matt Phillips met me for an interview last week at the impressive Phillips Brewery in Victoria. Waiting for the interview to start, I hung around the reception area, which is reminiscent of a minimalist art bar: abstract portraits hang on brightly spot-lit walls, an engaging receptionist fills growlers from a row of Phillips taps, and video monitors set into the walls show live feeds of the brewers at work behind the scenes.

Phillips himself greets me with the relaxed charm of a seasoned host. He's about forty, I'd guess, but youthful-looking, animated, and definitely the likeable side of self-confident. He doesn't know exactly what I'm there for other than that I have a blog, but before I can completely explain, we're already peering into an enormous mash tun — with Phillips telling me how he shaped its domed top  by driving his car repeatedly over a slab of sheet metal.

Offbeat stories like that are commonplace in the Phillips folklore, which is pretty well-known, and there's no need to go into much detail here. Suffice to say, the brewery was a one-man show begun in 2001, with only a collection of maxed-out credit cards as startup capital. Nowadays, ask most people and they'd say Phillips is the most popular craft-brewery on the island, has a strong reputation throughout BC, and continues to make excellent beer year after year. Personally, a bottle of Phillips IPA turned me on to the Canadian craft-brew scene back in 2005, and I still buy them five years later.

The brewery itself is a hive of noise and activity, as you would expect from an outfit with nine beers in constant rotation (a number that swells to fifteen depending on seasonal brews). Rows of thirty-foot-high tanks line the main warehouse area, but the brewery snakes off in other directions, revealing nooks stuffed with ancient-looking equipment right next to work-spaces full of very fancy looking brewing kit. An annex houses a vast bottling line, with a pallet of "Hop Circle" (Phillip's revamped IPA) sixer boxes in the middle, waiting to be filled.

Busy it may be, but the workers all seem pretty content: lots of beards, T-shirts and grins. Phillips pours beers from a spluttering tap, pitches a glass of foam over his shoulder, then hands me an IPA so zingingly-fresh, I almost forget to ask my questions. We cover the usual craft-brew stuff: yes the passion comes before the business; no he doesn't feel tempted to "go macro"; yes Victoria is a great place to make good beer — but how so?

MP: Well for several reasons. First, the water is really good here. And the public, they have an interest and appreciation of beer here that you don't find in many places in Canada, apart from a few pockets. That pushes us and allows us to be free in what we do here. I've worked in conservative places where brewing has been all about just keeping the doors open. I didn't want to work in a place like that.

- But Phillips has grown so much. Do you ever feel pressured by your market to take fewer risks, seeing as things are going so well?
MP: Quite the opposite. One of the great things about having expanded is that we have the space and ability to do more things, we can afford to be adventurous, and the beers don't have to be commercial success. They're such small batches that if they don't sell through (which happens very occasionally) we're happy to bring them back and drink them ourselves.

- What did you have come back?
MP: The Double Surly came back. Now and again something's too much, or not quite the right fit. It can happen when you're constantly experimenting. But we loved it and were more than happy to drink what was left!

I ask about the artistic direction at the brewery. Phillips is at the helm in that regard, but ideas are generated at regular group meetings — which isn't surprising, when known innovative brewers like Benjamin Schottle are on the team. Schottle was the brewmaster at the — sadly now closed — Hugo's brewpub in Victoria, where he built a reputation brewing beers such as his "Super G Ginseng Ale."

Phillips regrets that they get so many ideas, they can't possibly pursue them all. I ask for an example of a wackier beer that they had to turn down, but not for the last time during the interview, Phillips steers away from a direct answer. I get the same non-committal response when I later ask him to name his favourite BC beer makers. Although he's clearly all about the craft first and foremost, Phillips' entrepreneurial instincts aren't about to let him reveal a possible future recipe, or risk offending an industry colleague, just so an amateur blogger can have something juicy to write about. I can't say I blame him...

- Speaking of new ideas, I notice Black Toque [Phillips' great India Dark Ale] has recently been rebranded as "Skookum Cascadian Dark Ale". How come?
MP: Thing about Black Toque is this. It's one of the first cascadian India dark ales out there. Now it's an official style. There's probably 30-40 brewed in the states. We really, really like it...[he gives me a wry grin]...problem is, nobody else seems to! So we're re-branding it, hoping it'll help it along a bit.

On that note, Phillips gives a little insight into the "necessary evil of marketing" that faces craft-brewers. Mostly about the detrimental cycle facing beers that don't get an audience right away: they get stuck on shelves longer, so when they get bought they don't taste so good, so they don't tend to get repeat buyers. With justification, Phillips illustrates his point with the example of Slipstream Ale — their cream ale that began life as "Draft-Dodger" — that only found its market after a re-branding and some perseverance. Nowadays, Slipstream does well, and sells plenty in BC. You have to take Phillips' point that sometimes, new ideas need a bit of a push. The popularity of craft-brewing probably owes a lot to preaching of the impassioned. Or as Phillips puts it, "Our obligation to the beer goes beyond bringing it into the world, we want to find a home for it too."

Part two of this interview is on its way.


  1. I was wondering what happened to Hugo's. I loved the Mandarin Hefeweizen.

  2. Apparently the hotel hugo's was part of turned the space into a spa - so at least you can still get suds there...

  3. yeah, the one time I drank there was about a month before it closed down. I ran the tap that night.

    Hurry up and get part 2 out!

  4. Great work Dan. The story of the Phillips Brewery is truly inspiring, a hopeful tale of what hard work (to say the least) and a serious love of craft beer can accomplish. I look forward to the remainder of the article.

    Keep writing, I'll keep reading.