Barley Mowat 

A Nightmare on Triumph Street

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Alright. I can do this. I’m a big boy. Deep breath.

You know how I tend to be the blogger that “calls it like I sees it”? Well, that apparently comes with a bit of a responsibility in this industry. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: everyone in the beer industry is nice. Very nice. Almost cloyingly nice. They’ll never say ill about someone else in craft beer, ever… in public.

They will, however, pull aside the loudmouthed angry blogger known for calling out people and confess, in hushed tones, their concern about a recent brewery startup. They will do that, a lot, in the quiet hope that someone (aka me) says something.

And such is the situation I find myself in right now. Everyone wants to talk to me about Coal Harbour Brewing, and everyone has serious concerns about what’s going on down on Triumph Street. Guys, you have a problem, and we’re here to help.

Should… should someone say something?

Note that I said “concerns” not “criticism.” You see, these fine folks want nothing but the best for everyone else in the industry, and when a new brewery starts behaving in ways that frankly make no sense, they’re concerned. They want CHB to succeed, but don’t know how to tell them what’s wrong.

So, where to start? Well, what with them being a brewery and me being a beer snob, it seems natural to start with the beers.

The Beers: They aren’t very good. Their lagers range from distressingly awful (Three-11) to brutally insipid (Vancouver), and their rye ale (Triumph), while arguably the best thing they make, is still a solid meh.

Is that enough to issue a Chuck-standard warning? Nope. Breweries have bad batches, and it takes time to work out the kinks in a new system. I had thought it perfectly likely that the beer as I’d tasted it was not the beer they’d wanted to brew. However, as more pieces clicked into place that became less likely. Like this one: their brewmaster is an import from Surgenor, known for pale insipid lagers meant to appeal to island folk who grew up on Lucky. Sorry folk, these are their beers as they are meant to be produced.

Naming: This is a minor point, and really I only mention it as part of the whole picture for a sense of completeness. Breweries tend to have boring names; they’re founded by brewmasters who maybe don’t have the best imagination around, so they are typically named after either the person making the beer (Hoyne, Russell, etc) or, much more commonly, the place where the beer is made (GIB, VIB, Howe Sound, etc). Occasionally someone gets all creative and we wind up with a Crannog or a Driftwood, but those are the exceptions to the Tofinos, Central Citys and Craig Streets of the world.

Sadly, once in a while, you get a brewery that attempts to make their slightly-depressing location in an industrial district more exciting by just up-and-pretending they’re somewhere else. Take Stanley Park or Hell’s Gate, for instance (both shadow brands under Turning Point). This is the case with Coal Harbour. The brewery is nowhere near Coal Harbour. It’s on Triumph Street, in East Van, in one of a row of anonymous warehouses. However, unlike Stanley Park, they make no effort to hide the true location of their brewery. They even have a map on the website.

Being creative with the name is fine so long as you don’t outright lie. It gives them a chance to invent a slick, cool logo (which is awesome, btw), and maybe do something less UK Warship name-ish than “Triumph Brewing”. Again, no biggie unless taken as part of the whole. Trust me, though, I’m going somewhere with this.

Equipment: Now we’re into the meat of things. When one starts a brewery, one orders some brewing kit. Usually, before one does this, one measures the space into which one hopes to install said kit. This step seems to have been skipped, as CHB discovered that their shiny new fermenters were too tall to fit in their existing space. Again, no biggie. They’re brewers and brewers don’t always think things through.

So they altered them. By cutting off the yeast cones and slapping on domed bottoms. Now that’s an interesting take on the matter. Given the choice, most folk would have shortened the tank (at the expense of volume) rather than cut off the cones and basically have to reinvent how to brew beer at industrial volumes. This might not be a bad thing, as flat bottom fermenters means the yeast is all happy and free, and your beers come out very cloudy and yeast-tastic. This is part of what gives home-brewed beer that distinctive flavour. This is not necessarily a bad thing, unless, say, 2 of your three beers are lagers, which are known for their clarity. Now you basically have to filter the ever-loving fuck out of your beers, and as anyone will tell you: filtering also strains out character and flavour. There’s a reason other micro-breweries proudly state “unfiltered” on the sides of their bottles.

The other problem with their brewing equipment is that there’s a lot of it. A giant fucktonne, in fact. It takes a lot of beer to fill all those snub-nosed fermenters and conditioning tanks. And it takes an awful lot of sales to keep the flow going and your beer at it’s freshest and bestest. When the sales are down, and you have a giant bank loan to pay off, are you going to pour out that past-its-prime 20hl CT like you should, or just look the other way and keg it? Exactly.

Product Pricing: Three-11 is a economy product competing on price. Translation from marketing speak: It’s cheap. Say what you like about the flavour, style and quality, but boy it sure is cheap. That is attractive for bars that also serve marcos, as somewhat shockingly, macros are not cheap, but their clientele sure as hell are. This is a perfectly fine approach to selling bad beer, but then CHB had to go out and create a not-quite-as-bad lager that is nowhere-near-as-cheap. Their Vancouver Lager is much more expensive for a bar to bring in compared to Three-11. This sounds like no problem to bar owners until a meathead who’s been drinking “CHB Lager” all night for $4 a glass down the street walks in, sees “CHB Lager” on tap for $7 a glass, and proclaims the bar to be a rip-off. This image hurts any bar that sells the better beer, making keeping it on tap a hard proposition. Yes, they’re both likely properly labeled, but do you think lager louts can read?

I’m seriously impressed when they remember to breathe.

Marketing: Their marketing strategy thus far appears to be “find out where Driftwood is, and go there.” Not a bad strategy… at first glance. They’re a small brewery and don’t have a lot of money to invest in finding the best spots, so why not ride the coattails of BC’s best microbrewery to find all the markets where people like good beer? Well, that’s the problem. CHB isn’t good beer; it’s not meant to be good beer. It’s brewed to compete against Stanley Park Amber and Pilsner, whether the folk at CHB believe that or not. Sure, putting a tap handle next to Driftwood Fat Tug means you’re front and centre in an establishment that likes to try new things. And yes, that bearded beer geek blogger who just saddled up to the bar and who has never heard of CHB sure as hell will order one. Then I’ll drink 1/2 of it, send the other half back, tell the bar manager to never order that shite again, and move down the menu to see what those whacky US breweries are up to.

Here’s a hint to the CHB sales department: get a tap next to Stanley Park Pilsner. That is a beer positioned in a bar mostly dominated by macros. And a good chunk of those patrons will find even the moderate flavour of Stanley Park Pilsner a bit much of a leap from the watered-down goat piss that is Canadian. That’s where you come in. You’re better than Canadian, but not as “weird” as Stanley Park (I mean, there’s *hops* in that! Who likes hops?!). There’s a niche there. Fill it.

So there’s our advice: Streamline your beer lineup, go after Stanley Park, make money, and then (hopefully), use those profits to brew actual good beer. Sure, this isn’t a great strategy, but it’s a lot better than what you’re currently doing. You can’t compete with the craft breweries on quality (or at least you don’t seem to want to), and you sure as hell can’t compete with the macros on brand recognition. What’s left is the quasi-craft market, where you will be up against Stanley Park (aka Mark Anthony), Granville Island (aka Molson) and Okanagan Springs (aka Sapporo). That’s a hard market to work in, but at least it’s a strategy that makes sense.

Or, you know, brew good beer. Switch to the classic 1-2-3 of craft beer start-ups: an IPA, a hoppy Pale, and a punchy Pilsner. Or branch out a bit and do a funky Saison–your cone-less fermenters could be perfect for this. We’ll drink them, I promise, and it’s an easier market to work in.

Written by chuck

March 10th, 2012 at 12:49 pm

Posted in Breweries

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One Response to 'A Nightmare on Triumph Street'

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  1. using the domed bottoms means needing twice as many tanks, as your fermentors can’t be used a conditioning vessels.


    10 Mar 12 at 13:02

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