There is a Facebook group where members of Vancouver’s craft beer community can post when in dire straits: someone needs to borrow cans as soon as possible, another is looking for more growler caps, another has extra yeast, should anyone immediately need any. “It’s one of the things I really love about the craft beer community in general,” Leah Heneghan, who is part of the Facebook group, tells me as we tuck into Main street’s Brassneck Brewery on a May afternoon. “People are going back and forth in there and they’re all supporting each other.”
Heneghan has another reason to feel supported: with this year’s week-long, ale-fueled festivities, she and her colleagues at Vancouver Craft Beer Week will celebrate a decade of event planning and beer advocacy.
Yes, beer advocacy. In the beginning, the group that organizes Vancouver Craft Beer Week (VCBW) started as a movement to get craft beer into commercial spaces and to replace industrial beer at sporting events. “That was a big dream of ours, to see craft beer in the stadium—now that’s a reality.”
Heneghan’s career in beer started almost by accident: in 2008, she had moved back to Vancouver after eight years in London, England, working as an exhibition coordinator at art auction house, Christie’s. Soon after, her brother was headed out on a pub crawl and asked her to join. That night she met the founding members of the Vancouver branch of the Campaign for Real Ales (CAMRA). “I had an events background and I said, ‘If you ever need anyone to help you with your events, that’s what I do.’”
The organization’s president at the time did have an idea: a beer week to spotlight B.C. craft breweries. He roped in Heneghan, Paul Kamon, and Chris Bjerrisgaard to discuss.
“I think there were 13 of us in the beginning when we first met at the Alibi Room,” she laughs. Today, VCBW still boasts four of those original members. “The group of us got together over a beer and brunch and started hashing out what a beer week could look like in Vancouver. At that point, there wasn’t one yet.” So they worked—extensively—to organize one.
Since then, the festival has grown from around 15 participating breweries and 100 ticket buyers, to this year’s expected crowd of around 15,000 attendees and more than 100 breweries. It’s democratic too: no matter how big (or small) a brewery is, it is given the same size of booth. And there’s no cheating the system: “If you want to pay me two registration fees, that’s fine, but you’ll only get one booth,” Heneghan laughs, only half joking. A brewery did once try to pull off just such a stunt.
VCBW’s mandate remains to expand interest in craft beers and support microbreweries, but it also works to get more women involved in beer. Heneghan sees that happening more and more. “We are witnessing so many women brewing beer and working in breweries, rather than just in tasting rooms, which is not what people might initially expect.”
What’s attracting women to breweries? “In general, women love beer pairings. We love figuring out flavours,” she says. “When I went to beer school and found out that it’s easier to pair beer with food than it is to pair wine with food, my mind was blown.”
She began inviting her friends over to pair food with different ales: someone would bring chocolate, another would bring cheese, salmon, or anchovies. “We would make notes and see what we thought paired best.” Craft beers provided the nuance they were looking for.
These informal evenings inspired VCBW’s “Cicerone vs Sommelier” event in 2014 that paired beer and wine across a five-course meal. “You’re seeing the difference in how each of them pairs with different food and discussing why a particular beer goes with a particular course.” The event is returning for this 10th anniversary year.
Heneghan is proud to see the success of B.C. craft beer since VCBW had their first meeting back in 2009—there were 49 breweries across the province at that time, and today there are almost 200. Rather than hindering the growth of any one brewery, Heneghan notes, this prosperity has helped them all. “When it was just Twin Sails brewing out in Port Moody, for example, they weren’t as busy as they are now. Today there are four breweries—with a fifth opening—all in the same area. Rather than bring competition, it’s creating interest and buzz: people want to go out there. It’s become a destination.”
VCBW begins Friday, May 31, 2019 and runs until June 9, 2019.