If you’re an artist who possesses a skill for a craft, you never know where your heart will take you, and where it will decide to settle. You may even end up in another part of the world. Well, in a small brew pub, down by the river in Richmond B.C, is where the heart of an artisan, has finally seemed to settle down in. Her story starts in London England, where she studied brewing and distilling in University, and has been brewing professionally ever since graduating. She has had a successful career right from the beginning, and even achieved her goal of being “head brewer”, earlier then she planned. As successful as she has been, it seems as though she has finally found the perfect place, where she is given the creative freedom, trust, and support, in order to do what she does best. Brewing quality craft beer, with a feminine touch, is the brewmaster for Big River Brew Pub, Claire Connolly.
Ever since Claire became the new brewmaster, we’ve seen some exciting beers come out of Big River Brew Pub, and Big River Restaurant. A coconut porter, gingerbread man ale, rose petal honey ale, and even a couple of casks. Seeing such a drastic change in Big River made me curious to talk to the mastermind behind these exciting changes, and find out her story. So on a beautiful, sunny, Saturday afternoon, I headed down to Big River Brew Pub in Richmond, to meet up with Claire. I was in for quite a treat this day because Claire and her friends were brewing the collaboration beer, for the Women and Beer event, during Vancouver Craft Beer Week. Although Rebecca from Crannog Ales couldn’t make it, three other ladies were there to collaborate. First we have Alyson Tomlin, who used to be the GM for R & B Brewing. Then we have Heather Kilbourne, the assistant brewer for Salt Spring Island Ales, and Becky Julseth, the co-owner of Salt Spring Island Ales.
So what are you guys brewing today, and who brought over what ingredients?
Claire: It’s a cherry wood smoke Saison. So we took organic malt, which Rebecca from Cranog took 15 kilos of, and smoked it, using the organic cherry wood from her farm. So we combined that with the organic malt from Salt Spring, and we created this refreshing, light, Saison style. It’s light coloured, slightly hazy, summer beverage, with the Saison yeast flavours that accompany that, but with that smoky edge from the cherry wood.
Becky: We brought over the malts. Right now in Salt Springs we’re in the process of transitioning into organic. This is the same 2-row malt that Crannog uses as well. For us,Crannog has been a bit of an inspiration because they’re sort of the first breweries to do what they do, by growing hops that are organic and all that. So Rebecca from Crannog smoked about 10% of the same malt in Crannog, and we brought the rest of it from Salt Spring. Rebecca couldn’t make it today because her sheep are lambing, their baby lambs are being born, but she definitely did her part by smoking the malt. Claire’s got all this neat fruit wood that we’re going to be doing some fun things with. She also cultured a special Saison yeast, and brought along the hops as well.
Alyson: I’m still unclear how this is going to happen. It was funny watching all us girls, lift up these huge drums of grain, up a ladder. It was kinda comical, it made me feel like the good ol brewing days.
So what made you guys get together for this collaboration?
Becky: It’s so funny how this whole thing came about. I swear we all had the same idea, and I bet half of us think it was our idea. It’s just a testament to what a great idea it was. One of the reasons why were doing it is because it’s great to get together, and we enjoy each other’s company. But the bigger picture for doing it is to call attention to the fact that there are women involved in the craft beer industry, because there is so few. I think the eagerness, and the willingness of the women in the craft brew industry to get together and collaborate was great. There’s so few of us, so most of us don’t get to work with another women, or get to work at all with another women. I’m really lucky cause I get to work with two other women, but that’s really unusual. I mean put that aside, all the positions in the brewery to get to work with other women brewers is really fun. I think we all get a little giddy when we see each other at the craft beer fests, or at different events, and it was just a matter of time for us to get together and do something. Since we decided to do this, we’ve discovered that there’s been big collaboration brews between women in the States. I wasn’t aware of that, and I know couple of the others girls weren’t aware of that, so it seems to be a trend.
Heather: It’s just a lot of fun. It’s fun that something like this is really happening, and it’s helping to build a community as well. Earlier this year I spent a week in Vancouver at couple of other breweries, just to get familiar with other peoples practices and equipment, and that’s when I was introduced to Clair and Aly. It’s been really great. They’ve all been really friendly and helpful. For any questions I’ve had, and troubles, it really helps, and it’s nice knowing that they’re there.
So how did you guys get into brewing in general?
Claire: I studied brewing and distilling in University. So when I left school I wasn’t sure about what I wanted to do. So I found the brewing and distilling degree advertised at Heriot Watt, where I was looking to go to University. So I said, that sounds great, and I would love to do that. So I did my degree, straight after high school, studied that, and started my first job four years later when I completed my course. I worked at Mean Time brewing in Greenwich, and it was a very exciting time to work for Mean Time with the amazing brewers. Angela Wurges was our brewmaster there, and she was a German brewer from Munich. It was fantastic to work with her, and it was at time where there was a lot of growth, a huge expansion, new bottling machine going on, every week we were producing another beer, so it was very exciting.
Alyson: I originally got into brewing when I was 19. I got a job at a U Brew and I was the only employee. 2 guys owned it, I worked it and ran it, and it was the only job that I didn’t hate. I was like, this is really fun, and the more I investigated it, I realized there was no women involved in it. I even called around different breweries and asked, how’s the best way to get into it. And they were like, “well you’re a girl, you might not be strong enough” and all that. So that made me decide that I had to do this. I remember calling my mom when I was 19 telling her what I’m gonna do, “I’m gonna be a brewer”. My mom was just like “Oh no, why?” but she helped me, and I got onto Granville Island Brewing at the retail store, hoping one day I can get into production there. I started the same day as Vern (Granville Island Brewing Brewmaster), and I knew Vern from before because he used to work here at Big River Richmond, and I worked at the U Brew, just up the street. So we started at the exact same time at Granville Island and we didn’t know anyone else except each other, so we were buddies. I don’t think it was even a year after working there, Rick from R & B called Vern, and asked if he can recommend anyone because they’re hiring. So Vern recommended me and I got the job at R & B. So I was hired as a part time assistant brewer, and then I went to brewer, then went to head brewer, and went to operations manager, and when I just left R & B about 6-8 months ago, I was GM. Now I’m just taking a little sabbatical. It was a great learning experience, and in that time, I think it was 2005? I was awarded a 100% paid scholarship to Siebel Brewing Institute in Chicago, and went down there. But I learned a lot at R & B.
Heather: It just happened out of interest really. I started off at Salt Springs at a position that wasn’t brewing, and after being around there for a while, I got into through that. Through the head brewer, Murray Hunter. He’s a great guy to learn from, super patient. Which is a really good thing because I didn’t have any experience.
A lot of women and men have misconception of beers. So from a woman’s perspective, why do you think so many women have a misconception of beer?
Claire: Most women have tried the large macro lager type beers. It’s proven scientifically that women have a better palate, they have a better sense of flavour, and identifying flavours and such. So macro lagers aren’t the most flavour stimulating beers. Where is in the craft beer market, there’s such diversity of beers. There’s fruit beers, we’re making a smoked beer here today. There’s such a huge spectrum of beers. Whether you like wine, there’s a beer for everyone. People who don’t like bitter beers are put off like “it’s too bitter I don’t like it”, but there’s so much wonderful beers that are sweet, and balanced, and people should try them.
Becky: I think for a lot of reasons. If you look at the average beer consumer, so much of the market share is taken up by macro brew. With macro brew it’s almost a no brainer why it doesn’t attract very much women. It’s not marketed to women at all, it’s not an interesting drink. Women tend to be very sensory when approaching food, or wine or other products, women tend to want more complexity of flavour, and a broad range of flavours, so craft brew seems to be drawing more women in. There’s some really new interesting beers out there that are gender neutral. If you like food and you like creative products, you’re going to be drawn into a lot of the new beers out there. Where as before, it was just a run of the mill lager, it may not interest a women over something else.
Alyson: It’s a lack of education, and beer has always been a guys drink, which I totally don’t agree with. If women try Molson and they don’t like it, try something at Steamworks. There’s so much great beers out there, it’s just a matter of us educating people. I think having groups that get women involved, and educating them, taking them on tours, and teaching them all these things they have no idea about, that’s what we need more of. Like the stuff that Lundy Dale does at Firefly, the seminars. Lundy even opened a Barley’s Angles chapter. It’s all about education and working together, it has to happen.
Is there anything that can help improve the craft beer scene in Vancouver?
Alyson: I think one thing that bugs me about the industry here, it seems like a lot of times people are working against each other. It’s really competitive because it’s such a hard market to break into. But the more the consumers get into it, the easier it is for all the breweries. Hopefully breweries start working together more, because I think the more the breweries start working together, the more they all benefit, and the better it is for everybody. I think that’s where the States do it right. Yesterday for the guys collaboration at R & B, Kim who works at R & B, she written something on Facebook about how great it is for all the brewers coming together. A friend of ours from the States saw it and wrote “well that’s awesome, but here that happens all the time.” Everyone in the States do collaborations and it’s nothing new, but I’m glad to see us catch up late then never. But we don’t need to compete, we all need to work together and we all benefit.
It turned out to be quite the fun afternoon at Big River Brew Pub. It was great to have lunch and a beer, while getting to know some of the women involved in the local craft beer industry. Also, a reporter from Global showed up as well, and interviewed the ladies, and took footage of the collaboration.
So you got into brewing through the brewing and distilling course in University, and landed a job at Mean Time, right after graduating. Where there any struggles to get to where you are now?
I’ve had a great career, I’ve been very lucky, I’ve worked with some amazing people from day one, from the first job I had at Mean Time. I learned so much in such a short period of time. After Mean Time, I worked at one of the largest breweries in the UK, and it’s very different. It’s not brewing, I was running a shift, with 18 guys who have been working in the same place for 25 years. But that afforded me the chance to see the other side of the business, and the beer business in a much bigger scale. A big business like that, they have the money to put you through the training courses, and further my education, and do everything I wanted to do at that stage. After I spent about 2 or 3 years, running in a large brewing company like that, I really missed small scale brewing. So I took over as head brewer of a small brewery in Dartmoor, Dartmoor Brewering Company. It’s in the middle of a national park. It’s a really beautiful, scenic location. It’s a real ale brewery so they sell casks, and it was fantastic, and I learned so much from my time there as well.
Soon as I became a brewer, I wanted to hit head brewer (brewmaster), by the time I was 30. That was my goal. So I managed to become head brewer by the time I was 27, so I was very happy with that, and excited that I achieved what I had strived to go for. So when the opportunity came up to come to Canada, my best friend was here, and she was telling me about a great time. So I just applied for an open work Visa, and came over just to check it out.
Where were some of the places you worked in B.C before Big River?
When I first moved to B.C I didn’t know how long I was going to stay, so I got a Visa for a year. So I got a job working for RJ Spagnols, making wort. After a couple of moths I decided B.C was a great place and I really wanted to stay. I started looking for another job, and that’s when I started working for Dead Frog, and it was fun working for Dead Frog, it was good experience. But I was looking for something different, so I started working for Turning Point Brewery back in Annacis Island, right beside where Spagnols was. So I started working for Turning Point for a few months, but it was large scale brewing, and it wasn’t what I was looking for, so when the opportunity came up here in Big River, I was very excited, and now it’s good to be on board. Sarah Holmes is the general manager here, and she’s very supportive of me, and the beer that I’m producing, so it’s very exciting.
So the customers that come here to Big River Richmond, or Coquitlam, are they quite different from the craft beer drinkers you see in Vancouver?
We get a lot of foot fall traffic, people going to the cinema, people coming in for dinner, and people who come in here don’t really drink craft beer, or never been to a brewpub before, or people who are a little skeptical. But we have some really good servers who encourage people to try the beers. We had a guy come in a couple of weeks ago who really wanted a pint of Guinness. Our server was like “our stout is really good you should try it” and he goes “no it’s Guinness or nothing, if it’s not Guinness I don’t want it”, our server said “I’ll bring you a tester” and he said, “nope, I don’t want it, it’s Guinness or nothing”. So she brought him a taster anyway, and he really enjoyed it, and ended it up drinking three pints of it. It’s mixed customer base here. We get a lot of different people. People who are very much into their craft beer, and people who have never experienced it before, so it’s really nice to have that spectrum of people.
So with that in mind, do you try to brew beers that would cater to everybody, or do you brew the beers that you think is good, or would like to drink?
We have established recipes here. We have a lot of regular customers who have been coming here for about 15 years, who would be very upset if any of their beers changed. But it’s fantastic that people have such a thirst for new beers. People are really excited to try and taste new beers. I’ve put on some interesting beers here, and people are excited for it and hungry for it. We have the IPA on special for our seasonal brew at the moment, because there was such a huge request for it when we had it on last year.
You sent off a cask to the Spinnakers event. Can we expect more casks from you in the future?
We sent a cask off to the November one. That’s the first cask we’ve done from here, and we borrowed the cask from R & B. So we submitted the Ginger Bread Man, which was our seasonal during Christmas time here. So it was a higher alcohol beer, flavoured with cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. So that one we sent to Spinnakers in November, and we did a cask for the spring festival, and did a pink grapefruit IPA. So we took our IPA, aged it, and mature over pink grape fruit juices, and it added the sweetness, and tartness, which really accentuated the bitter flavour of the beer, so it was really good. It was a really successful beer.
Was it different for you brewing cask conditioned ale?
What do you think about the craft beer scene in Vancouver?
It’s really jumping off here. The success of Vancouver Craft Beer Week last year, has just added to the snowballing of the craft beer movement. There’s new breweries opening up. Daniel Knibbs is opening Coal Harbour Brewing Company. There’s more and more brewpubs, and pubs that are making craft beer their focal point. It’s a good time to be here and be part of the scene.
So what you do here is it a glamorous job? Why do you continue to do it?
It’s great to do a job that’s physical. You shovel out the mash and the grain sacks, and move things around, but it’s the rewards from that. Like making fantastic beers that people enjoy, it makes it all worth wile.
Thanks Claire Connolly.
Claire has come such a long way from home, but I think it’s safe to say she has no intensions of going back to Galaway Ireland, anytime soon. With the knowledge and experience she gained in England, she has become a great addition to the Vancouver craft beer scene, and made herself at home here. As far as she’s come, she finally found a company that suits her the best. Where she is given the creative freedom and support, in order to produce traditional craft beers, with her own unique twist. Make sure to check out Big River Brew Pub in Richmond, or Big River Restaurant in Coquitlam, and try the fantastic beers.
I’m sure you’ve learned by now that women love beer, just as much as the fellas. So make sure to check out “Women and Beer 2” during Vancouver Craft Beer Week 2011. The event takes place on May 12th at Republic, and you will be able to taste this collaboration beer, and more. Claire, Alyson, Becky, and Heather will be there for the event, as well as a gang of important female figures, of the B.C craft beer scene. This is an event that showcases the ladies, but it’s something the guys need to check out, and will appreciate as well. So make sure you head down to Republic on May 12th. Tickets can be purchased on the link below: