Today, July 6th 2022, marks 40 years to the day since John Mitchell’s first craft beer inspiration was launched. Mitchell’s trailblazing quest for good ale continues to educate and inspire BC’s brewers.
On July 6th 1982, in an unassuming enclave just north of metropolitan Vancouver BC known as Horseshoe Bay, the first pints were pulled in a cultural and industrial revolution.
Prior to that day, all Canadian businesses who brewed beer—the world’s most popular alcoholic beverage—were just that: businesses, through and through. By bringing change to provincial and eventually national legislation in the early 1980s, John Mitchell and his associates kicked open the door to a modern world of creative and artisanal brewing, and ultimately spearheaded the Canadian craft beer industry…a sector now populated by over 1000 passionate breweries!
The man behind 1982’s seminal event didn’t set out to accomplish national change, however. In fact, to his last days, Mitchell was surprised by the growth of the industry he pioneered. Let’s roll the clock back even before the dawn of Canadian craft beer in order to learn what made this person the right man to spark radical change.
As a young man in postwar England, Alexander John Mitchell began his hospitality career by serving in the Royal Army mess hall and preparing meals for top brass. He eventually trained as a chef and professional waiter and, along the way, discovered a taste for well-made beer in the form of what we now call ‘Real Ale’. (That term would become a rallying cry in the 1970s when UK consumers began to push back against the flavourless international mass-market lagers threatening to replace their traditional pint.)
Upon emigrating to Canada, young John Mitchell spent three glorious summers serving at the elegant Banff Springs Hotel. Heading further west, John later spent fifteen years as bar manager at Vancouver’s famed Sylvia Hotel. Then, in 1978, Mitchell purchased the Troller Pub in Horseshoe Bay, and officially became a publican.
Back then, most licensed establishments were just drinking holes; nobody thought about serving good food in a pub. Inspired by his hotel background, Mitchell set the bar higher, delivering a friendly atmosphere with good service and great food. The only thing missing was a nice hearty ale to accompany that food, since the Troller’s only source of suds was one of Canada’s mass-market lager brewers.
In 1980, a work stoppage at the Big Three brewers—combined with the knowledge that the world would soon be coming to Expo 86, only to discover Canada’s lousy beer scene—became the last straw. John set out to brew his own beer, which was a completely preposterous idea for a pub owner at that time, not to mention unlawful. You can read the famous story of how John paired with a like-minded former industrial brewer named Frank Appleton to spur legislative change and launch Horseshoe Bay Brewing right here in our History of BC Craft Beer Part I. The upshot is that it was originally a simple quest for better quality food and beverage that drove this change.
Today, July 6th, it is 40 years to the day since Mitchell’s first inspiration, an English-style bitter named Bay Ale, was celebrated with an official launch at the Troller Pub. In similar fashion, a special tribute beer named John Mitchell Signature Cascadian Dark Ale is being launched in a release ceremony at Surrey’s Russell Brewing.
The beer is a fundraiser for the John Mitchell Legacy Endowed Scholarship, which is open to students in the Brewing & Brewery Operations Diploma program at Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU). The KPU Brew Lab, based in Langley, is one of North America’s better brewing schools, and the purpose of the scholarship is to help keep the quality of BC craft beer strong through education.
John Mitchell’s longtime associate John Ohler is Executive Director of the Scholarship. He remarks, “John Mitchell and I became involved with KPU Brewing School in 2017. John went to KPU on a few occasions and talked about his experiences and history in craft beer. He really loved going there and talking to the students about beer.”
As a result, the beer is a collaborative effort which involved many participants from KPU. Students and alumni working at eight different Lower Mainland breweries answered the call, and a brew day was held last month with 20 people on hand to kick off the commemorative beer.
Russell’s Head Brewer Graham Kenny notes, “It was definitely a group effort to get everyone to come out that day, and it was nice seeing so many brewers in the building. I can’t wait for them all to try this beer. To try to recreate John’s magic as authentically as possible, we’ll be making a few casks for the launch.”
The beer style, Cascadian Dark Ale, was chosen for its local Pacific Northwest origins. Graham shares, “The real joy of brewing a CDA is balancing the citrus-like Northwest hop characteristics with caramel and dark roasted malt flavours and aromas.” The ale sounds like a winner, and it will be available around BC for those who wish to participate in the toast to John Mitchell and forty years of BC craft beer. Learn where to find the beer at johnmitchell.beer.
Thinking about how this 40 year anniversary project came together, John Ohler concludes, “What we are all doing is the true essence of craft beer. It’s a community of passionate, like-minded individuals who have a desire to honour the founder of the craft beer industry, and to continue building and growing what he started. We are honoring John and celebrating 40 years of craft beer for the same reason he opened a brewery: for the people.”
All because a stubborn fellow named John Mitchell felt that bland yellow “factory beer” wasn’t good enough for his patrons.
Russell Brewing Company is on the South of the Fraser Ale Trail. View the full celebration recorded live by the BC Craft Brewers Guild.