Two long-time friends wanted more craft beer in their own backyard. Not only did they brew the beer they wanted, but they built a better backyard.
That beer and that backyard patio, both crafted with an emphasis on the outdoors and buoyed by friendly staff and next-level campfire food, have earned Langley’s Camp Beer Co. the BC Ale Trail’s 5th Annual Best Brewery Experience Award.
Inspired by the BC outdoors and the mantra that “beer tastes better outdoors,” Camp Beer Co. opened in 2019—one of a growing number of new breweries in Langley, B.C. The City of Langley and politically-distinct Township of Langley, home to about 140,000 people, are about 50 kilometres southeast of Vancouver and are on the traditional territories of the Kwantlen, Katzie, Matsqui, and Semiahmoo First Nations.
Camp’s highlight space is its patio. You can’t see it easily from the corner of 64 Avenue and 197 Street, but peek behind the two-storey commercial center at that intersection and you’ll find a walkway, lined with cedar trees, wood barrels, and latticed fencing that leads guests to communal tables, tents, fire pits, and great beer. The core lineup of Camp Lager, Upstream Pale Ale, and Anorak IPA is complemented by a rotating series of seasonal and experimental brews.
This patio will transport you from downtown to out-of-town in seconds, and how a space built on a parking lot makes you forget about the monotony of parking lots is part of its charm. It’s led Camp to winning gold (2022) and silver (2021) in the Growler Awards for Best Brewery Tasting Room, and Justin McElroy’s legendary BC brewery rankings lauded Camp for having “a clear sense of purpose with everything Camp Beer that makes the place feel fun and family friendly.”
Looking into the brewery from the patio and you’ll see rows of brite tanks and bright fermenters on the left. To the right, staff in the cozy lodge-like tasting room and retail store could equally welcome upscale tourists as they could Bob and Doug McKenzie. The décor is equal parts camp-y and campy. Canoes hang from the ceiling, skies and snowshoes hang on the walls, and the playful graphics on the bathroom doors are even worth a look.
The taproom is separated into different zones, including:
- The Woods: a semi-private and semi-formal event space for the glampers among you.
- The Cabin: a quiet space to kick back on a couch by the fireplace and play boardgames with friends. (Patrons aren’t encouraged to try on the life vests by the fireplace, but they aren’t discouraged, either.)
- Camp Outfitters: browse the double-green merchandise or pick up your favourite canned beer for the weekend.
The story of many successful commercial craft breweries starts with successful homebrewers, and Camp Beer Co. is no exception. Meet co-owner Kevin Larsen, who revels in the act of storytelling, admits to dressing up as Santa Claus, and follows up the occasional braggadocio with a wink and a laugh.
With him is head brewer Dave Henry, an avid fisherman who loves camping in the Shuswap region. Henry is the quieter of the two but is liable to get energized as soon as any conversation turns to brewing.
In the mid-2010s, Henry was interested in starting a homebrewing club in Langley so he didn’t have to drive long distances to meet with established Lower Mainland homebrew clubs like VanBrewers and Fraser Valley Fermentalists. It finally happened in 2016.
“I met a fellow homebrewer at a local beer bar, B’s Craft Beer Lounge,” Henry said, “and we decided to start our own homebrew club in Langley. We named it the Full Barrel Homebrew Club. We started brewing, sharing tips, and it took off really fast.” (That fellow homebrewer was Tristan Stewart, who would go on to create the highly-regarded Temporal Artisan Ales in 2017.)
In that same year, Trading Post Brewing opened in Langley, and this became the main hangout for local homebrewers.
“Because of our Full Barrel Homebrew connections, we got to know Lance [Verhoeff, owner] and Tony [Dewald, brewmaster],” Larsen said. “We got to see what it took to build a brewery. Once they were going, we got our own cask night every three months and we’d fill the place. Trading Post was a great host and a big inspiration.”
Buoyed by the success of those cask nights as well as wins at cask and homebrewing festivals and competitions, the idea of opening their own brewery began to form.
“We always had to go to Vancouver or Washington or Bellingham to go to the cool places,” said Larsen. “We’re all Langley guys and we wanted something here that beer tourists, friends, and beer club members could all come to—something that we thought was cool. Our original concept was that Dave would brew on a 2-hectolitre system and I would sell the beer out front.”
“We started crunching the numbers,” Henry added before laughing. “Oh no. This is a bad idea.”
In the meantime, they and their partners became beer tourists, exploring new regions and visiting new breweries to try different beers and research how professional breweries operated.
“Our typical thing: walk in, check out the tap list, chat up anyone who’s there, then try to see the stainless steel,” Larsen said. “How big is the system? What’s their brewing setup?”
By chance, travelling to these breweries allowed them to meet Jamie Schreder, a fellow beer fan with a background in commercial leasing. It didn’t take too long for Schreder to become the missing piece of their brewery puzzle.
“We’re at 3 Dogs Brewing in White Rock,” Larsen recalled. “We didn’t know at the time, but down at the end of the bar, Jamie and his wife were observing us wackos mixing beers and staring at the tanks.”
“A couple of weekends after, we’re checking out Silver Valley Brewing in Maple Ridge and suddenly Jamie is right beside me. ‘Are you guys in the beer business?’ he asks. ‘Oh no,’ I said.”
Who shows up at their next brewery stop? Jamie again.
“Seriously, you aren’t in the beer business?” Schreder asked.
“No,” Larsen said, “but we do have a plan to maybe open our own place.”
“Tell me more,” Schreder says.
At the end of their conversation, Schreder hands over his business card. “If you’re serious, give me a call, and I’ll help you find a space.”
Larsen and Henry barely had time to discuss it as they were interrupted by a phone call 15 minutes later. It was Schreder again, wanting to meet the next day.
“Me and Dave are like, ‘Oh shi—this is supposed to be fun, imaginary, stuff!’ But about three months from that, we’re having investor meetings, signing papers, and submitting manufacturing details to Victoria.”
While this would be a big career shift for Henry—who had previously worked as an autobody refinisher for 20 years—Larsen had a broad background in beverage manufacturing. Their original idea for Henry to brew and Larsen to sell was coming to fruition—but on a 15-hectolitre system instead of a tiny two-hectolitre system.
Schreder helped them secure a spot in downtown Langley with the height needed for brewing tanks and, crucially, a back area for a patio.
“At the time, it was an old bingo hall building, and this [patio] was a just a back alley,” Larsen said. “There was a lot of dirty stuff happening out here, but number one on our list, we needed a patio.”
Visiting plenty of breweries in B.C. and Washington State helped sharpen their vision for their fledgling brewery.
“We’ve always loved the feel and the vibe and the way the beer was all different at Brassneck,” Henry said. “Another was Wander Brewing in Bellingham. When we’re thinking of everything that’s good, we melded things from those two with our own ideas.”
“Field House was another one,” Larsen added. “They had one of the biggest patios at the time we had ever been to. The grassy knoll out front, the cozy fireplace inside… it was cozy, casual, clean, and you could bring your dog.”
As any brewery team will tell you, though, opening a brewery doesn’t come without roadblocks. The first big issue came when Larsen went to register the brewery’s name online. At that point, they were planning to open as Cabin Brewing.
“The night before we were going to buy all of the Internet domains, we found out that ‘coming to Calgary in Fall 2018 was Cabin Brewing.’ To see the same name for the same time frame, the same region of the world… it was a gut blow.”
After some emergency meetings, the team agreed on Camp Brewing Company, which was one of their original options.
“Everybody has an emotional attachment to camping,” Larsen said, “whether in the back of a pickup or a $200,000 airstream, in Palm Springs or Maple Ridge, as a kid with family or with your college friends. It’s warm and cozy.”
However, they had to adjust things again after the marketing team for Base Camp Brewing in Oregon didn’t give the Canadian Campers a blessing to use the name. With a slight twist and some readjusted branding, they were about to move ahead with Camp Beer Co.
(Base Camp Brewing closed in 2021 but Colorado’s Monumental Beer Works rebranded to Base Camp Beer Works in 2022, for anyone playing Camp Beer branding bingo at home.)
With a location secured, a patio built, the name finalized, merchandise printed, front of house staff hired, and beer in the tanks, Camp Beer Co. opened in December 2019. Unfortunately, three months of momentum was brought to a halt in March, 2020 due to COVID-19.
Despite the good fortune of having a patio, which allowed for distanced outdoor service, restrictions limited the amount of customers they could serve. Beer wasn’t turning over fast enough and it was a nearing a point where staff couldn’t be paid.
“There was one day we closed and I thought, ‘That’s it,’” Henry said.
“We told the staff to not bother coming in,” Larsen added.
With draught sales dried up and five fermenters full of beer, the five remaining managers decided to pull a 180-degree turn on their original business plan and start canning the beer. Without the proper equipment, this meant canning by hand, one can at a time, all day long. After failing to keep up, canners were called in to help with packaging.
Thankfully, Langley residents stepped up to support them.
“The public was really good at that time,” Larsen said. “The push to buy local and support your small businesses allowed us to bring back some staff and do some curbside and local delivery.”
Because the brewery was so new and because they expected to face challenges as a new business, they were able to take these challenges in stride.
“We were only three months in, so we didn’t know what we were doing anyways,” Larsen said. “Long hours, figuring out what people are needing to do, then fully closing down, then canning, which was supposed to be a small part of the business but was now a large part of the business… every two months, everything changed whether we wanted it to or not. To this day, we don’t know what ‘normal’ is.”
While canning helped Camp Beer Co. navigate the early months of the pandemic, relaxed restrictions has allowed the tasting room to regain its status as the primary focus of the operation. Fun was back as the name of the game.
Since then, Camp expanded their patio and taproom space and revamped their food menu. What was originally planned to be pretzels and hot dogs has morphed into camping-inspired cuisine from the Camp Cookhouse: creative twists on smokies, spuds, and s’mores. Other highlights include BBQ Brisket Tater Tots, the towering Tin Can Nachos, and brunch waffles with Bourbon maple syrup.
On the patio, the Camphitheatre (see what they did there?) features live music every Thursday and Sunday from acoustic solo and duo performers. And while dogs are welcome on the Camp patio every day, Tuesday is Dogs of Camp Day, featuring discounted hot dogs, Camp-accinos, and the bliss of being around friendly canines. Water bowls and leash tie-ups are everywhere, and yes, there is a handy poop station for pups. There’s even a regular on-leash cat who visits, and the patio has also welcomed birds and bunnies.
It was also important that kids and families were welcome on the Camp patio.
“Our original business plan was for a social gathering place for friends and family,” Larsen said. “If you can bring your kid and bring your dog, you are more likely to come out. You don’t feel guilty about getting a babysitter or leaving the dog cooped up for four hours. Just bring them!”
Larsen and Henry are proud that they haven’t lost any of their taproom staff, outside of a few who have moved out of the city. How the staff treats customers is a huge part of the Camp Beer experience, and Larsen describes them as “amazing.”
“We always say that you don’t know if a customer has just had the worst day of their life or if they’re celebrating a big accomplishment,” Larsen said. “Everyone here gets treated well.”
To Larsen and Henry’s delight, Camp is now becoming a headquarters for local and area homebrewers, similar to how Trading Post supported them in their early years of brewing.
“At first, it was guys from the [Full Barrel] club, but I’m starting to meet guys from all over the place who want to say hi and ask questions,” Henry said.
As for next steps, the Camp crew is looking to host more events. A Hoptoberfest IPA festival in early October was their first ticketed event, and a birthday celebration is in the works for the winter, featuring a full-batch brew of Henry’s Birthday Cake IPA. (The pilot brew actually included an entire birthday cake that Henry baked himself.)
While the absurdly-warm October of 2022 has kept the patio popular well into the fall, Larsen points out that heaters and rain covers will ensure that the patio will be the spot of choice for craft beer fans, families and dogs year round. The support for their outdoor oasis doesn’t seem real sometimes, he said, but the Camp team is fully appreciative.
“Me, Dave, and Jamie quite often sit here on a beautiful Thursday night, and there’s a guy playing a guitar and singing, and the place is booming and the vibe is electric, and we ask ourselves: ‘How did this even happen?’ We’re proud that we did something we wanted, and it turns out a lot of other people like that too.”
Four Camp Beers to Keep Your Eye On
- S’Mores Stout: Enjoy your just desserts with this milk stout served with a toasted marshmallow on the lip of the glass.
- Camp Lager: Clean, crisp, and it’s Dave Henry’s favourite: “All brewers love making and drinking lagers.”
- Upstream Pale Ale: Voted Best Beer in the World* (*by Kevin Larsen)
- Flannel Pyjamas: a Scottish wee heavy winter seasonal. Some is served fresh while some is aged in bourbon barrels, and all is served at an annual Flannel PJ party for those aspiring to the fashion sense of Bob and Doug McKenzie at their most casual.
Four Things to do in Langley, as Recommended by the Camp Team
- Dive into the variety of breweries, wineries, distilleries, and cideries
- Play on some of the best disc golf courses in the world after arguing whether “disc golf” or “frisbee golf” is the correct title [Editor’s Note: it’s disc golf for sure! – JW]
- Pet a sheep, pick a pumpkin, and check out agritourism opportunities
- Get outdoors: walking trails, golf courses, beaches, mountains—Langley has it all!
Camp Beer Co. is part of the Langley Ale Trail, which features more than 10 craft breweries and taprooms in Langley City and the Township of Langley. Camp is only a few blocks off of the Fraser Highway and BC Highway 10 and a ten-minute drive off of the Trans-Canada Highway (Hwy 1). Drop by at 19664 64 Ave, Langley.
Vancouver: 45 kms
Bellingham, WA: 50 kms / 30 miles
Seattle, WA: 195 kms / 120 miles
Kelowna: 355 kms
The BC Ale Trail reminds you to drink responsibly and do not drink and drive.