Lift a glass to Phillips Brewing for celebrating 20 years in business!
What is a true recipe for success? For Matt Phillips, the answer is a great team, doing what you love, quality product, and creativity. These values are why Phillips Brewing is now in its 20th year of business serving Victoria locals and craft beer lovers across the country.
How it all started
Matt Phillips was in between school programs back in the mid-1990s when he got a job at a brewery in Alberta. He absolutely loved it and ended up moving to work at various breweries around British Columbia. It was during his time at Whistler Brewing that he first considered opening a brewery himself. Phillips realized he wanted to brew the beers he loved, and the only way he could do that was to start his own company. Later, when he came to Victoria for the first time for a job at Spinnakers—Canada’s oldest brewpub—he discovered the city’s great beer culture and decided this is where he would take the plunge.
To begin with, all the banks and credit unions turned down his loan applications. But, undeterred, he filled out every credit card application he could find and used that capital to find a space and fund his startup. He lived in the brewery and began brewing in earnest. That was enough to get started on.
Check out this profile from 2001 featuring Barry Benson and a wide-eyed, young(er) Matt Phillips that aired on CHEK-6 shortly after Phillips Brewing opened on August 26, 2001:
In the beginning, the business was pretty low-key. Phillips made his own bottling machine and made do with a lot of used equipment, like a meat locker that became his cold room. Matt did everything from sales and delivery to packaging and brewing, until, halfway through the third year, he was able to start hiring people.
“As brewers, it is really exciting to stretch your creative chops and know that there is an audience’s excitement — who aren’t intimidated by or afraid of new and diverse flavours,” Phillips says.
Moments that marked Phillips Brewing
“I’m a firm believer that it’s not the big moments that make things as they are, but it’s the little moments.” — Matt Phillips.
Back in the early days of Phillips Brewing, there was a glass shortage in Canada. Matt called the bottle supplier and was told they wouldn’t have any more glass until November. In order to pay his next month’s rent, he had to have beer on liquor store shelves in August, so that wasn’t going to work. He was able to convince someone at the glass plant to sell him some bottles, so he drove to Portland in a rented truck to get them. While waiting to be loaded, he was allowed to look around the warehouse where he found the classic “stubbie” bottles in the back. While the glass plant did not sell him these nostalgic bottles at the time, his persistence paid off. Facing closure of the brewery two years later, Matt was able to get them to sell him the bottles. He used them to launch a new brand—Phoenix Gold—and saved the brewery.
Phoenix Gold was a lager and a tribute to one of Victoria’s earliest breweries, which opened in 1868. That company merged with Victoria Brewing and the new Victoria-Phoenix Brewery—built in 1892 at the corner of Government and Discovery Streets—was a marvel of modern brewing technology at the time. That facility eventually became Labatt’s west coast brewery, which operated until the early 1980s when it was closed and demolished despite public outcry to keep the historic building intact. As it turns out, Phillips Brewing sits kitty-corner across Government and Discovery from that historic location.
The Phoenix Lager was what allowed Matt to hire his first two employees. Today, the brewery employs about 100 people. Phoenix Gold Lager pours a rich, golden colour with a creamy white head. Medium-bodied and crisp, this beer finishes clean and dry with a subtle bready malt character. The classics never die.
The Blue Truck
One year, Phillips was asked to do the beer for a local festival. While Matt was brewing Phoenix Lager, he didn’t have a pale ale at that time. Matt had been doing all the deliveries in a ‘65 Chevy blue truck and, one day, after coming back from surfing in Tofino, his blue truck was gone. The truck didn’t lock well and some kids had taken it for a ride down the street. The police decided that it wasn’t roadworthy, which was absolutely true. Matt got it back and decided to name the new beer after the blue truck. After a legal tussle with another brewery that felt the name was too close to one of their beers, it became Blue Buck, a now legendary ale, featuring a robust, malt-forward body underpinned with crisp northwest hops.
Phillips had to move their operations three times. The first one was 1,300 square feet on the second floor of an industrial warehouse complex in Esquimalt. But then in 2004, the brewery had to move when a ruptured tank resulted in a flood of Phoenix Lager that soaked the sheet metal shop below the brewery (one reason why breweries usually aren’t located above other businesses).
Phillips outgrew the second location on William Street quickly and then added a unit right beside it. But by 2008, Phillips needed to expand and found an ideal space on Government Street in the heart of Victoria’s Design District, just a few blocks from Vancouver Island Brewing, and close enough to the Inner Harbour to be accessible by foot for beer-loving tourists.
The brewery is still in the same location, but it has expanded considerably since 2008. It now occupies an entire city block, with a back lot that the brewery often uses for concerts and other events. It added a distillery in 2014 and built its own malting facility behind the brewery in 2015. It finally opened a gorgeous tasting room at the corner of Government and Discovery in 2018. For a fun overview of the brewery’s history, check out this link.
The creative side of things
There is no specific creative process that they follow to make beers at Phillips, but they typically make beers that excite them. Phillips’ beers are a reflection of the people behind them and their diversity. Some like to make sour beers, some want to go in a different direction, and some are just all about IPAs.
What makes Phillips unique
Phillips means different things to different people, but a thing that makes them unique is their staff: an amazing group of people who are seriously passionate about what they do.
Another thing that Phillips holds dear is sustainability—ever since the beginning. The brewery works with local farmers to grow barley, which is then malted at the Phillips Maltworks, which gives many of their beers a local character. Phillips has won several environmental awards and works hard to act sustainability and reduce its footprint. Among several initiatives it has developed, the brewery built its own C02 recapture system to save the carbon dioxide naturally created through the brewing process. It’s then used in the packaging process, a project that won Phillips the 2015 Master Brewers Association of America’s Award of Excellence in Sustainability.
Then there is their amazing engineering team: Phillips designs and builds a lot of their own equipment. This helps them dictate to the equipment how they make beer instead of the other way around, allowing for more creativity and a smaller environmental footprint.
“The engineering team take risks and are willing to throw it out there and see what happens. That’s pretty special to me, and I think it’s fantastic for the brewery and our beer,” says Matt Phillips.
Whisky, Gin and Soda
Phillips’ Fermentorium Distillery is seven years into its whiskey program and also makes two types of gin: Stump and Discovery Street.
Phillips Soda was founded in 2012. The lineup features four flavours all made from scratch with real ingredients. It also has a series of flavoured sparkling waters, tonics, and mocktails called Sparkmouth.
Celebrate 20 Years at Phillips with Twenty Point Buck
On August 26, 2021, Phillips Brewing is releasing Twenty Point Buck, a limited-edition, barrel-aged take on its classic Blue Buck Ale. This special beer ties together three key elements of Phillips’ operation: malting, distilling and brewing. The Twenty Point Buck uses an in-house malt developed by Phillips’ maltsters. The famous Blue Buck Ale was brewed with this malt and then transferred to Small Talk whiskey barrels from the Fermentorium program where it aged for 20 months.
“What makes this beer the perfect celebration of our 20 years is it showcases all aspects of our brewery from our unique brew house, to our maltings, and finally our distillery. It’s a perfect homage to a beer that truly helped us to grow to where we are today.” – Matt Phillips.
Twenty Point Buck will be available on draft in the Phillips’ tasting room on Thursday, August 26. Special packages of the beer paired with a limited-edition glass will be sold at Phillips’ Beer Shop and select private liquor stores beginning the week of August 30.
Phillips Brewing is one of the BC craft beer industry’s big success stories. From those early days of overdrawn credit cards to the domination of Blue Buck Ale throughout Vancouver Island, where Lucky Lager once reigned, it’s a tale worth celebrating. Best thing is it’s based on great beer, consistently brewed without skimping or cheating.