The birth of craft beer in Canada took place on July 6, 1982 in Horseshoe Bay, BC. As we celebrate that anniversary this month, our intrepid investigator Noëlle Phillips has unearthed an interesting tale of the legacy of brewing in Horseshoe Bay.
John Mitchell was well known in BC beer circles for not only his generosity and his passion for good beer, but also for being the first to introduce craft beer to Canada. A British ex-pat, John forced the slow wheels of government bureaucracy to turn so he could open Horseshoe Bay Brewery in West Vancouver back in 1982. His Bay Ale soon drew customers to the Troller Pub overlooking Sewell’s Marina, just a three-minute walk from the brewery itself at 6695 Nelson Avenue. The pub was the only place he could legally sell it — he didn’t have a microbrewery license that allowed distribution. When the relationship between himself and his business partners, Dave Patrick and Don Wilson, soured, he sold off his share in the business and moved to Victoria to help establish Spinnakers Brewpub. Dave and Don got rid of the brewery, and that’s often seen as the end of the story.
However, there’s a whole second part that many people have forgotten, despite one or two brief mentions over the years in BC’s beer periodicals, like What’s Brewing Magazine. In 1982, while John was brewing his first batches of beer and his partners were serving customers in the Troller, a 19-year-old kid named David Bruce-Thomas was clearing plates and cleaning ashtrays in the pub and occasionally helping with odd jobs in the brewery. Little did he know that he’d eventually become the brewmaster and owner. While John Mitchell and Frank Appleton were making their first batch of Bay Ale, David was in the background, observing. More than 40 years later, I was able to ask him about his experiences when we sat down for a beer together at the Hawthorne in Cloverdale.
“I didn’t know anything,” he laughed, recalling his early days with John and Frank. “I had no interest in beer; it was a job to me. It was an interesting process, just hanging around and watching it.” His first taste of a cloudy, cask-conditioned beer — John brewed only traditional styles — was a bit of a surprise, as was the temperature. “I remember John and Frank talking about chill haze — the protein gets cold and it clouds up, and when it warms up it gets clear. But no one wants to drink warm beer! That was the battle. John didn’t want to put it in the fridge, so the first ones were served from right behind the counter.”
David’s education in traditional British ales continued after Frank Appleton left. The brewery became busy, so David stepped in to do all the keg cleaning and other small jobs. Gradually, he began to try his hand at brewing. John started small: “Hey Dave, I’m just mashing in — can you finish it while I deal with this?” Within a year, John had complete trust in his young apprentice and David was doing full brews, eventually brewing about 50% of the beer himself while still working a night job as a tow truck driver.
After John left, David stepped in as brewer while John’s partners Don and Dave decided what to do with the brewery. They tried to find a professional brewmaster, but in the mid-1980s that was a challenging task. No one was aspiring to be a craft brewer back then. However, David already knew the brewing system and knew the recipes. “It happened by osmosis,” he said. “I picked it up, I could do it.” He ended up brewing all their beer — until, that is, the partners decided to axe the brewery portion of the business. It just wasn’t profitable, and they wanted to focus on the pub. By the fall of 1987, they had moved all the brewing equipment out of the building on Nelson Avenue and towed it to the scrapyard for destruction. To the disappointment of local fans, the Horseshoe Bay Brewery was gone.
Or was it?
Once the brewery was shuttered and he was out of a job, David picked up his severance cheque from the pub. While in the area, he stopped by Dan Sewell’s office (the Sewell of Sewell’s Marina) and casually asked whether Don and Dave had any control over the brewery building itself. They didn’t. Right on the spot, David gave Sewell his $2000 severance cheque and asked him to hold the building for six months until he could scrape together the funds to lease it. And Sewell agreed.
After leaving Sewell’s office, David visited several local establishments to figure out whether there was a local market for beer. His contacts included Troll’s and Yaya’s Oyster Bar — both committed to buying his ale should the brewery re-open.
The next step involved getting the brewing equipment back. With financial help from his parents, he was able to buy back the brewing equipment from the scrapyard before it was destroyed. He recalls that he paid around $6000 to rescue the equipment, and he used his own tow truck to haul it back to Nelson Street.
A few months later, in the spring of 1988, David had secured a lease on the building, and the equipment was ready to be reinstalled. He phoned John Mitchell over in Victoria and told him all about it.
“Are you interested in helping me put the brewery back together?” David asked his former boss.
John enthusiastically answered in the affirmative and was soon back in West Vancouver to help out. The day he arrived, John asked David what the plan was. David responded: “We’re going to open the brewery building and sit in there by the front window and wait for Don and Dave to walk by.” Don and Dave’s office was near the old building, and David knew they passed by each day. True to form, they wandered by and, to their shock, saw David and John having a chat inside the brewery building.
This precipitated a conflict. Lawyers were brought in because Don and Dave believed that David shouldn’t be able to lease the building or obtain a brewery license. Legally, however, David’s case held up. He then applied to West Vancouver Council, which approved his desired microbrewery license — the kind of license that would allow him to distribute like most craft brewery licenses we see today.
Horseshoe Bay Brewery was thus resurrected under a slightly different name: Horseshoe Bay Brewing Company, with David as both owner and brewer. His first sales went to Troll’s Restaurant and Yaya’s Oyster Bar, both of which were regular customers for years. David recalls delivering 200 gallons of his special “Yaya’s Oyster Ale” to Yaya’s, where he had installed a 200-gallon tank. He’d pump a full batch of beer directly from the transport tank, which was mounted in a pickup truck-trailer, into the tank at Yaya’s, which he would clean himself each time.
At Troll’s restaurant, David could be found rolling kegs across the floor to where they’d be hooked up to draft lines. The owners of those restaurants — Alex von Kleist and Gary Troll — were always supportive of David’s aspirations to keep the brewery going. This was encouraging for a young entrepreneur, especially given the financial pressure and even an incident of vandalism: he arrived at work one morning to find diesel had been poured into the tanks and over the yeast, causing damage that slowed down production for days.
Despite the challenges, David certainly had his successes. With his father’s help, he developed a consistent brand identity for Horseshoe Bay Brewing’s products, creating labels and selling their beer — including Bay Ale, Raspberry Ale, Pale Ale, Nut Brown Ale, and seasonal ales — to restaurants and bars across the lower mainland. His father, David Sr., did much of the advertising and graphic design work, while his mother, Josephine, worked in the brewery. John Mitchell and Frank Appleton both stopped by to visit and provide advice. David also had a mutually supportive relationship with Tim Wittig and Paul Beaton of the newly-opened Shaftebury Brewing, which is where craft beer pioneers like Iain Hill of Strange Fellows first got their start.
In addition to supplying beer to the locals, Horseshoe Bay also sold 10 pallets of beer to Japan (a deal arranged by David Sr.) and regularly sold beer to Western Family Foods, where it was used in their Caesar’s Shandy — a drink that was sold in grocery stores because it was below 0.5% ABV. The cash from these ventures helped keep the business going.
As the brewery continued pumping out the beer, David expanded his workforce, hiring brewers and delivery drivers to keep it all going. Early IPA innovator Bill Herdman brewed at Horseshoe Bay before he established his own brewery, Tall Ship Ales. According to a 2016 interview with What’s Brewing, Bill felt that he was more invested in Horseshoe Bay Brewing’s history than the owners were. However, it is clear that David also was deeply attached to the brewery’s legacy. It seemed that each man held the brewery in high regard; they simply had different approaches to running it.
The brewery and David slowly began parting ways when he acquired a partner, John Allen, in the early 1990s. He realized that the cost of running Horseshoe Bay was cutting into profits, making the business largely untenable. The sales to Japan and Western Family had kept them financially afloat for a while, but it wasn’t enough. David’s lack of involvement once Allen became the majority investor meant that he had little recollection of the brewery’s later business details, but What’s Brewing and BCBeer.ca both indicate that Horseshoe Bay stopped bottling in 1995, selling only draft beer after that. Things were going downhill. David recalls a day around 1996 when he simply left his key, locked the brewery door, and never returned. Horseshoe Bay Brewing limped along a little while longer under Allen until, according to Sneath’s book, Brewed in Canada, it was acquired by the Coquihalla and Bowen Island Brewing Company in 1999 and closed for good shortly after.
But Horseshoe Bay Brewing still has a presence in the beer community. In 1999, Brian MacIsaac and Rebecca Kneen heard on the brewery grapevine that Horseshoe Bay was closing for good and selling off their equipment. Kneen and MacIsaac had purchased a gorgeous parcel of land in the Shuswap and were planning to start a farm brewery on a shoestring budget. Environmental and social responsibility were (and still are) their priorities, and reusing brewing equipment with such a history seemed fitting. They bought it all — the tanks, kettle, and mash tun that Mitchell and Appleton had first assembled back in 1982. With some adaptations for efficiency and safety, that same equipment is still in use to this day in their brewery, Crannóg Ales.
Kneen recalls John Mitchell coming to visit them shortly after the equipment was installed, bringing with him a gift: a malt sieve. The old wooden box stacked with different kinds of screens helps the brewer figure out what percentage of their milled malt is at each level of coarseness or fineness. Kneen still has the malt sieve and uses it regularly. She recalls Mitchell visiting several times after that to try the beer and observe the brewing process. He was, unsurprisingly, very pleased that Crannóg also uses whole hops — something about which Mitchell was passionate.
In addition, just this year, David Bruce-Thomas re-acquired the rights to the name “Horseshoe Bay Brewing Company” via the BC Business Registry. Who knows — maybe there will be a new Bay Ale in the future!