From the giant beer behemoths to a tiny craft brewing space, Kitsilano has a hidden history of brewing that many people have forgotten or never realized.

When you think about Vancouver beer, “Yeast Van” probably comes immediately to mind, with its collection of wild and wonderful breweries like Storm, Superflux, Strange Fellows, and more. Or perhaps you turn to Mount Pleasant, where the old neighbourhood of Brewery Creek now hosts Main Street Brewing, R&B, and Brassneck, among others. But what about their cousin to the west – Kitsilano? Kits is not really known for its breweries today, but it actually has a long history of brewing and is now the home of one of Vancouver’s newest craft breweries. Let’s take a trip back in time to see what’s been brewing in Kitsilano over the past century.


Kitsilano’s “Big Beer” History

The first brewery in Kitsilano was an outgrowth of one of Vancouver’s first breweries. Around 1910, Charles Doering’s Vancouver Breweries, where Main Street Brewing now sits, turned that location into its office when it consolidated with Henry Reifel’s Canadian Brewing and Malting plant at Yew and 11th. This brewing facility was the largest and most expensive brewery built in Vancouver at that time — the equivalent of $5 million in today’s currency! Vancouver Breweries and CBM merged to become BC Breweries, which produced a range of popular beers at that plant, including Heidelberg, UBC Bohemian, Cascade, and BC Export.

By 1957, after years of brewery mergers, the plant was taken over by Carling Breweries – later Carling O’Keefe, one of the “Big Three” Canadian corporate breweries. The other two breweries dominating Canada at the time were Molson and Labatt.

In the mid century, Reifel’s brewing plant became Carling O’Keefe

Molson had a presence in Kitsilano as well. Most longtime Vancouver residents remember the huge Molson brewing plant near the Burrard Street Bridge, just east of its competition, the Carling O’Keefe brewery at Yew and 11th. However, the Burrard Street brewery wasn’t originally Molson’s.

During the early 20th century, Fritz Sick and his son Emil built a brewing empire in Western Canada and Washington. In 1934, they opened their first Vancouver brewery: Capilano Brewery on Powell Street, which was enthusiastically welcomed by the community. In July of that year, The Province described the brewery, with its pristine sanitation practices, as “spic and span” and “a fine example of a modern brewery.” Automation was a point of pride: “the beer is piped from great cellars into the automatic bottling and labelling machines… [T]he bottle-washing machine… washes thousands of bottles perfectly without the use of human hands in a single operation.”

By 1953, the brewery was so successful that it was relocated to a prime spot at 1550 Burrard Street. Molson saw an opportunity and took it. The elder Sick was ready for retirement so in 1959 Molson made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. The Molson Capilano Brewery (later just “Molson Brewery”) became an architectural fixture in Vancouver for decades.

The Molson Capilano Brewery, 1966

Craft Comes Calling: Granville Island Brewing

By the 1960s, the large breweries had a strong foothold in Vancouver, particularly in Kitsilano – Molson on one side and Carling/Carling O’Keefe on the other. Frank Appleton, a British ex-pat and trained brewmaster, was working for Carling in the ‘60s and lamented what he saw in the BC brewing industry. It wasn’t what he was trained to do. He noted that the big breweries were calling brewmasters “production managers” – button-pushers rather than brewers. Appleton was also scandalized that modern breweries would cut corners on quality. In his book, Brewing Revolution, Appleton disdainfully describes Gold Label, O’Keefe’s dark lager, as deeply disappointing:

[Gold Label] was O’Keefe’s standard lager darkened with some caramelized sugar. No kidding it wasn’t selling well – you could taste the caramel! It wasn’t a brown ale or a porter or a rich dunkel lager. It was a fake, a poor attempt that was doomed to failure. But it did save the expense of keeping stores of chocolate malt and roasted barley and having to adjust the malt mill every time you made a batch. In this bright, clean, streamlined plant, everything had been sacrificed to efficiency and cost-effectiveness, including the central thing about beer: how it tastes.

By 1978, Appleton’s experiences working for corporate beer inspired him to publish a homebrewing manifesto in Harrowsmith Magazine. His impassioned article castigated Big Beer and praised quality brewing. In that same year, the “Big Three” locked out all their BC employees and the province’s beer taps went dry for the summer. Big Beer’s greed meant no beer for anyone. It was this lockout, combined with the wide-reaching effects of Appleton’s manifesto, that inspired BC’s earliest craft brewery owners.

The first of these was John Mitchell, who worked with Appleton to open Horseshoe Bay Brewery in 1982 – Canada’s first craft brewery. However, another person saw an opportunity to change BC’s beer landscape: Mitch Taylor, co-founder of Granville Island Brewing. His journey to establishing one of Canada’s most influential craft breweries began not with the brewery but with the island. The dark, dismal nature of Granville Island back in the 1970s meant that Taylor and his business partner Bill Harvey could buy several large buildings there for just $18,000. Taylor and Harvey’s Creekhouse Industries properties became an important part of Granville Island’s transformation into a colourful tourist hub.

Mitch Taylor and Bill Harvey at their Creekhouse Industries property on Granville Island

But just owning property on Granville Island wasn’t enough. “Why not build something there, take advantage of the fact that people are already coming there?” Taylor recalled during a conversation with me. A brewery had been in the back of his mind for a while. Taylor and his wife Anne had travelled around Germany in the late 1970s, enjoying quality lager and wondering why there wasn’t anything like that in Vancouver. Horseshoe Bay was making ale by 1982, but not lager – and it couldn’t sell its beer outside its pub. There was a hole in the market.

Mitch Taylor drinks beer in Germany with his German brewmaster, Rainer Kallahne.

Taylor knew that with Expo 86 on the horizon, visitors from around the world would seek out the best food and drink BC could offer. Molson and Labatt just didn’t cut it when compared with a crisp European Pilsner – BC needed better beer. Taylor and Harvey quickly got down to detailed market research, crunching numbers, and hiring the right people. German brewmaster Rainer Kallahne came on board, German equipment was shipped to Vancouver, legislative changes were lobbied for, and Granville Island Brewing opened its doors in the summer of 1984.

Taylor and Harvey set off a cannon for the brewery’s opening day celebrations
Taylor and Harvey set off a cannon for the brewery’s opening day celebrations

The brewery was an immediate success. Taylor recalls the excitement of their opening day, which included a cannon they set off in the street: “I remember the crush of the well-fueled crowds, the noise and the euphoria of everyone involved.” They sold 265 cases of Island Lager in their store that first day and an additional 50 cases to businesses around Granville Island. That lager swiftly established Granville Island Brewing as a producer of quality beer. Gerry Hieter, co-founder of the Great Canadian Beer Festival, still holds that the original Island Lager was the best ever produced in BC. According to a beer reviewer for the Province, Island Lager had “more flavour than the pop beers, a touch of sharpness that the fans of imported beers will appreciate, more hops and other good things that make you think less of huge stainless steel vats and chemical additives and more of the old brewmaster’s art.” In a 2016 interview for What’s Brewing magazine, brewer Bill Herdman recalls Island Lager as “amazing… a shocking beer.”

Taylor makes a sale at the brand-new retail store in the front of the brewery
Taylor makes a sale at the brand-new retail store in the front of the brewery.

To his dismay, Taylor discovered that despite his brewery’s success and popularity, it wasn’t profitable. After some major structural changes that left him dissatisfied, he resigned in 1994. By 2009, Granville Island Brewing was owned by Molson. However, it remains true that this little Kitsilano brewery was many people’s gateway into craft beer. It established a high bar for beer quality and showed that craft could compete in BC.

While the Granville Island Brewing business remains on Granville Island, most of its actual brewing has long been done outside of Vancouver. The “Big Beer” breweries in Kitsilano – Molson and Carling O’Keefe – also changed. When these two large brewing corporations merged in 1989, the Carling brewing plant on Yew and 11th was shut down and the property eventually became Arbutus Walk. The giant Molson plant on Burrard lasted for much longer, but finally closed its doors in 2016. For a while, not much actual brewing has been happening in Kitsilano.

Brewing August: the New Kid on the Kits Block

This is now changing, with the introduction of a new craft brewery just two blocks from Granville Island. In July 2022, the city welcomed Brewing August, which opened in an unassuming little spot on West 3rd Avenue. Despite its proximity to Granville Island, this is a quiet, tree-lined neighbourhood tucked away from the heavy traffic routes. The brewery doesn’t include a kitchen, but you can order some amazing Mexican food from Las Autenticas Tacos & Tortas nearby and they’ll deliver straight to the tasting room.

Tacos from Las Autenticas at the tasting room at Brewing August in Kitsilano
Tacos from Las Autenticas (photo: Noëlle Phillips)

Brewing August is the brainchild of Tate Lillies and his brother-in-law, Travis Rea. Chatting about big dreams at family BBQs during the pandemic, Lillies and Rea both had the same idea: starting a brewery. Rea is a chef and a talented homebrewer and Lillies has business experience across several sectors. With a third partner, Adam Jones, they dreamed up Brewing August.

Their brewery plans started not with a brick-and-mortar brewery and tasting room, but with partnerships and plans. They began contract brewing at Settlement and working with other breweries like Patina. With the help of the Here Be Monsters branding agency, they developed their logo (a picnic table at sunset) and a clear identity for their brewery. A sense of community and the atmosphere of Vancouver’s long warm summer nights are both key elements of the Brewing August brand.

“Who doesn’t love August in Vancouver?” Lillies laughs.

He emphasizes that connections to their local neighbourhood are of critical importance. Brewing August isn’t looking to distribute across BC; they want to distribute across the street.

The brewery was producing and distributing beer before its doors opened, but with its permanent location comes more flexibility with what it makes. While they keep a core lineup of five beers (Pilsner, Pale Ale, Blonde IPA, Hazy IPA, and Golden IPA), they also have rotating and seasonal taps. These include a Belgian Wit, Raspberry Lemon Pale, Tart Cherry Sour, and a series of experimental hazy IPAs. On my last visit, I tried Hazy #5, a full-bodied tropical beer with Azacca, Eclipse, and Citra hops. The brewery’s unusual Golden and Blonde IPAs, which sit on the border between styles, are well worth trying. The Golden is a perfect sipper for down at the beach, and the Blonde is malt-forward but with some Belgian character (and I’m not sure whether it’s actually Belgian yeast, but I was digging it!). They taste like summer.

Next time you’re in the neighbourhood, check out Brewing August and raise a glass to 100-plus years of beer history in Kits!

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