In a year when brewery experiences were turned upside down, Aaron Colyn and the Twin City Brewing team proved that prioritizing community pride and customer relationships is as much of a winning formula as pizza and craft beer.
Do you think your town is tough? Consider Port Alberni, B.C. In the past century, this Vancouver Island community within the traditional territories of the Hupacasath and Tseshaht First Nations has survived and rebuilt from a three-storey-tall tsunami (1964) and the largest on-shore earthquake recorded in Canada (7.3 in 1946).
Tough people have called Port Alberni home: Rick Hansen, the Man in Motion and Kim Campbell, the only woman to serve as Prime Minister of Canada (and the only Prime Minister born in B.C.). Port Albernians making it to the NHL included Paul Cyr, who scored 101 goals, and referee Rob Shick, who officiated more than 1,400 games.
Tough industries have historically reigned supreme, primarily commercial fishing and forestry. This is a mill town. The National Historic Site in Port Alberni? It is also a mill. But as the natural resources sector has endured recurring challenges, the city has struggled to find new ways to diversify and attract new people and new industries.
“It was always a challenging town as far as reputation goes,” Twin City Brewing owner and brewmaster Aaron Colyn said during a Zoom conversation. “It was really stuck with big industry and when things started to trickle off… It felt like a town that couldn’t find out what it wanted to be, or it was lost from what it was and trying to find what it can be in the future.”
“Port Alberni needed something to bring the community together. I always said it didn’t have to be a brewery — it could have been a diner, or a coffee shop, or the right kind of little hangout spot that brought people together. A space that was comfortable and welcoming and relaxing and let people connect and build relationships together with each other.”
Twin City Brewing—named after the distinct municipalities of Alberni and Port Alberni—opened in 2017, 50 years after those communities amalgamated and took the Port Alberni name.
Colyn describes the taproom experience as “the ultimate way we want people to try our beer.” The interior of the city’s first hot spot for locally brewed craft beer and creative pizza is full of wood and metalwork—blacks, browns, greys, and the amber of bricks and rust—that pairs perfectly with Port Alberni’s industrial identities.
Large windows brighten the lounge and rows of lights dangle over the outdoor patio beside COVID-era tents—when they aren’t being discarded like napkins by coastal winter windstorms. Even the weather can be tough here.
Customers sit apart from each other now and the communal tables aren’t as communal due to public health recommendations, but there’s still a convivial vibe to the place. Masked staff members are friendly (and funny!), the kitchen staff holler orders and flip pizza dough high above their heads, and the sound system bounces between eras: modern dance pop at one moment, Fleetwood Mac not long after. This warm spirit is something Colyn and his team of 20 at the brewery have worked hard to cultivate, but he believes it’s a spirit shared by the community-at-large.
“We are huge fans of Port Alberni,” Colyn said. “In the past, growing up, Port Alberni had a reputation that wasn’t great, but I never subscribed to that. We’re raising our family here. It is a microcosm of what BC has to offer — it’s a valley by the water — and it’s still a community that has a heart. If you want to never wave to your neighbours and just live a solitary life, then Port Alberni’s not for you. But if you want to connect with people you live with and find out what’s going on as a community, this is that kind of place.”
Colyn grew up in Port Alberni and met his wife Michelle when they were in high school. After spending a year studying at North Island College in Port Alberni, they moved to Nanaimo to study at Vancouver Island University. The plan was to get a biology degree, go to med school, and become a doctor, but Nanaimo’s access to craft beer, compared to Port Alberni, unlocked a new passion.
“Longwood’s IPA was one of the first [craft beers] that I had and took that leap towards more hoppy beers. You took a sip of Red Racer IPA, you were like…’Whoa!’ Why do I like this? Why do I crave this? I’m one of those people who wants to know how this stuff works.”
After jumping into all-grain homebrewing, Colyn realized that brewing was worth pursuing — at the expense of his original career plans.
“I was surrounded by other students who were so passionate about what they were doing. I’m passionate about something — but it’s not this! These are excellent people who are going to make excellent doctors, but I have to do something for my community.”
This “something” was to start a brewery. Aaron and Michelle moved back to Port Alberni and, before deciding to take the plunge, launched a crowdfunding campaign.
“Our goal was to raise money for our pilot system and see if people would put their money where their mouth is,” Colyn said. “It was a huge success! We had over 100 contributors in less than two months and raised over $7,000.”
Almost immediately after the campaign ended, they found their brewing space: a one-story brick-fronted building on Margaret Road, one block from the Somass River, that previously housed a printshop. Colyn developed a 30-page business plan (“A lot of people will tell you it is the best piece of fiction you’ve ever written,” he laughed) and he and supportive family members worked nights and weekends to clean, design, and shape their fledgling brewery.
“When I spoke to people that were involved in the industry, they brought up a lot of the red tape. At least, for us, the City of Port Alberni was in a position where they were like ‘Oh, what’s this, a craft brewery?’ They were very much open to the idea of a whole new industry coming into the community. The municipality was one of our biggest proponents.”
The look, feel, and business model of Twin City Brewing was developed in part based upon great experiences at two BC breweries in particular.
“In the years leading up to opening, Brassneck was absolutely my be-all-end-all brewery. I thought their beer was fantastic, I thought the way they presented themselves was fantastic, and I loved the cozy, close nature and the atmosphere they provided.”
“Cumberland Brewing Company is one of the original Island destination community breweries, where it’s all about that experience. What you have in the glass is only one aspect of the experience. It’s sounds, smells, atmosphere, and interactions with people.”
Aaron credited the Cumberland Brewing team for pushing them to include a kitchen as part of their brewery.
“We didn’t have a kitchen in the plans. It was Mike [Tymchuk] and Darren [Adam] who said, ‘You’re spending so much time making the beer perfect, and you want to pair it with something that’s not?’ And it made me think: I was dodging that work and that responsibility. If you’re making amazing beer, don’t serve it with not-amazing food. It won’t feel balanced.”
“We have a team that pours themselves into making beer the best they can, but at the same time, twenty feet away, is a kitchen team doing the exact same thing and they are just as excited about releasing something to the public that is made from scratch. Now, it feels balanced.”
With a brewing team, kitchen team, and front-of-house team established, Twin City opened in 2017 in an understated way: going on social media and saying, hey, we’re open today, NBD.
“[I remember] a blur of bodies and things going wrong and questions that we were never faced with until this moment,” Colyn said. “‘What do you want to serve this in?’ Uhh…we didn’t think about that!”
“By the evening, we had a full room, and it was just… smiles and an opportunity for you to share a beer with someone you don’t know and share some stories and hear some interesting stuff about the community. That was what rewarded all of the staff—that’s what we wanted from the beginning.”
From this quiet, understated opening, word began to spread about this great, little brewery in Port Alberni. And then at the 2018 BC Beer Awards, Twin City hit the big time by winning two second-place and one first-place award, and taking home Best in Show for Late Bloomer, a strawberry-hibiscus sour ale.
TWIN CITY TODAY
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Twin City shut its doors for a month and a half. To keep providing work for the staff, the brewery adopted delivery and beer subscription services, provided takeout food, and started packaging beer in cans for the first time. Colyn designed beer labels at home, featuring historical Port Alberni photos licensed from the Alberni Valley Museum. Delivery service slowed as the brewery opened back up for dine-in service, but Colyn plans to continue canning and recently started shipping Twin City beer and merchandise via Canada Post.
Even with all of the responsibilities of running a brewery—and the stress of having to change operating rules seemingly every week as the public health situation develops—Aaron continues to be a hands-on brewer and loves planning new seasonal brews. More tanks are ordered for the brewery, leading to additional production capacity including more properly aged and conditioned lagers on the docket for 2021.
The kitchen continues to churn out creative pizzas that unabashedly lean on punny names, such as Strawbrie Fields, Wurst Place to Live, and (ahem) the Texas Cheese-Sauce Massacurd. Sometimes, the recipes come first; sometimes, the puns come first, and the cooks have to figure out how to make that pizza a reality. Dough is mixed in-house and fermented for three days, resulting in a flavourful, airy, and chewy base. Local ingredients are often used—including buffalo mozzarella and pepperoni.
During our conversation, Colyn spoke proudly on a number of occasions about his front-of house team and how they contribute to the Twin City experience through warmth and authenticity—two elements that are even more important during this unstable year, and essential to earning considerable loyalty.
“Everyone’s been to a restaurant where they’d have a server who is half-paying attention, and it rings of untruth right away. I think we really empower everyone on our team to have the ability to make people’s experiences great. We have a diverse team with different personalities and you want those to show.”
The beer, the food, and this congenial, friendly approach have led Twin City to become an important tourism generator for the region. Craft beer fans from across Vancouver Island (and beyond!) have travelled to Port Alberni specifically to visit the brewery. And, to Colyn’s amazement and in vindication of his original dream, some never left.
“Everything we do—even putting beer in cans now—is really to lure people in and get them to have an amazing experience in Port Alberni when maybe they didn’t realize they could. But we’ve had people come in and ask ‘Do you remember us? We just bought a house in Port Alberni, and it was coming into the brewery that made us buy it.’ And that is something that we did not expect.
“It’s not just people passing through to get lunch before going to the West Coast. It’s people who crossed through Port Alberni and loved this space and what the community had to offer as a whole so much that they moved here, or said ‘We’re raising our family here,’ or ‘We’re able to work from home remotely, and if we can do that anywhere, we want to do that here in Port Alberni.’”
Thanks in part to Twin City Brewing, it would seem that this tough city is not such a tough sell after all.
To finish off our conversation, Aaron spoke about why receiving this award meant so much to him and his team and included an impassioned call to support fellow small businesses safely at this time.
Watch for This Trio of Twin City Beers
Swedish Gymnast Blonde Ale: Twin City’s best-seller; ‘nuff said
Late Bloomer Strawberry & Hibiscus Sour – awarded Best in Show at the 2018 BC Beer Awards
Vanishing Act Pineapple and Coconut Sour – if you like getting caught in the rain, you’ll surely enjoy this brew, reminiscent of a tart piña colada
Twin City Brewing is part of the Vancouver Island Ale Trail along with fellow Port Alberni brewery Dog Mountain Brewing. Alberni Brewing Company is planning to open in 2021, marking the third brewery opening in the Alberni Valley in four years.
From Nanaimo: 85 km
From Comox: 110 km
From Victoria: 200 km
Please travel conscientiously, arrange a designated driver, and do not drink and drive. Respect public health recommendations and orders regarding travel at this time. Thank you for your kindness!