In the backstreets of Chinatown, nestled among stores selling dried fish and barbecue pork, is the unmarked entrance to Eastside Boxing Club. Halfway up the staircase, the air turns tropical and fills with the primal sounds of a crowd reacting to a fight. Inside, a hundred or so members of the craft beer community stand shoulder to shoulder around a boxing ring, watching two girls slug it out. The girls’ long hair has been twisted into braids and their red faces bob around as they duck, block and jab at one another. A solid punch lands and the crowd erupts in cheers and gulps down their beers.
Welcome to The Purge, the halfway point in training for Beer Wars, in which brewery employees go from zero to a boxer in just three months, before competing in a charity boxing match. Representatives from all the local breweries are here, hanging out in clusters like a bunch of East Van gangs. Head coach, Dave Schuck, weaves through the sea of black clothing, greeting his trainees with an encouraging word or a pat on the shoulder.
The bell dings and Dave Scott from East Van Brewing springs up and out of his corner, striding across the ring with a kamikaze death-stare. He’s lean and muscular, and chomping at the bit. The crowd savours the vicarious combat, ooh-ing and ahh-ing with each connected punch. Midway through the fight, Scott’s opponent clocks him hard in the face and he snaps, unleashing a 360 degree, MMA-style, spinning backhand.
“STOP!” screams the ref, “You do that at Beer Wars, you WILL be disqualified!”
A few days later, everyone is back at Eastside, running uppercut drills. An Eminem track blares over the flat slap of gloves hitting pads and the hiss of sharply exhaled breath. Coach Dave prowls the gym like an old school drill sergeant, yelling encouragement and abuse. He stops everyone to demonstrate the correct technique and footwork in slow motion. “AGAIN! This time get all your weight behind it. LET’S GO! Burn it up in here!”
Dave’s a solid guy with clear blue eyes and a salt & pepper beard. He takes a sip out of his Starbucks Venti cup and leans in, lowering his voice, “No one knows what they’re gonna get with me – I keep ‘em guessing. You have to recognize how you can get the most out of a certain individual,” he says, scanning the room. “Some people respond to you being a little firmer, others respond better to a little more compassion. The most important thing is to be a humanist, y’know, understand what makes people tick.”
A loud buzzer goes off, followed by the rip-rip-rip of Velcro, as everyone tears off their gloves and makes a beeline for their water bottles. Moments later, the trainees are back out on the floor, doing sit-ups, push-ups and planks, facing a wall emblazoned with the words NEVER QUIT. In addition to the buckets of sweat, each participant is required to donate 50 litres of beer from their brewery and to raise at least $500 to help Eastside run its social initiatives. Last year, Beer Wars raised $62,000.
“Five days a week we run free classes for youth and that includes a free organic meal. We also give them access to tutors, doctors, dentists – it’s like a one-stop shop for kids. It helps them to have confidence and be accountable, it’s also good for them to spend time around adults who are hard-working, honest people.”
As fatigue begins to set in with the trainees, a few of them start to slack on their exercises. “Who’s gonna be the first to have my dirty footprint on their tuchus?” yells Dave. “We also provide free self defence classes for women, people who identify as women and members of the LGBTQ community.” The buzzer sounds once more and the weary brewers, bartenders, servers and salespeople drag their bones towards the door. “Alright – good work everybody. Now weigh yourself, help clean up, then get the fuck outa here!” he says, throwing a wink my way. “The Frontline Fight Club is another really great program, for people working to fight the opioid drug epidemic. Our mandate is always growing, but it’s always the same thing; we use boxing to inspire people, keep them healthy and give them access to other services.”
A few blocks away on Carrall Street is East Van Roasters, a coffee house run by the Portland Hotel Society, that helps women to re-enter the workforce through mentorship and on-the-job training. Sarah Whidden works for PHS, managing similar therapeutic reemployment programs and she is also a member of the Frontline Fight Club. In training, she bounces around like a happy puppy, but today she is quite composed as she sips her coffee. “I come from a middle class background, I’m about as normal as you can get. I don’t use illicit drugs, but I smoke cigarettes, I drink coffee, I drink every day – I’m a drug user for sure, but I’d never seen anyone inject drugs. I’d never seen this amount of people have access to so few resources, all in one spot.”
Directly behind Whidden is a team of women working together, roasting coffee & cacao beans, and making chocolate from scratch. “The people that I know in this community, they are more generous, more kind and more willing to stop and help. When you have less, it’s easier to say ‘You don’t have shoes? I’ll give you mine.’ I’ve seen it happen, like, dozens of times.” In addition to her work at PHS, Whidden has also worked at Insite and at homeless shelters. “Doing this work, you have to deal with some bananas situations, like, there’s gonna be machetes, there’s gonna be OD’s, there’s gonna be death, and poop – so much poop! Physically exhausting myself is a legitimate way to not feel anxiety.”
Whidden has been training with the Frontline Fight Club for the past six years. “It’s nice, because I’m with people I know and trust. I trust the gym, I trust the trainers, they’re all amazing and they all understand what a ding-dong I can be. I walk in, it’s all pals, people I know from work or the community, it’s a weird, neighbourhood coffee shop thing,” she says with a grin. “The criminalization of the poor and the stigmatization of drugs is what makes this work so hard – thank goodness there’s something to punch.”
Over on Main Street, at London Pub, all of the Beer Wars fighters and trainers have gathered for the announcement of the fight card match-ups for the main event. There’s a little tension in the air – everyone is wondering which of their friends they’ll have to fight. The first two girls are called down to stand in front of the exposed brick wall for a photo and they instinctively stand next to each other, cock their heads and smile, like BFF’s snapping an Instagram photo. “Ahh, no,” says the photographer, “we need you to square off against each other, like you’re about to fight.” The girls giggle and blush, embarrassed to be caught out being sweet when they were supposed to be savage.
Dave Scott is never one to shy away from aggression. In his photo-op, he doesn’t take the traditional boxer’s stance, either; instead, he holds his right arm rigid and presses his fist into his opponent’s cheekbone. He later explains away the awkwardly intense moment by saying “It’s fine, I’m friends with the guy. He was just punching me in the kidneys while I was trying to pee. I bought him a beer. It’s all good.”
The final announcement and biggest applause is saved for Rachel Warner from Faculty Brewing. Warner grew up in Whistler, she’s super friendly and brimming with positive energy. In the Faculty tasting room, down by Olympic Village, she describes her experience with contact sports as “totally zero – haha! I’ve always been big into individual sports, like skiing, mountain biking and gymnastics. All through university I was into rowing. The oar hit me a couple of times, but that’s about the extent of me getting hit.” She sips her beer and continues, “The first time I’ve ever been punched in my life was at Eastside. It was my first time sparring and I was super nervous. I got punched in the face and it was a little shocking. I think I kinda laughed. Then she jabbed me three times quick in the face and my instinct was to go into the fetal position.”
Warner might be skinny, but she’s fierce and she’s got reach. In training, she’s persistent and focussed and never stays still. Her braids whip about as she ducks, weaves and throws jabs at her sparring partner. “These days, when I get punched in the face, I’m more like damn, you smoked me pretty good. Very rarely do I get nervous or upset. Boxing’s like chess. There’s something so interesting and technical and mental about it. You gotta be calm but you’ve also gotta throw punches, haha. It’s totally addictive.”
This year’s event will be Warner’s second Beer Wars. “I keep coming back because of the gym, what Dave’s trying to do at Eastside, the whole bringing the kids in, giving them food and exercise, I think, at its core, is what makes this event such a success. The other cool thing is that this is the one sober thing that the beer industry does together, hahaha!”
Over at East Van Brewing Company, near Commercial Drive, Dave Scott takes his first sip of beer for the day. “My wife hates the amount of beer I drink. I just keep telling her, ‘I’m a Newfie – we drink and fight and fish.’” He adjusts his glasses, which are attached to a long black chain, giving him the appearance of a badass librarian. I started brewing my own beer two years ago, and that’s what got me into the beer industry.”
The first time Scott met Coach Dave was on Commercial Drive. “I’d watched a few Beer Wars videos on YouTube and I recognized him. I said ‘Are you Coach Dave?’ and he said ‘Who the fuck are you?’ I told him who I was and that I wanted to come to orientation for Beer Wars. He said ‘You better be there.’ It was so intimidating. When I turned up, he fist-pounded me and said ‘It’s on.’ Coach Dave is amazing, he’s like a father to all of us.”
When asked about the topic of concussions, Scott insists on another round of beer before describing a BMX accident he had nine years ago. “I was knocked out for like, 40 minutes, and I broke 95 per cent of my facial bones. I literally broke everything, eye sockets, cheekbones, jaw, half my teeth. Pain is nothing for me.” Scott has clawed his way back from bedridden BMXer to fearsome fighter. “Boxing has given me way more confidence in life. We all get down sometimes, and boxing just gets me uplifted, so happy. It pushes me to the limit, makes me feel good about myself, gets me out of my comfort zone – I love it.”
This is also Scott’s second round of Beer Wars. “I was extremely nervous last year. The day of the fight, I woke up at 6am and went to the tennis court and just started skipping like mad. I couldn’t even talk to people. This year’s gonna be different.” He finishes his beer with one gulp and says, “I’m ready for this fight. I’ve just gotta stay calm, remember what I’ve learnt, keep my gloves up and never let my guard down. I’ve trained my ass off, now let’s do this.”
The 4th annual Beer Wars is on Saturday, April 13 at the Croatian Cultural Centre. Get your tickets here or donate to Eastside Boxing Club.