The opening of the Red Racer Restaurant on Beatty Street earlier this year felt like a re-opening to many Vancouver beer lovers. That same location was home to Dix Bar-B-Q and Brewery, a popular and influential brewpub that shut down in 2010.
Dix has attained a mythical status among the early adopters of Vancouver’s craft beer community in the 2000s. As part of the Mark James Group brewpub chain – which also includes Yaletown Brewing, Big Ridge Brewing in Surrey and High Mountain BrewHouse in Whistler – it helped spawn and facilitate Vancouver’s craft beer culture as it exists today.
“Dix was Ground Zero,” says Rick Green, former CAMRA Vancouver president from 2008-2009. “It’s iconic. That’s where cask beer started, where real ale started, in Vancouver. Everything grew out of there.”
Dix was originally a lager house, meant to complement the range of ales at Yaletown Brewing. Iain Hill, MJG’s head brewer from 1994 until he left to open Strange Fellows Brewing last year, says the original lineup included a dunkel, a helles and a pilsner, with a Belgian wit as a seasonal.
After setting up Dix and brewing there for six months, Hill returned to Yaletown, leaving Dave Varga in charge. A little later, Mark Andrewsky joined the team as bar manager. He says those early years were challenging because “Dix was completely dependent on shows and hockey and the Lions.” When the stadiums were quiet, the brewpub was quiet, too. The departure of the Grizzlies NBA team in 2001 was a blow.
Varga moved over to the MJG’s Avalon Brewing operation on the North Shore in 2001 and was replaced by Stefan Arnason, who remembers that “Dix was a little off the radar in terms of the Mark James Group,” which gave him some room to experiment with different styles of beer.
Mark Andrewsky first suggested the idea to do a cask night at Dix.
“We’d go to the Great Canadian Beer Festival and Penticton [Fest-of-Ale] annually, and everyone was so excited about casks. So I thought why don’t we do it more often?” he says.
Arnason and Hill prepared an IPA and bitter for their first cask night at Dix, but it didn’t really become a regular affair until Tony Dewald replaced Arnason in August 2002. He remembers his first cask night occurred on Saturday, October 5, 2002, but admits, “We only sold six to eight pints that night so Mark and I had to stay all night to finish it.”
But they persisted with regular cask nights on the first Saturday of the month, and the city’s brewers began to congregate there. Guest casks became a common event, too.
“There’d be eight brewers sitting around 30 litres of beer till 3 o’clock in the morning,” Andrewsky says.
“James [Walton of Storm Brewing] would show up with a cask under his arm and say, ‘We’re tapping it right now.’ So the other brewers all wanted to do it, too.”
CAMRA Vancouver formed around this time. Founder Lundy Dale approached Dix about hosting monthly meetings, the first of which was held in January 2003. They had regular monthly meetings with guest casks from Backwoods Brewing (now Dead Frog Brewing), Storm Brewing, Steamworks and R&B Brewing (where Dale now works).
Dewald says these early cask nights were not very successful.
“When CAMRA only had eight members you’d be lucky to get one or two to these events,” he says, and with less than a dozen breweries total in the Lower Mainland at the time, the number of brewers who attended was not very significant.
But Andrewsky and Dewald were devoted “to make Dix the focal point of the Vancouver beer scene.” In the summer of 2003, Dewald organized the first Dix Caskival, where 100 people attended. Winter and summer Caskivals followed each year, building up more interest. Then came the NHL lockout in 2004-05, which killed the only busy nights Dix could rely on. Dewald suggested moving the monthly cask nights to once a week on Thursdays – a smart move, as more and more people began showing up every week. He also held an IPA Fest in the spring of 2005.
“This was a crucial point in local beer history when they started pushing boundaries, especially with bigger IPAs,” Hill says.
Dewald remembers chatting with a customer from San Diego, who said, “Dude, your IPA needs to have more hops in it. Whatever you’re doing now, just double the finishing hops.”
This spurred him to start experimenting. “The cask would run green for the first five to ten pints because there were so many hops in it.”
When Dewald took a job at Dead Frog in 2007, he was replaced by Derrick Franche, who had been brewing at Big Ridge for a year after jobs at Spinnakers, Wild Rose and Russell.
By then, “Dix was a real landmark,” Franche says. “It was where the brewers and CAMRA hung out. I was licking my chops to take that job because I knew that it was pretty high profile.”
But the job came with a warning from Dewald that MJG might shut Dix down. The 10-year lease on the space was up in 2008, and the landlord intended to raise the rent. But the prospect of the coming Winter Olympics justified keeping the brewpub open, at least until 2010.
Sure enough, Dix closed on Victoria Day, 2010. Franche remembers the feeling at the pub the night before: “It was like a family gathering there. We just believed it would never close.”
But the next day he showed up to work and his key no longer turned the lock. He helped out at Red Truck for a while before moving to the High Mountain BrewHouse in Whistler.
The new Red Racer restaurant has been met with mostly positive reviews from the old gang. The owners, Central City Brewers and Distillers, acknowledged Dix’s legacy by mounting the large Dix sign that once hung outside the building on a wall inside the restaurant.
Lundy Dale says, “It’s not the same, but I do like it. We call it Dix Central.”
And though there’s no actual brewery there any more, the brewing equipment itself lives on at Brassneck Brewery, where brewer Conrad Gmoser invites Dewald and Franche to guest brew a special Spirit of DIXmas IPA each winter.
The legend lives on.
DIX Brewer Timeline with their current jobs:
1998: Iain Hill (Strange Fellows Brewing)
1998 to 2001: Dave Varga (33 Acres Brewing)
2001 to 2002: Stefan Arnason (Poplar Grove winery)
2002 to 2007: Tony Dewald (Trading Post Brewing)
2007 to 2010: Derrick Franche (Whistler BrewHouse)
2001 to 2010: Mark Andrewsky (Bar Manager)