Perhaps you’ve already noticed, but B.C.’s craft beer boom has been consistent across the province. Smaller, more remote communities such as Cumberland, Invermere and Terrace have all staked a claim to the burgeoning industry, right alongside Vancouver and Victoria.
There are still notable gaps, mostly in Vancouver’s suburbs. Burnaby and Richmond only have two breweries each – no sign of spillover from Vancouver’s 20-plus – while Coquitlam and Port Coquitlam have yet to set off the mark.
But Surrey is the most puzzling case.
With an estimated half million residents, Surrey is B.C.’s second most populous city. It’s also B.C.’s largest city by area, spread over almost 320 square kilometers, 15 of which is industrial land with average rental rates well below Vancouver’s. That translates to ample, affordable space for breweries and many potential customers.
But until recently, Surrey’s craft beer representatives were the same three breweries that have done the job for more than a decade: Central City, Russell and the Mark James Group’s Big Ridge brewpub. White Rock Brewing opened in South Surrey in late August, the first new brewery business in the municipality since Central City opened in 2003. There are no reports of another opening on the horizon.
So why has Surrey been lagging while the rest of the province is taking off?
The simple answer is lack of demand. This becomes more apparent when you look at demographics. Around 26 per cent of Surrey’s population (according to the 2011 census; it’s now estimated at more than one-third) is too young to legally drink. There are more under-19s per household here than anywhere else in B.C., largely because Surrey is attractive for young families seeking an affordable home — and young families don’t often tour breweries on a Friday night.
More difficult to gauge is the effect of Surrey’s large populations of ethnic groups that either drink modestly or avoid alcohol altogether.
But then there are social factors. One in five Surrey residents live below the poverty line, according to census data, while the city is home to relatively few of the young professionals with disposable income who are largely driving the beer boom in Vancouver.
Their absence has given the big beer companies an opportunity to make a stand in Surrey, says Tim Barnes, VP of marketing and sales with Central City Brewers + Distillers, which has made establishing draught accounts on its home turf a challenge.
“You still go into a lot of the pubs and they have all mainstream beer,” Barnes says. “…We don’t get the benefit that Parallel 49 does. If they go down Commercial Drive they can say [to a local pub], ‘Hey we’re down the street, you’ve got to have us on.’ Whereas if we said [to a local pub] ‘We’re down the street,’ they would say, ‘We don’t care. Our customers don’t want craft beer.”
The city’s sheer size is another issue. When any city sprawls it becomes more difficult to connect people and businesses, and Surrey’s extant breweries are spread far apart. A quick Google Maps search reveals that a brewery crawl from Central City’s Bridgeview facility to White Rock Brewing via Russell and Big Ridge would involve either a 40-minute car journey of 24 km; a two-hour transit trip with a long schedule of transfers; or a 21-km, 4.5-hour hike.
It makes for frustrating nights out for those in Surrey who do appreciate craft beer.
“There’s not a centralized brewery area like Yeast Van. There’s no downtown spot where you can go and drink,” says Megan Harris, president of CAMRA South Fraser and a former Surrey resident of 20 years.
“If you want to go to Big Ridge, the buses only run at a certain time, and if you want to get back the last bus is at nine or whatever.
“Transit is a huge issue.”
Many Surrey beer lovers find it easier to take the 40-minute SkyTrain ride to Vancouver, Harris adds.
It’s easy to see how a small brewery could feel isolated. It’s why Central City, for one, would encourage any potential startup to move to Bridgeview to start a brewery hub.
“I do believe the tide lifts all boats,” Barnes says. “I think the more craft breweries we have in Surrey the better it is for all of us.”
The city seems keen to redevelop Bridgeview. On the heels of Central City’s 65,000-square-foot brewery – funded by the city via the Surrey City Development Corporation – is a proposal for a new hockey arena close to the Scott Road SkyTrain station.
But as for more breweries, Surrey councillor
Bruce Hayne says the city is taking a wait-and-see approach.
“Surrey has a young demographic and a growing population… and affordable land, so I think [breweries] will naturally come,” Hayne says. “And I’m hopeful that some of it will start to cluster around where Central City is.”
No one interviewed for this story had a ready solution to Surrey’s brewery drought. But as rocketing property prices drive more young professionals out of Vancouver, the city may yet fulfil its craft beer potential. It could take just a couple of brave startups to spark a mini-boom of beer south of the Fraser.