Spinnakers celebrates 40th anniversary, is oldest brewpub in Canada

Spinnakers celebrates 40th anniversary, is oldest brewpub in Canada
CHEK
The original pub sign hanging outside Spinnakers in Victoria.

Paul Hadfield is the owner of Spinnakers Brewpub in Vic West, which celebrated its 40th anniversary this week, making it the oldest brewpub in Canada.

It opened for business on May 15, 1984.

On Wednesday night, guests gathered to mark this great milestone with music, and of course, craft beers.

“Today’s event, which marks 40 years as being licensed as a brewpub, simply marks a change in culture that happened,” said Hadfield.

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The quintessential ‘Victoria Beer’

The sign hanging outside Spinnakers shows June 16, 1984 – the date it served its very first beer in Victoria.

“There is a beer here that they serve at Spinnakers that I think is a really important beer, that everybody should come here to try, because it’s been brewed here continuously for 40 years,” said Joe Wiebe, content manager for BC Ale Trail and author of “Craft Beer Revolution.”

“Now they call it Mitchell’s ESB after John Mitchell, who is the original brew master here. It was originally called Saanich and Bitter and they’ve been brewing it continuously and serving it from the cask engines where they pull the beer up – a tradition of British beer that John Mitchell brought over here when he came to Canada from England,” added Wiebe.

“So in a sense, it’s the quintessential ‘Victoria Beer,'” said Wiebe.

Changing the beer culture

Before Spinnakers opened its doors to Victoria, there were only a few neigbourhood pubs that operated under a hotel license.

They were in hotel parking lots, the backlots, and did not attract a wide range of patrons so much so that many people just called them “beerholes.”

Hadfield told CHEK, “given the opportunity, what I particularly wanted to do was change the nature of what the pub was, to go along with the notion of a changed beer environment, a changed beer product, changed beer culture.”

“So when we found a piece of property on the waterfront south-facing with opportunities to enable people to come inside, spend some time in the middle of the afternoon, we knew we had a location that made sense,” he said.

Back then, pubs didn’t have a brewery in the building and didn’t have a wide-ranging food menu. It was pickled eggs in a jar on the bars, maybe some wieners, hotdogs going around on a spit, bags of chips on the back bar. So Spinnakers came in and essentially functioned like a restaurant with a pub license.

It’s something that, according to Hadfield, actually annoyed the restaurant community because they were imposing on their turf.

But in order to make it work they needed to do lunch and dinner in addition to the regular pub hours.

They also needed to find that venue where people would be happy to come and spend some time in the middle of the day; people who were typically not pub patrons.

And so it was this opportunity to be in this kind of location surrounded by windows, to be on a walkway, that made it possible for Spinnakers to try to change the beer culture in the way that they were able to, says Hadfield.

History with no shortage of memorable moments

A fire that started in a fireplace and chimney caused extensive damage to Spinnakers on Nov. 23, 2016.

The fire broke out at approximately 1:30 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon and firefighters were forced to scale the roof in order to attack the blaze, which had already begun to eat away at chimney soffits by the time crews arrived.

READ MORE: Fire at Spinnakers Brewpub

“We had a fireplace about 15 feet from the bar upstairs and the fire burned through the floor of the fireplace. Ultimately we were a few hundred thousand dollars in damages, but we were able to re-open a portion of the building for service after nine days,” recalled Hadfield.

Another fire at the very beginning of the pandemic, virtually around the same area as the previous one, also cost extensive damages to Spinnakers.

The pandemic brought on its own set of challenges in the labour market and the housing market, marking a difficult time for the hospitality sector in general.

Hadfield shares that they’ve been through a lot of regulatory battles over the years.

Acquiring Spinnakers’ location required creating new zoning bylaws.

“I had to do a community plan for Vic West, we had to change things with liquor control licensing to create guidelines for licensing brewpubs, we had to change the federal excise tax to allow us to do all that we do on one premise,” Hadfield said.

“We ultimately were able to change the mark up scenario for beers so that we could seek this phenomenal growth on the craft beer sector that we’ve seen in B.C.”

‘If you’re gonna do the same things that everybody does, why are you here?’

Being an architect, Hadfield confesses to have lived by a quote since his school days.

“If you’re gonna do the same things that everybody does, why are you here?” he said.

Hadfield says this line helped him to always look for alternate ways of doing things.

“The restaurant business is very much held hostage to tourism economy, to the local economies; in order to feed the tourists we need more restaurant seats than we do in the winter time,” he said.

“That’s why we branched off into accommodations, having 10 rooms that we could function like an inn used to, back in the middles ages where they were down the country road, you’d get to the inn, and likely the public is there to hang out in the room with the locals.”

Reaching deep into their well of innovation

With the food and beverage scene having evolved so much in the last 30 years, Spinnakers acknowledges the fact that the number of younger people that drink alcohol is absolutely declining in a very significant way.

So to get in front of those people in that market, they’ve gone back to a well they drilled back in 2020 and tapped into an aquifer 225 feet below from the brewhouse floor containing certified natural mineral water.

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Spinnakers own well – a source of certified natural mineral water.

This gave them a unique opportunity to use mineral water from their own well as a base for their sparkling mineral waters, for craft sodas, and an upcoming range of five different zero-alcohol by volume cocktails in cans that will be available in the market this month.

In addition, they are also launching a parallel line of sparkling mineral waters with adaptogens, which are plants and functional mushrooms that help with sports recovery, energy, calm, and wellness.

With 40 years under his belt, Hadfield says the future is exciting despite the financial and economic challenges the industry faces.

“It’s not easy, but we just got to keep trying.”

Harry CorroHarry Corro

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