Driftwood Brewery opens new tasting room experience in Esquimalt
The tasting room opens alongside new offerings from breweries across the city. How will it fare?
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The tasting room opens alongside new offerings from breweries across the city. How will it fare?
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Gary Lindsay and his co-founders at Driftwood Brewery don’t believe in gimmicks.
Fall came and went without a single pumpkin-flavoured product coming out of their new 59,000 square foot Esquimalt facility, and craft beer fans know better than to expect any seasonal flavours this winter, either. This has been a constant throughout the company’s 13 years in existence.
“Everything we make is full-flavored and bold,” Lindsay said. “We enjoy things that are spiced well. We weren't interested in creating something that everyone else was doing.”
Driftwood Brewery is renting their new manufacturing facility and newly opened tasting room at 836 Viewfield Road from the CRD. They took over the building in January 2021, occupying a space that is nearly five times bigger than where the company began on Hillside Ave.
The bulk of the sprawling warehouse is taken up by the brewery’s manufacturing arm—this is where the beer is brewed, canned, and stored. It also houses the company’s new distillery which will soon produce two types of gin to add to Driftwood’s menu.
On the other side of the facility lies the main attraction: a tasting room with 32 products on tap—including a guest beer, Unsworth wine, and cider options.
Driftwood is not alone in their push for more tasting room space. Phillips’s tasting room expanded in 2018, and added more patio seating during the pandemic. New entrants Whistle Buoy and Herald Street, likewise, have built out their seating areas. And just this month, Vancouver brewery Superflux opened the Superflux Cabana on Broughton Street, showing that breweries don’t even need to make the beer here to attract a fan base to their own turf.
Driftwood has pulled out all the stops to make their space unique. The room itself is a large open space with marine life artwork plastered all over the walls, with a bar that stands smack dab in the centre of the room, hiding the entrance to the kitchen behind it.
Running this kitchen will be none other than the team behind Dumpling Drop, a popular frozen and fresh dumpling eatery,—as the name suggests—that recently opened their own storefront in Chinatown. Customers can sample all of these products and pairings either inside or outdoors on their patio, which can fit 60 people.
Despite the expansion into new products and ventures, Lindsay says Driftwood beer is still the main focus and the idea behind the tasting room is to showcase their brews in a more controlled setting.
“This is the first time that we can sort of control how our beers are served, the food that goes with it, and the staff that know about it, and create that experience for the customer,” he said.
On the other end, production at the brewery has been going full steam ahead since March—three months after they first moved in.
“It’s a pretty expansive site,” Lindsay said. “Everything is purpose-built here so we were able to [get] a whole new floor with proper drainage. It's all been methodically and purposely laid out and it helps with the flow of everything.” It’s a big improvement over their previous location on Hillside Ave where Lindsay says workers were constantly “fighting with tight, confined spaces and tripping over things.”
The space allows Lindsay and co-founders Kevin Hearsum and Jason Meyer to expand their offerings—something they’ve all wanted to do for years. The three met while working at Lighthouse Brewing Company in the early 2000s.
“[Hearsum and Meyer] were interested and keen to make different styles [of beer] and expand the portfolio a bit...and those opportunities weren’t happening at Lighthouse at the time,” Lindsay said. So in 2008, Driftwood Brewery was born.
It was a good time to start a brewery. According to Lindsay, 2008 was right before the “tidal wave of craft beer” in Victoria. While the craft beer scene had been growing more and more popular in the US, options were scant here in town so it was easy to identify the niche they wanted to fill. Into that rising tide, they launched Fat Tug, which, with eye-watering bitterness and bold citrusy hops, quickly became one of the most popular IPAs even in the province’s IPA-rich beer scene.
In the years since, Driftwood Brewery’s IPAs and lagers have been the recipient of dozens of awards—so much so that, not seeing a direct effect on sales even when they won, they eventually stopped entering themselves for awards and now simply bask in the adoration of readers’ choice awards and Twitter beer brackets.
The brewery never shut down operations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike some others, Lindsay says, Driftwood began brewing and storing more beer than before—a reaction to the uncertainty of not knowing whether they would be ordered to shut down. It was a strategy that worked out—“We weren’t ever sitting on excess beer,” he said.
But despite reports that alcohol consumption increased among the general public during the pandemic, Lindsay says that’s not what he observed from sales of Driftwood products.
“I think those numbers get skewed a little bit,” he said. “Alcohol consumption from stores went up, but if you look at the decline in the pubs, bars, and restaurants, I think you'll find that the total volume of liquor sold over that time was probably roughly the same as the year previous.”
Their own sales were “flat” in 2020, Lindsay says, but saw an uptick this year with bars and restaurants allowed to stay open.
Even before the Driftwood Brewery tasting room opened to the public on Nov. 12, members of the community were eager to try their fare—one local couple walked into the warehouse asking for a table, even as I waited to interview Lindsay two weeks before their opening.
“Esquimalt is anxious to have our business operating here,” Lindsay said. “There’s nothing like it in the area, so we’re bringing something to the community.”
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Capital Daily: What do Greater Victoria municipalities need to make it easier to run a business here?
Each municipality has their own processes. We found Esquimalt very accommodating, actually. It's tough to move things along much faster.
One thing that could happen perhaps is, maybe they're here more often as each thing gets done, so they can sign off on it, you know? Waiting till the end to try and do it all can be a little tricky.
I think there's, you know, a fair number of hoops but you know, for us, this has been pretty good.
What worries you most about your business?
Just keeping things open. We're obviously predicated on customers coming to us. That's a big thing. So hoping that things stabilize, whether it's COVID, or whether it's other threats to society.
What other local company or business leader do you look to for guidance?
We sort of look more broadly, we don't look locally all the time. I think that if you only look locally, you're looking in the mirror a little bit too much. I think sometimes you need to look further afield. So traveling in the beer consumption world, to the US and different states that have really cool things going on, you go, “Man, this would be fun to have back in Victoria.” So it's about bringing something here.
If you had to run another business in town, what would it be and why?
Honestly, I've never even thought about what else I would be interested in. I can't imagine not being involved in the craft beer game. I love anything that brings people together and everyone can sit around and enjoy and share time together, and beer is sort of that social glue.
If you had $10,000 to invest, where would you invest it?
I love food so maybe if someone had a food truck concept they wanted to get off the ground as a small local business, and they had a really good idea, you know, investing a small little part in something like that would be fun.
How do you stay inspired to keep running your business?
It's been really tough in the last two years but you know, by traveling and seeing different things and seeing other possibilities and scenarios, those things sort of keep you motivated to do more.
Then you have staff working with you—the sales team, the people you’ve worked with for years—and they come to you with ideas and inspiration and sort of give you reality checks once in a while when you're so caught up in trying to manage something that sort of brings you back.
What’s the first thing you’ll do when we can all stop with pandemic protocol?
Travel. Travel freely. Not be worried and confined.
What do you consider your biggest failure and how did you overcome it?
The lure of global markets early on. Beer sales in the U.S. we saw as an opportunity and we delved into it and met a lot of frustration. It was basically a matter of losing control of your product. One thing we pride ourselves in, in selling locally, even in Canada is always consistency is really important for us. The further you go, the more control you lose and that customer experience is not the same. So yeah, we just pulled back from a couple of markets and deals that we had and basically focused more locally.
I would say that would be the biggest eye roll; I wish I didn’t do that. But if I didn't do that, I wouldn't learn, right?
What do you wish you knew before starting Driftwood Brewery?
You don't know until you know. Like you go into it sort of naive. When we first opened we talked about [how] it’d be great to sell 15,000 or 20,000 hectolitres of beer. And when you're selling 2000 or 3000 hectoliters, you have no way to know what it's gonna take to sell 15,000, let alone produce. Without knowing some of those things, you go ahead and success comes or it doesn't. But you learn.