A small brewery tucked away in the corner of a strip mall in northern B.C. is unexpectedly busy this week after being named as the makers of the best beer in Canada.
Deadfall Brewing, which just opened its doors in Prince George last year, was the gold medal winner at the Canada Beer Cup held in Niagara Falls, Ont., on Oct. 25.
Its founders, husband-and-wife team Brandon and Erin Baerwald, weren’t even there in person because they had no expectation of placing in the contest held by the Canadian Craft Brewers Association. The national competition, celebrating independently owned and operated breweries from across the country, attracted more than 1,200 entries.
“Gobsmacked, overwhelmed, bewildered,” Erin said of her reaction to the news of their victory.
“Totally did not believe it,” Brandon adds.
The pair spoke to CBC News a week after their win and just after Brandon finished making another batch of the gold medal winner, dubbed Basal Brown Ale. His tanks and workstation are in full view of the small tasting room set up in a semi-industrial part of the city, which serves a population of about 90,000 people.
Neighbours include auto repair shops and carpet cleaners, and a sign on the wall warns the capacity is just 30 people, though far more are trying to get in these days.
“Suddenly, it’s everybody’s favourite beer,” Brandon jokes.
All week he’s been fielding calls from Ontario and beyond from sellers hoping to stock his product, though the Baerwalds say their immediate focus is on keeping their Prince George customers happy.
But they hope the win will draw attention to the burgeoning craft scene in the province’s upper half, which has long been overshadowed by the better-known brewers in the East Vancouver neighbourhood and Vancouver Island.
“We’re not some podunk place,” Erin said. “There’s all of these breweries that are so good and have been around for a while and for us to win, this really says there is good stuff here…. We’re legit.”
A complex blend riddled with personal meaning
The Canada Beer Cup was first held in 2022 as a way to bring global attention to the country’s craft industry. Winners are selected by a panel of international judges who do blind tastes in a variety of categories, before naming the best beer overall.
The decision to name Deadfall this year’s winner was unanimous, said head judge Stephen Beaumont.
“We were all delighted by the complexity and balance of the beer, and for me personally … hugely impressed by the fact it was the product of such a young brewery,” Beaumont said in an email to CBC News.
“The proverbial ‘cherry on top’ for me and a few of the others judges, was the fact that it was of a style not especially trendy or in vogue these days.”
That’s one of the reasons the victory was such a surprise the Baerwalds, as well — they say that until now, the Basal Brown has been one of their lowest sellers.
But it’s also one riddled with personal meaning: Basal means “base” or “beginning,” and the beer was the first recipe they put together, as well as the first released under the Deadfall name. Its logo is a Townsend’s big-eared bat, a tribute to the Baerwald’s origin story as a couple, so meeting while doing field research on bats in Alberta in 2007.
They were married in 2013 — their victory was the same week as their 10th anniversary — and made their way to Saskatchewan as Erin pursued a professional career in academia, while Brandon turned his attention to brewing, realizing that getting two research positions in the same city was unlikely. Before long, he was learning the trade in the 400-person community of Nokomis, Sask, about 130 kilometres northwest of Regina.
‘It really is a community’
In 2019, when Erin was offered a position at the University of Northern B.C. in Prince George to carry on her research into bat behaviour and conservation, one of the first things the couple did was check if there was any sort of brewing scene in the city. There was, but it was new: the first craft beer producer, CrossRoads, opened in 2017 followed by Trench in 2018. That’s where Brandon worked until he and Erin decided to try their hand at opening their own shop last year.
Bailey Hoefels, one of the owners of Trench, said with such a small scene, it’s important for everyone to be supportive of each other, asking for advice or teaming up on bulk orders to reduce the cost of shipping in supplies.
And it extends beyond Prince George — brewers across northern B.C. as a whole regularly team up to try and draw attention to the region, with brewers in communities hundreds of kilometres away like Fort St. John, Smithers and Prince Rupert teaming up on projects like the annual AleFest or putting out joint tasting packs to be sold in liquor stores.
“The scene in northern B.C. reminds me of the scene in Saskatchewan,” Brandon said, with just one or two breweries serving each town, spread out over hundreds of kilometres. “It really is a community.”
‘Prince George deserves the best’
Last year’s winner of the Canada Beer Cup was Callister Brewing in East Vancouver, sometimes described as the craft beer capital of the country. Callister co-owner Chris Lay says that, like Deadfall, his phone started blowing up after the victory.
But the difference, he says, was that both Callister Brewing and the Vancouver beer scene as a whole were already well established, so the impact wasn’t quite as large in terms of drawing in new customers. And, he says, if he were to start out again he would probably choose to do so in a smaller city like Prince George where you could build more a community around a single shop, “becoming the place that the town goes and hangs out in.”
Asked about plans for expansion, the Baerwalds say much the same thing: While they will try to step up production a bit to supply more out of town customers, their focus is on the people who have already been supporting them by sitting in their tasting room playing board games or filling out colouring sheets, and helping put northern B.C on the craft beer map.
“I really do think that we’ve made this really nice little family,” Erin says. “And we love Prince George. And Prince George deserves the best.”