In the craft beer industry, if you were one of the first out the gate, is that an advantage or a disadvantage? Russell Brewing Company, which opened up their award-winning doors in 1995, holds the distinction of being one of the original ten craft breweries in Greater Vancouver, BC. So, does that mean the Russell Brewing team gets to enjoy resting on their laurels?
“When we opened, everything was much simpler and craft beer was far from being trendy,” says Jimmy Darbyshire, Head of Media. “There has been a huge evolution in craft brewing, and we’ve had to keep up with trends. But it’s not always as easy for us to pivot, because we’re a little larger than the average micro-brewery.”
Of course, one thing that can help a company drive its own evolution is a change in leadership. And Russell Brewing has had a few of those. The last time the company changed hands was six years ago.
Reminiscing on what Russell Brewing was like in 2016, Jimmy laughs and says, “We were kind of the old man at the party drinking a Molson Canadian. We weren’t that relevant; we had lost a step because we weren’t innovating; we were relying on beers from our start as staples.”
That changed quickly when the team hired brewmaster Dave van Allen.
“We brought on a brewmaster who lived and breathed beer and started pushing boundaries and releasing as many beers as we could.”
The most notable win from that period of experimentation and expansion was a new line of milkshake IPAs. It’s the offering that Russell Brewing is probably best known for nowadays.
Having steered the company back into relevance, the team now knows it’s easier to keep up than catch up. The experimental spirit that they picked up in 2016 lives on, and it’s about to express itself through a new development: Russell Brewing’s first tasting room.
“Yes, when it comes to a tasting room, we’re last to the party, in typical Russell fashion,” jokes Jimmy. “We’re really excited about it, because it’s not only going to allow us to bring guests in, but it’s also giving us a new way to innovate.”
That new way is the test batch system attached to the tasting room. This will allow brewers to create smaller batches to share with guests who can give invaluable feedback. For a larger-than-micro brewery like Russell, this represents a major breakthrough. Their slightly bigger size has meant that previously when they brewed a beer, they had to brew a lot of it. That changes with the test batch system.
“A lot of people think we’re bigger than we are. People consider us to be a macro-brewery, but we’re far from that. We’re still a small company with extremely passionate brewers who aren’t stopped from experimenting the way they might be at a bigger brewery.”
One factor that’s helping the Russell team stay nimble is a supportive, long-running partnership with Great Little Box Company/Ideon Packaging (GLBC). GLBC manufactures labels and corrugated solutions for the brewery.
“GLBC is so attentive to our needs. In this industry, things are always changing; you have to be able to change course quickly. When, for example, we have to change a release date and get supplies faster than expected, it’s never an issue. We’re never fighting to meet timetables. We say we need something faster, the label and packaging specialists at GLBC just say, ‘How fast?’”
With Russell Brewing’s first tasting room about to open up, we think it’s a wonderful time to pay one of Greater Vancouver’s original craft breweries a visit. With a menu designed by Pawn Shop and Wooden Spoon and a focus on boundary-pushing beer, it’s guaranteed to be a great time. We’re proud of our partners and just how much evolution they’ve embraced over their nearly 30-year history.