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Craft beer craze transforms gritty Vancouver port district

For decades, the Princeton was the lone pub in the shadow of East Vancouver’s towering port warehouses. But a spontaneous…

By Elizabeth Hames , in Business , on November 18, 2013 Tags: , ,

Workers at Parallel 49 Brewing transport beer boxes at the brewery's East Vancouver warehouse.
A new batch of Gypsy Tears Ruby Ale heads out of Parallel 49 Brewing.

For decades, the Princeton was the lone pub in the shadow of East Vancouver’s towering port warehouses. But a spontaneous flood of craft breweries to the district, coupled with changes to B.C.’s liquor laws, means the area could soon see at least four new full-blown pubs open up – almost overnight.

In the past two years, three breweries and a distillery quietly joined Storm Brewing in the industrial district north of Hastings, east of Commercial, where they operated small tasting rooms attached to their production facilities. They were drawn to the cheap rent, brewery-friendly zoning and grungy charm.

“It was gritty, grimy so the cool kids wanted to be here,” said David Bowkett, co-founder of Powell Craft Street Brewery.

With the anticipated launch of Bomber Brewing in the next few months, the total number of craft alcohol-producers will soon be six. Most have said they will bid for new liquor licences that would allow them to serve customers as much craft beer as any pub, instead of the 12 ounces per customer per day under the current laws.

That means this forgotten corner of the city will be transformed to a brewery district to rival that of Mount Pleasant, whose blackberry ales and oatmeal stouts have been much hyped by Vancouver’s beer-drinking elite.

Increased competition

If you ask the head brewer at Parallel 49 Brewing Company, that change has already happened.

“We have a similar amount of breweries. We have a distillery, too,” said Parallel’s Graham With, whose operation is producing four times as much beer as it did when it opened in 2012. “I think we probably put out more beer in this district than they do.”

But not everyone stands to benefit from the whirlwind change.

If the breweries are successful in obtaining lounge licences, Princeton Pub owner Les Rippel will suddenly have four direct competitors within a few blocks of his door, where before he had none.

He said he’s already seen a drop in sales since Parallel 49 began selling beer out of its tasting room a few months ago, even though Parallel is only selling beer at the current limited rate.

He thinks those breweries should stick to that limit.

“I think they should just all be sample rooms, not a lounge licence,” he said.

Until recently, Rippel has championed the growth of the brewery district as a force for good in the neighbourhood.

Indeed, the French bistro, JJ Bean and doggy daycare that trailed behind the breweries are a dramatic change from the drug dealers, booze can thugs and survival sex workers who owned the neighbourhood less than a decade ago.

Those changes complemented Rippel’s own efforts at clearing out dodgy activity.

Cleaning up the area

When Rippel took over management of the Princeton in the early 2000s, it was a gathering place for the assortment of criminals that thrive in industrial districts free of spying residents.

“It was really bad,” said Rippel.

Princeton Hotel 1910
The Princeton was the only pub in the neighbourhood for decades, until the craft breweries moved in. Photo credit: Vancouver Archives

Drug traffickers lurked around the pay phone, waiting to broker a deal. Sex-trade workers used the toilet stalls to turn tricks.

“We had to lock our doors to the bathroom and give all the regulars keys,” he said.

Rippel got to work cleaning up the Princeton. Soon, all that was left were the longshoremen, but even they started disappearing as port management cracked down on lunchtime rounds at the pub, he said.

But the lull in Rippel’s sales didn’t last long. As the breweries arrived, so did the welcome parade of young beer drinkers who trailed behind them and into the Princeton.

“People would go there, drink and then they would come down here after they would close, have something to eat and drink some more,” said Rippel.

With said he has noticed the difference the breweries have made to the neighbourhood in the year and a half he’s been there.

Ambitious growth

When Parallel 49 opened its doors in May 2012, the district would empty out around 6, as workers in the area’s flooring manufacturing plants, grain mills and industrial printers went home for the day.

“Now that we have a tasting room open until 9, there’s a steady flow of people coming in and out, which has cleaned up the neighbourhood a little,” With said.

However, as the breweries stake their claim on the neighbourhood, their once-friendly relationship with the Princeton is becoming strained.

A few months ago, Parallel 49 became the first craft brewery to have its beers on tap at the Princeton. But Rippel has become uneasy watching the breweries’ ambitious growth.

“At this point I’m actually looking at dropping them and looking at picking up somebody that’s not from this area,” he said.