A stream of blond malted barley slides from the deep metal pot into steaming water.
Nathan Illerbrun leans over a wooden tub, insulated and lined with metal. As he peers inside the vat, puffs of sweet, musty-smelling vapour fog up his wire-framed glasses.
This is mashing. For the next hour, Illerbrun will keep a constant check on the liquid's temperature. Standing beside a bike rack in a cluttered basement of a friend's house, Illerbrun patiently watches the brew as the milled grain and water swirl together, breaking down starches into sugars.
It's not a lonely pursuit. His new puppy jumps and darts around the makeshift bar in the back of the space. A flow of friends and curious passersby walks through the open garage door to peek at the brew's progress. And Illerbrun's always happy to talk about beer.
“It tastes a little better when you make it yourself,” he says.
On a hunt for cheap beer, in 2002 Illerbrun started brewing beer while studying electrical engineering at the University of Alberta. After a few bad batches, he took a hiatus before picking up the craft in earnest four years ago.
A lot has changed in that time period, Illerbrun says as he stirs the brown liquid. Once forced to design and build all his brewing equipment, now much of it can be bought online. There are also more clubs, online and sprouting up in communities throughout North America, he notes.
“People are getting into it more and more,” Illerbrun says.
Story continues after video
Interest in beer has spread through North American consumers like an epidemic. South of the border, an estimated one million Americans make their own beer and wine, states the American Homebrewers Association (AHA).
Whether it's homebrewing or craft brewing, locally made beer is simply hot, Howe Sound Brewing's brewery master Paul Wilson says. In recent years, B.C. craft breweries doubled their sales, from $57 million in 2007 to $111.5 million in 2011, B.C. Business stated in a 2011 report.
All of the frenzy feeds into people's knowledge about beer and spurs the craft on, Wilson says.
“They are opening up 11 [craft breweries] in the city this year,” he says. “People want to be a part of something; it's the idea of local.”
It's a welcome change of pace, Wilson notes. Five years ago, Howe Sound Brewing held no accounts in Squamish. That's all changed, as the community has come to realize the brewery's value as a tourism and economic draw, Wilson says. The company now has 90 employees and its weekend brewery tours are attracting beer enthusiasts from the Lower Mainland.
“A lot of the Howe Sound product is sold locally,” Wilson says. “People want to support the brewery now.”
Peter Vandenberg is hoping the beer renaissance will spill over into hops production. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Squamish was known worldwide for its farming of the cone-shaped flowers, which provide the bitter, tangy taste in beer. In 1891, the Squamish Valley Hop Raising Co. was formed and a year later the company purchased 260 acres for hops production.
The local hops industry died in the mid-20th century when U.S. conglomerates came across the border and bought up farms, then shifted production to the south. At the same time, other crops became more profitable, Vandenberg says.
Based in Pemberton, Vandenberg is hoping to see that sea of green rise again. He's behind the Hops Connect, a company that buys hops from small-time growers around the valley and sells them to craft brewers. Hops production gives residents the option of turning their unused hay fields into income, Vandenberg says.
“You can make up to $7,000 per acre. It is good for people that own those little pieces of land,” he says, noting it also allows for residents to gain farm status.
This is the first year the company is growing hops itself. It has also already sold out of its organic hops. With 10 breweries, including Howe Sound Brewing, on board and homebrewers signing on every day, Vandenberg aims to further develop his products.
“Ninety per cent of hops used in B.C. comes from Europe and America. We want to change that,” he says, noting the Sea to Sky Corridor's climate is perfect for hops production.
For Illerbrun, the beer buzz is exciting. It leads to larger events, more online forum discussion and, of course, more friendly competition between recipes. As he's matured, so have his beers and his goals.
“I aspire to win a gold-medal national homebrewers competition,” he says with a smile.
On Saturday (April 27), the Howe Sound Inn and Brewing Co. will overflow with B.C. craft beers in what's called a Tap Takeover. Representatives of 17 craft breweries will each take over a tap at the pub, offering customers a chance to taste a variety of B.C. beer.
For $10, people get five glasses of any craft beer on tap. The Whiskey Dicks will be pumping out tunes. The event starts at 4 p.m. For more information visit www.howesound.com or call 1-800-919-2537.