This article first appeared in print in Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine’s June 2021 issue. Read the entire e-edition here:
It’s been 25 years of beers, sweat, and tears for Mt. Begbie Brewing Co. Looking back, Tracey and Bart Larson have watched the craft beer industry, and Revelstoke itself, undergo massive changes. What started as a honeymoon idea grew into a town landmark, earning international recognition within the brewing community.
For the Larsons, their recipe for success is simple: stick with the classics, and remain consistent. Luckily, the duo’s backgrounds in science have helped them master this formula. Before opening Mt. Begbie Brewing Co., Bart Larson was a nuclear physicist, and Tracey Larson graduated with a masters degree in zoology.
“In general, being a scientist, it teaches you how to think is the main thing. And it teaches you to problem solve, and that’s number one,” explains Bart.
In addition to problem solving and critical thinking skills, Bart took courses in chemistry and physics; an often overlooked but vital part of brewing. With her background in zoology, Tracey implements knowledge of microbiology for quality control. Together, the skills they developed in the sciences created the methodology for a consistent, tasty product.
The hunt for the perfect location
Despite the crossover between their science degrees and the brewing industry, opening a craft brewery in 1996 was a risky endeavour. However, when the Larsons weighed their options, returning to Revelstoke was a key factor.
Their first location was on Victoria Road, and the building did not have water or gas. But, it checked two major requirements: cheap rent and availability. From there, the Larsons built the brewery upwards. The second location was as Bart describes a “right place and right time” scenario. His cousin had recently purchased the building, and although it required multiple renovations, the location was great and the additional space allowed them to add a tasting room. Bart and Tracey’s favourite aspect of that building? Big windows, and the addition of a tasting room.
Now, Mt. Begbie Brewing is building its own warehouse, has a fully functional restaurant and tasting room, and state-of-the-art brewing equipment. It is a tremendous improvement from their previous locations, and Bart and Tracey are proud of that. Unlike their previous locations, their current space was built specifically to house a brewery. However, the scenic views and bright brewing spaces are what really shine in this location.
“It’s not like a Vancouver brewery, where you’re in an industrial area right up on the street eating your meal. It’s nice up here,” says Tracey Larson. In addition to the scenic vantage points, the overall functionality and aesthetic of the brewery has made it a better place to work, says the Larsons.
Standing out in a rapidly expanding industry
When you’re in business for 25 years, things are bound to change. The craft brewing industry has undergone a massive boom in recent years. According to a 2020 report from the Government of Canada, the volume of craft beer sales increased by 70.1 billion liters from 2014 to 2018. During that same time period, the volume of non-craft beer sales dropped by 96 million liters. In 2018, Canada recorded 995 federally licensed breweries and over 1,000 small or independent craft breweries. From 2017 to 2018, the number of breweries in Canada increased 21.8 per cent.
That rapid growth and increase of competition worries the Larsons. They question the sustainability of the craft beer boom, especially when it comes to smaller scale producers. Bart says he is unsure if he would have entered the industry at this present moment.
“I don’t know if there’s room for everybody to grow to whatever size they want to be. The market is pretty competitive right now,” says Bart Larson. “There’s only so many people to drink the beer.”
When it comes to surviving in such a competitive market, Mt. Begbie Brewing’s reputation for consistency and quality comes in. Instead of investing in “glitzy marketing”, all of their money goes back into beer production. They don’t hop on fads or trends, instead focusing on what they know works. However, that does not mean their beer is bland.
“We’ve gone from the traditional lager, maybe a black lager, or very bland universally. Budweiser brews the most universally liked beer they can because they want sales,” says Tracey. She explains that craft brewing is the opposite of traditional “popular” beers, like Budweiser. It focuses on incorporating local ingredients and big flavour profiles; whether that’s hop-y, malt-y, or crisp and light.
However, with the explosion of craft beer came brewers creating wild concoctions, almost inspired by shock value. That is not the approach that Mt. Begbie Brewing Co. takes. As the old saying goes, consistency is key.
“Everybody is always looking to do different things. But I think now to some degree, it’s gotten a little ridiculous,” says Bart.
Tracey emphasizes Bart’s statements that their philosophy is different from the more experimental, trend-driven breweries.
“You always want to come back to a tried-and-true style or flavor that you like. You want to come back to something that is consistent,” she explains. “When you try some of these new and wacky things, sometimes it’s like, ‘oh, man, I just bought a six pack of that and it tastes like socks.’”
Those tried-and-true flavours include four long-term, award-winning staples of Mt. Begbie Brewery’s beer collection: Begbie Cream Ale, Tall Timber Ale, Alpine Amber Ale (now Powerhouse Pale Ale) and High Country Kolsch. However, the team still rotates more experimental, seasonal brews.
Looking back and moving forward
Despite receiving awards and community support from the beginning of their journey, there have been challenges for the Larsons to overcome: personally and professionally. Tracey Larson explains that being an introverted female in a male-dominated industry was particularly challenging for her, in addition to approaching the overall sales market.
“There was only one other female beer rep that I knew in the province. It was tough,” she says. However, these challenges made Tracey more resilient, and a better problem solver. She has learned to “not sweat the small stuff,” since issues tend to come and go.
It still shocks the Larsons that they have hit the 25 year milestone. At this point, they have established a comfortable spot in the craft beer industry. Bart Larson says that there is a cap that most breweries hit, where focus shifts from expanding to solely running your business. However, Mt. Begbie Brewing Co. has not hit that cap yet. This means that the Larsons can continue to be hands-on in the brewery, something that Bart enjoys.
“I like to work. I don’t really like sitting at a computer so much. I think it would kind of be sad if we ever got so big that [brewing] was no longer even part of your job,” Bart explains.
Even after 25 years, the Larsons say there are always things to improve at Mt. Begbie Brewing. However, after three locations and multiple renovations, the warehouse they are currently building will likely be their last expansion. In reflection, the Larsons are thankful that the risk they took back in 1996 paid off. They are proud of the beer they brew and the legacy they have created.
Most importantly, they are happy they chose Revelstoke as the home of their brewery, explains Bart.
“The town of Revelstoke, you can’t ask for more. It’s a great place to live, and a great place to work. I think we made the right call.”