With Brian MacIsaac and Rebecca Kneen
You have a true farm brewery, on an organic farm. What’s unusual about your brewery?
B: I thought about putting together a diagram: it would start with us growing the hops—it’s less than 30 feet away from the brewery. So we bring the hops into the brewery, we use them, then we put then back outside as a mulch. There’s no motor turned on, it’s all by hand truck or bucket. People talk about going to gyms and things—no, just work. Don’t turn on a machine somewhere else to work out: just do the work out when you’re working.
This hundred-mile dinner you hosted: that seems to encompass a lot of what you believe in.
R: We are certified organic, the farm is certified organic, and what we’re trying to do is integrate the brewery and the farm together. What we tried to do with the banquet was to show people what seasonal eating is all about and to get them excited about what is available in their own backyard—and, in our case, it is literally what is in our own backyard.
We took the hundred-mile diet and—even though we poked a little bit of fun at it—we wanted to honor the way that farmers eat all the time. And bring people back in touch with what is available right there. This is what we eat—we really do grow our own food. For the dinner, we brought in a lovely chef and did classic French cuisine with all local ingredients, and every course was paired with a special cask-conditioned beer we did just for the event.
And mead as well, from the bees that are pollinating the trees for fruit we’re using in the beer…it goes on and on.
B: The guy who manages the hives, he loves our stout, so we have a trading partner there. He does the service of having the bees on our farm—we don’t think of it the other way around—we’re privileged to have the bees on our farm. So the bees do the work, he prepares the honey, we trade the for the honey, and he gets the beer off us.
This is something that worked before everybody became strangers, that’s how we dealt with each other. We want to build this community on a large scale and have people interacting properly with each other, not just passing promissory notes back and forth.
Beer is a means to an end for you, isn’t it?
B: Yes, and it’s a currency, too.
R: It’s also a way to get some cash income on a farm, which is a good thing—especially for a small, diversified organic farm. And it’s a way to make use of what we’re growing on the farm in a slightly different way—I mean, there’s only so much jam you can eat, but you can put some of that fruit into beer, too, and it’s much more exciting!
It has also become an educational tool for us. We can explain to people what it means to be an organic and why organic agriculture and the offshoot, organic processing, can be better for the planet and for individuals.
It gives us a platform. The name of the brewery is actually a platform: “crannóg” is the Irish term for a little house on stilts, and it gives us a chance to talk about the wise use of agricultural land, because in Scotland and Ireland they built these houses off shore in areas where they didn’t have a lot of land that wasn’t solid rock or bog, that you can actually grow crops on. That land is very precious—so you don’t go putting your houses and your golf courses on it, OK?
B: And if you build these houses off shore, you gradually create a midden underneath, so you’re slowly creating more agricultural land underneath you as well. So you’re actually expanding the land base.
Brewery getting cash…When we first started out, the idea was, how can we be on a property and work all year round on it? Because a lot of farmers have to get other jobs to prop up what they’re doing, right?
So, the idea was, we lessen our footprint by not commuting anywhere, and processing something that takes away from the farm. We’re really into supporting local—and how local can get but by supporting your own infrastructure by working all year round there.
People are always asking “How can you do so much stuff?” Well, we don’t go anywhere! I can see what’s happening, I can make sure we take proper care of where we are.
You were city folks at one point.
B: Well, Rebecca actually grew up on a sheep farm in Nova Scotia, but I’ve always been a city person.
R: I set out to see the country and like so many people. I got to Vancouver and got stuck. The elastic band started to tighten, and it got as far as Sorrento and it broke!
How did you get into brewing as a…I’m not sure “profession” is the word to use with you.
B: Lifestyle? Brewing as a lifestyle. We were working as social workers on the East Side [of Vancouver], and the story goes that I needed something to keep my mind off what I was doing, so I started homebrewing more seriously. Then through Rebecca’s work to educate people about where their food comes from, and connect city with rural folk, I got to meet all these people in the food industry, and a lot of them were chefs. We’d get together, and everybody would bring their stuff, and mine was the alcohol, and they really encouraged us to do this so they could get this beer on a regular basis.
Long story short: we said “We don’t have any money,” and they said “We know people with money,” and they introduced us.
Some of the restaurateurs sponsored my way into brewing school.
Where did you go?
B: The American Brewers’ Guild in Sacramento. So I learned more of the science, but a lot of brewing is tenure. You need to be there long enough to understand where you’re going. How to taste something and introduce the flavor into your beer. It’s like being a chef. You know the right amounts to put in without having to experiment all the time.
If I came to your brewery and walked into the brewhouse, what would feel different from other breweries I’ve visited?
R: For starters, in order to get to the brewery, you have to drive through the farm. You have to pass the pigs and the chickens that eat the spent grain from the brewery, and you pass the barn and the sheep pasture and you see the standing stones and the little crannóg [in Scottish and Irish traditions, a crannóg is a man-made island or raised platform in a lake or marsh, which provided living space and preserved scarce arable land for cultivation] and the hop fields. So you see all that before you ever get to the brewery.
Brian is an artist, among other things, so our designs and tattoos and things are all his artwork. So, the brewery is not white. It’s all painted with various designs.
What would I hear in your brewhouse?
R: Music? The common theme for brewery music is ska. It’s fast enough that Brian doesn’t fall asleep, it’s got a good beat and it’s easy to dance to. And we all like to bop around.
No Celtic theme in the brewhouse?
B: Yes, we quite often have Celtic folk, but not the tourist Celtic, not the new age subtle stuff.
R: (Laughing) We don’t believe in subtle!
It’s designed to be inspirational, like the artwork on the way through. We devote a certain amount of time to creativity, because it’s one thing to gather food and build shelter, but we’ve gotten to a point in our evolution where there’s time for inspiring each other with images and making it welcoming.
R: Besides, when you spend most of your day cleaning things, it’s nice that when you’re swabbing the floor for the 14th time, it’s pretty when you’re done, it’s not just white. It makes a difference in how you go through the day.
You’re not just a brewer, but also an advocate for a whole set of ideas on sustainability.
B: It’s just obnoxious, our enthusiasm, but we want positive creativity to be contagious. When people come in and get inspired and excited, we say “Good.” Someone was telling us about Nelson Brewery going organic, and saying “Oh, now you’re going to have competition,” and I said “No, we’re going to have colleagues, we’re going to have friends.” We were never supposed to be the only certified organic brewery: perhaps we were supposed to be a flagship in a way, but we want to inspire everybody to do that.
Historically, craft brewing was inherently organic before the advent of the chemical compromise of the materials we put into beer. So all these people who are serious about craft brewing, they should consider going back to organic methods of doing things—that’s how it was done for centuries. The chemical stuff actually impedes fermentation as well as being bad for everyone else, so we don’t want to hurt anyone with our process, we want to help people.
And that approach extends to your distribution decisions, as well: you don’t bottle…
B: That’s right, there’s no packaging: we have a zero waste emission system. Glass can be insidious. You can never find it. If we have water going out that’s going to feed our livestock and there’s glass in it, you don’t’ want to do that.
R: The whole packaging issue is pretty intense. To use a different industry, every single-serving bottle of water is taking a huge amount of resources. It’s not hard to buy something in bulk or in a different style of container that can be re-used before it’s recycles.
B: Most people have potable water these days. We wash cars and flush toilets with water that’s already fit to drink.
We don’t have flush toilets on the farm. We use a bucket method. We have compost outside, so we just compost it—not for food, but for other things. The point is, we have this beautiful water on the farm,–it’s a drink unto itself—and when we first moved to the property I almost cried each time I flushed the toilet. (Laughs)
R: (Laughing) Honey, that really doesn’t sound the way you want it to sound!
The concept of putting that down the drain—it’s such a waste. And it was…
How widely available is your beer?
R: We’re available on draft throughout southern BC. We’re looking at increasing distribution, but only in this area.
B: I’m quite happy when people ask me to get to Calgary or points east, there’s a lot of interest in having our beer there. And I said, I’m quite happy to have me come out and help you set up an organic local brewery there, then it’s sustainable. I’m happy to do that, but no, you cannot have our beer.
R: My dad’s thesis was on sugar and corporate control of food internationally, so my pedigree’s pretty strong there.