Insight. Innovation. Industry.
Community Development / Human Interest /  •

Cooperative in spirit

Cheers to the cooperative spirit behind craft beer


It started with a quest for a niche and the desire to give Vancouver’s talented brewers a place to create. “As the commercial brewing space in Vancouver gets more crowded, you need to find something that makes you stand out so that you’re not just another little brewery,” says Callister Brewing Co. co-founder and brewmaster Chris Lay, standing among glistening steel tanks in the back of the facility’s east-side warehouse. The brewery, which Lay and his partner, Diana McKenzie, opened in the summer of 2015, resides in the heart of an industrial area dubbed Yeast Van, thanks to 10 neighbourhood craft breweries. (The city is home to about two dozen craft breweries.)

None of them is quite like Callister, Canada’s first “co-working craft brewery incubator” where member brewers — three at any given time plus Lay — deliver a rotating selection of taps under their own brands. “We created the brewery we wanted to see in Vancouver, which was that every time you came in there would be something new to try,” says Lay. “Every couple of weeks the board will have changed.” Callister is one of the smallest production breweries in Vancouver, creating just 500 litres of any given batch.

Brewing started as a hobby for the couple and became more serious when Lay got involved with VanBrewers, a local home brewer’s guild. “A lot of the city’s professional brewers came up through that club,” says Lay, pointing to Graham With, head brewer of Vancouver’s Parallel 49 brewery. “We were immediately impressed with the quality of beer that was being produced and the amount of knowledge and skills that this group of hobbyists had. We thought, ‘these people deserve a spotlight should they want it.’ ” That planted the seeds of their ultimate concept: a central location where Vancouver’s craft brewers could pool resources and create, refine and market-test their creations — all with access to professional brewing equipment.

“From the ownership perspective, the relationship we have with our brewers is, in a sense, a co-op model”—Diana McKenzie

It sounded a lot like a co-op, so Lay and McKenzie sought out examples of cooperative breweries. At the time, there was one in Texas, the now defunct, Houston-based League of Extraordinary Brewers, a commissary-style restaurant with an in-house co-op brewery. But Lay and McKenzie quickly found that British Columbia’s more restrictive liquor and food laws wouldn’t allow for something similar at home. There’s no legal way for a co-op to brew beer and then sell the beer to the public. “You wouldn’t be able to sell it directly; you’d have to charge them membership fees. We couldn’t see that being profitable in any way and it wasn’t really what we wanted,” says Lay.

Creating a collaborative space

Instead, the pair focused on creating a collaborative space with an incubator element. The business incubator concept isn’t new. Private- and public-sector organizations have been providing start-ups with access to space and resources to foster development for decades. But implementing it at a craft brewery is innovative. And while Callister is formally structured as a corporation, it functions, in some ways, as a co-op. “From the ownership perspective, the relationship we have with our brewers is, in a sense, a co-op model,” says McKenzie. Each member belongs to Callister, yet is responsible for developing and manufacturing its own products.

To become a member, there is a $15,000 buy-in and a minimum year commitment. In exchange for this initial outlay, members, who can be individuals or groups, get non-voting shares in the company. This allows them to legally brew under Callister’s manufacturing permit. They also gain access to the space and can brew whatever they please, serving their creations in the front-of-house tasting room. All brewers must spend a minimum of one day per week working behind the bar, connecting with patrons. Profits are shared among the members as well as reinvested in the company. “This allows them to operate quite autonomously within our little group, which is really what we wanted,” says Lay. “We wanted to get them brewing themselves, and managing that process themselves, as a means of getting them ready to run their own breweries down the road.”

Brewers becoming independent

It appears to be working. Callister is now on its second year and two of its alumni are on the brink of establishing their own craft breweries: Machine Ales and Brewery Creek. Currently in-house are Real Cask, Boombox and Lightheart Brewing; the latter two hope to establish independent operations of their own. All have found the opportunity to experiment in a low-risk space invaluable. “Vancouver is a really good market for this because there are a lot of barriers to opening a brewery, including red tape and cost,” says Lay.

The collaborative model also creates a strong team work ethic, notes McKenzie. “These people are putting their heart and soul into what they’re doing and that shared work effort and responsibility means it’s not all on the two of us.” Lay concurs. “We’re super-excited for more people to do this. We really just want to help the industry grow.” ◊


CO-FOUNDERS: Chris Lay and Diana McKenzie

coopspirit2ORGANIZATION: Callister Brewing Company

HOME BASE: Vancouver

MISSION: A craft beer brewery incubator for up-and-coming brewers to develop their products and concepts.