Beer Writer Joe Wiebe is Transcribing the Craft Revolution

Photo By: Jeffrey Bosdet.

BY DAVID LENNAM

Joe Wiebe does not own a beer fridge.

Ok, maybe most of us don’t have a solely dedicated fridge. But most of us aren’t The Thirsty Writer, Wiebe’s alias as one of the country’s top beer writers, author of Craft Beer Revolution and a voice that has become soundtrack to beer events, seminars, awards, launches, on CBC Radio, as founder of Victoria Beer Week, co-founder of The BC Ale Trail or judge of the Canada Beer Cup.

Wiebe and I are at The Drake, talking over two pints of La Maison, a Belgian-style ale known as saison, from Delta’s Four Winds Brewing. When it debuted four or five years ago, explains Wiebe, saison was a taste ahead of its time, just as B.C.’s craft beer industry has been cutting edge since the province’s first microbrewery popped up in Horseshoe Bay in 1982.

Spinnakers opened two years later, and the rush was on. Now there are some 220 breweries in B.C., 16 to 18 of them in Greater Victoria.

Brewing a revolution 

In 2013, Wiebe published his seminal Craft Beer Revolution: The Insider’s Guide to B.C. Breweries. “When I wrote my book,” he says, “I was trying to educate people: Do you know what craft beer is?” He led us on a journey into an industry that has since begun to define the province and establish bragging rights about our beer-making prowess, as well as the culture that has germinated with it.

The reason Wiebe called it a revolution tapped into the huge change in the way we all drank, and looked at, beer. “You and I,” the 51-year-old says, “we grew up in an era when we were drinking Molson and Labatt and it all tasted the same … But I don’t think it’s a revolution any more because there’s an awareness of craft beer now, an understanding.” The sequel he’s pondering might well be called Craft Beer Evolution. 

Revolutions, sometimes even evolutions, result in casualties. Could it be that hops is one of them? I’ve heard how an obsession with flavour may be dulling our beer palates with the bitterness of hops. Somewhat naively, I have to ask.

Me: “Have we reached peak hops yet?”

Wiebe (laughing): “What? You mean too many hops? Dude, for old school guys like you and me, we might think we’re there, but the average brewery, a third of their inventory is all these hazy IPAs and they’re probably selling them to people who don’t drink any other kind of beer and don’t like lagers or the beer you and I grew up drinking.

What got them into beer was all these juicy, fruity flavours in these big hazy IPAs, which are all about the hops.

He adds: “So there’s a whole subcategory of beer drinker now who is just drinking that stuff, just like there’s a whole category who is just drinking sours and doesn’t really drink stouts and lagers and all the rest of it. And that’s why the market has continued to expand. They’ve found these new kinds of customers that they weren’t getting to before.”

Casting a long shadow

Wiebe’s knowledge of beer isn’t cicerone-certified, it isn’t academic, it doesn’t even come from a place where his hands smell like hops from home brewing. Wiebe might be described as an enthusiast — but he’s one who has educated himself on the subtleties of suds.

Ken Beattie, executive director of the BC Craft Brewers Guild, calls Wiebe a true ambassador for craft beer. He praised Craft Beer Revolution as shining a much-needed light on the emerging craft beer scene.

“Joe really uncovered the depth and the momentum of the craft beer community as it was exploding around the province,” Beattie says. “He travelled to give locally owned and operated breweries in communities and neighbourhoods exposure to an audience they may never have had access to.” 

“Big Joe” as they used to call him back when he was box office manager at the Belfry Theatre, casts a long shadow across B.C.’s craft beer industry. He’s built on an XXL, six-foot-six frame, with (sometimes) Edgar Winter’s hair and (sometimes) the beard of a Norse god.

Though we might casually believe Wiebe is only about beer, he’s a family man, a master of board games, a rider of bikes (logging more than 4,000 kilometres last year) and borderline fanatical devotee of baseball. (“I’m definitely a bit of a nerd about statistics,” he says. “I enjoy that aspect of things with baseball.”)

Less publicized is his desire to write a novel. Or novels.

He wrote one for his MFA thesis in creative writing, Mudville, a baseball story about a long-in-the-tooth pitcher who’s going senile. A book awaiting a publisher.

I suggest a screenplay, but he’s already ahead of me.

King of Beers. Photo by: Jeffrey Bosdet.
Photo By: Jeffrey Bosdet.

“I’ve pictured Clint Eastwood as the lead. I always imagined, what if I somehow get it in front of Clint Eastwood?”

I then suggest he write a novel about beer. Again, the idea has already been pitched — by Wiebe’s wife, Allison. “The one meal we went out for in 2020, on my 50th birthday, at Il Terrazzo, my wife said to me, ‘Why don’t you write a novel about the beer world? You know so much about it.’ And I was like, duh, why didn’t I ever think of that before? So I’ve been thinking about it.”

Has he also been thinking of investing in a beer fridge?

“I have a little bit of space in our communal fridge, but [my wife] complains I take it over too much,” laughs Wiebe. “Then she backed away and said, ‘Maybe it’s a good idea not to have a beer fridge. It’s just gonna be full all the time.’ ”

Beer fridge or not, Wiebe’s gentle, guiding voice will continue tempting us to tipple. Even those who might be a tough sell.

“Those are usually the people who, unlike you and me, tasted a Molson or a Labatt product when they were young and dumped it out, rather than” — he laughs — “becoming addicted to it. So they associate beer flavour with something they don’t like. For people who say they don’t like beer, I’m very confident that I can always find them something that they’ll like that they haven’t experienced before. 

“I can always find something new to try. I’ve been in this game for a long time now and I’m still not bored. I don’t go to the liquor store and think, ‘Oh, nothing new.’ ”

Find Joe Wiebe at the eighth annual Victoria Beer Week, April 1 to 9.