Meet Tony Dewald, Inaugural Recipient of the John Mitchell Lifetime Achievement Award for Brewing Excellence
BC’s craft beer industry has been going strong for over 40 years now, thanks in large part to the hard work and expertise of its pioneering brewers. Nowadays you can wander the BC Ale Trail and find a craft brewery in nearly every city, but this luxury wasn’t available to beer fans in the industry’s early years. To honour the beer giants who helped put BC craft beer on the map, an award has been established in the name of John Mitchell, the founder of Canada’s first craft brewery in Horseshoe Bay in 1982.
According to the John Mitchell website, the John Mitchell Lifetime Achievement Award for Brewing Excellence, which was established this year, “will be presented annually to an individual whose brewing expertise, inspiration, enthusiasm, and support have contributed to the success and the growth of the craft brewing movement.” A cash award of $1000 and a commemorative plaque will accompany the honour, and a $1000 donation in the winner’s name will be donated to the John Mitchell Legacy Endowed Scholarship at the KPU Brewing School.
The 2023 winner of this award, which will be presented on October 5 at an event at the Barley Merchant in Langley, is Tony Dewald, a man who toured across Canada and Europe in a rock band before trying his hand at brewing beer. Dewald’s kindness, generosity, and depth of brewing knowledge have made him a well-loved and deeply appreciated fixture in BC brewing.
From Drums to Draft Lines
It was a warm night in 1988 and Dewald’s band, Deja Voodoo, had just finished a performance in Brussels. As the drummer, Dewald was hot, worn out, and ready for a refreshing beverage. “As I walked off the stage, someone handed me a drink,” he recalls. “It was a frambois. I was blown away — I didn’t know beer could taste like that!”
When the band eventually broke up, Dewald took up a friend’s offer to learn the art of brewing at Amsterdam Brewing in Toronto. Through his experience working there, he encountered brewers who would end up making a splash on the west coast – people like Shirley Warne (owner of Angry Hen Brewing and original brewmaster for Steamworks) and Harley Smith (who founded Nanaimo’s Longwood Brewpub in 1999).
After 7 years at Amsterdam, Dewald attempted to continue his brewing career in Montreal, brewing for Brasseurs RJ. However, it turned out that there wouldn’t be room for advancement if he stayed in Quebec. It was time to go west.
Go West, Young Man
When Dewald heard that Harley Smith had started up the Longwood Brewpub in Nanaimo, he had a sense that BC was the next beer frontier for him. Around 2001, he headed to Vancouver, where he managed to get a job brewing at Dix BBQ and Brewery in 2002. It was through Dix that he began organizing monthly cask nights, gatherings where he eventually met John Mitchell.
Through these cask nights, which became increasingly popular, he discovered and helped foster a vibrant community of beer lovers. Brewers like Iain Hill — currently of Strange Fellows but then the brewmaster at Yaletown Brewpub — and James Walton of Storm Brewing would join the festivities and stay until the wee hours. Good friendships were founded and niche beer knowledge exchanged at these events, which helped solidify a strong but small brewing community in Vancouver.
“Until about 2012 there were so few people involved. I probably knew the first name of every craft beer drinker in Vancouver,” Dewald laughs.
Although Dewald ended up brewing for all the Mark James Group’s brewpubs, which included Yaletown as well as Dix, his commute from Aldergrove made things difficult. He put in his notice at Dix and began brewing for Big Ridge Brewing in Surrey and then at Dead Frog Brewing in Langley.
However, things weren’t clicking for him at Dead Frog. It wasn’t where he belonged. Dewald decided to take a break from brewing and worked for several years in the wine industry. His path into winemaking was cut short when the winery he worked for went under in 2012, but it wasn’t long before he received a call that would eventually lead him back to his old passion: brewing craft beer. The call was from Don Piccolo, who was trying to establish a craft brewery in Abbotsford with the help of John Ohler, a longtime friend of John Mitchell. Ohler knew of Dewald through Mitchell, and Dewald knew of Ohler through Howe Sound Brewing. Ohler got Dewald on board, and with his help, Old Abbey Ales was founded.
In short order, Ohler sought out Dewald’s expertise for another brewery project: Trading Post Brewing in Langley. In 2015, Dewald became their head brewer, and it was here that he found a team and a community that truly resonated with him. He brewed for Trading Post until he was compelled to step down due to health challenges, but he still feels very much a part of the Trading Post team and the brewing community more broadly.
Reflections After a Career in Beer
In looking back at his career in brewing, Dewald emphasizes how he values his fellow brewers. He is quick to credit others for offering him the opportunities and support that empowered him to succeed in his passion.
“It’s all about the people you have around you and the people you meet along the way. I’ve been very fortunate to have the right people appear around me when they needed to be.”
As a longtime industry insider, Dewald can identify peaks and valleys in BC brewing over the decades. He feels that with the recent increase in high-quality brewing programs, like the one at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, the bar for beer quality is high.
“The quality of craft beer now is perhaps the best it’s ever been,” Dewald enthuses. “There are so many good, well-made, interesting beers out there right now.”
However, for Dewald, you can’t beat the classics. In considering the industry’s future direction, he warns breweries against producing too many one-off novelty beers. “Novelty is a short-sighted strategy,” he says. “Novelty beers won’t be consumed regularly — they won’t sustain the industry. Breweries need to make beers people can drink over a whole evening. Make beers you want to drink after work!” Dewald’s personal beer preference is a classic, clean lager: “I’m a lager lover!” He also loves his IPAs though — and the more bitter, the better.
So what is the future of BC beer, according to Dewald? He anticipates more brewery closings, simply because of saturation in the market. He also believes that we’re due for a return to older, more established styles — lagers, IPAs, nut browns, pale ales, and stouts. New hop varieties, however, are where he thinks the industry will get the most creative. “We never thought hops like Citra would come out!” he recalls.
Apart from his role at Trading Post, Dewald still keeps his finger on the pulse of the industry. He loves trying new beers, particularly with his wife (whose taste buds are better than his, he asserts). “I have an active palate that needs a challenge!” he laughs. In addition, every year he returns to his East Van brewing roots and brews a collab Christmas beer with Conrad Gmoser at Brassneck Brewing: the Spirit of Dixmas Christmas IPA.
Dewald has won numerous brewing awards, but this has never been his focus. Throughout our conversation, I noticed that Dewald frequently praised his cohorts in the industry — Gary Lohin, Harley Smith, Bill Herdman, and many others — rather than focusing on his own achievements. It was always others who deserved praise and appreciation. And perhaps this is the clearest sign that he is precisely the right person to receive this lifetime achievement award. It’s clear that he didn’t get into brewing to win acclaim for himself, but Tony Dewald is owed such recognition after decades of sharing his generous spirit and brewing expertise. He wouldn’t ever ask for this award, but he certainly deserves it. John Mitchell would approve.