Late last year, some truly special news came from the world of academia regarding the preservation of BC Beer History. The story was originally shared by Global TV, The Growler BC and What’s Brewing magazine.
Safeguarding the Revolution
If you appreciate the fact you can enjoy a vastly better array of brewed beverages today than back in the darkest days of the 20th century, you have a reason to be thankful for what ‘Thirsty Writer’ Joe Wiebe calls our Craft Beer Revolution. Without the changes that began over 40 years ago, Canada might still be more or less a suds desert. Fortunately, during these past four revolutionary decades, the epiphany that is craft beer discovery has struck the right people at the right time so as to inspire the creation of our great breweries and beer festivals.
Today’s story focuses on a trio of people with a creation that’s a bit more unusual. At separate points within the past 20 years, these three folks—each of whom currently works within the Archives and Records Management department at Simon Fraser University—would experience that craft beer epiphany. To our lasting benefit, their beer fandom has inspired them to establish a new resting place for the artifacts and stories of British Columbia’s brewing past: the SFU-based BC Beer History Archive.
Archives management is all about preserving history, and job one for this type of department at any educational institution is to safely store the school’s own records. For this, a formal space is set up with suitable safeguards against theft, fire, and document deterioration. Once this facility exists, it can be used to capture historical aspects of the community at large. In the case of SFU Archives, this includes women’s history, social activism, social justice and politics.
In recent years, the department has emphasized the acquisition of external materials and records from the public so as to chronicle some of the contemporary movements in British Columbia. Well, it came to the attention of the SFU Archives that craft beer fits the criteria quite well from a social as well as an economic/industrial point of view. With the establishment of SFU’s new archive category, BC’s craft beer community now has a go-to location to store its rich modern history.
The budding SFU collection already has a wide variety of items, ranging from breweriana to historical research papers. This is due to the work of Melanie Hardbattle, the Acquisitions and Outreach Archivist handling this project. Once the team decided to pursue the BC craft beer idea, Melanie began researching the topic online and made contact with people behind the scenes. That led her to CAMRA Victoria, and the jewel of the new archive.
Given to CAMRA in recent years was the single most important collection of works about BC beer history: those of Greg Evans, BC’s preeminent beer historian. Evans, who passed away at the end of 2018, was revered in the beer community as an academic professional who seriously studied BC’s brewing past. He was working on a book at the time of his death. CAMRA had originally hoped to digitize as much as possible of Greg’s collection, then donate it to the Royal BC Museum, where he had worked. Now, the collection, which his family had generously bestowed, has an especially appropriate home at SFU.
University Archivist Paul Hebbard, the department head, relates that relevance for researchers is one of the key criteria the team considers before founding a new collection. “We want to know: is there a demand; will people come in and use these materials,” he explains. As it happens, it hasn’t taken long for the gamble to prove worthwhile. Having the Greg Evans fonds in the Lower Mainland has already paid off for professor Noëlle Phillips, who has spent time at SFU Archives researching a beer book she’s writing.
Speaking of Evans, connecting with people in Victoria is especially critical for a project like this because that’s where the BC beer enthusiast community first formed a lasting association in the form of CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale Society of British Columbia), which later expanded to several other chapters in other regions of the province. The branch’s original President, John Rowling, met with Melanie earlier this year and became a key contributor to the new SFU archives, with records including correspondence with early craft luminaries such as Michael Jackson, Charles Finkel, Ed McNally and others.
Asked about his first reaction to the SFU project, Rowling shares, “I was delighted, as I had been archiving material with the hope that the Royal BC Museum and Archives would be interested one day.” John also confesses a sense of relief that is candidly common to most of the contributors.
“About a year ago, my family had asked what I was going to do with all my beer memorabilia, saying ‘We don’t want it!’ The timing was perfect, and I was excited that it was going to a permanent repository.”
One early spinoff of CAMRA Victoria was the Great Canadian Beer Festival, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary this year. Rowling provided SFU with notes, business plans and operating manuals for GCBF, as well as posters, programmes, glasses, volunteer shirts and essentially his entire treasure trove. He had co-founded the event back in 1993 with longtime BC craft beer industry and community leader Gerry Hieter, who managed this pioneering festival for years. Melanie has been fortunate to also meet with Heiter and collect a large haul of materials from his priceless archives as well.
“I stashed away pretty much every single thing I came across related to craft brewing between 1986 to 2020,” Hieter relates. “I never once gave much thought as to where it might all end up. As I grew older, I just figured that most of it would end up in a landfill somewhere.” A happy Hieter enthuses, “Now, [these items] will be archived, digitized and available for anyone to see in the future. I can’t tell you how good that feels.”
Even in the age of Internet and all-pervasive social media, it’s possible for history to get lost. This is a point made by Richard Dancy, a Staff Archivist who helped spearhead the project. He notes that, outside of the Evans collection, there are very few records from BC’s brewing past.
“Most businesses don’t really think about their records as having social value,” Dancy points out, thinking of such things as materials, documents and beer recipes from the pioneering craft breweries of the recent past. “It would be a shame if that history repeated itself”.
Collecting BC Beer History
SFU Archives is interested in collecting material related to the history of BC brewing. If you think you have something that is a fit, here’s how to reach SFU:
Attn: Melanie Hardbattle
Acquisitions and Outreach Archivist
Portions of this story are reprinted courtesy What’s Brewing magazine. Stay tuned to What’s Brewing for a further installment on this story featuring video interviews with the SFU Archives staff.
Samples From The Archive
In the future, it will be possible to browse the BC Beer History Archive online. In the meantime, here’s just a small preview of what is being collected at SFU.