New branding, new brews for Vancouver Island Brewing

There’s a new look to Vancouver Island Brewing, a tweaking of the name, striking new packaging and a new lineup of beer.

But the new man at the helm said the biggest change at the city’s oldest craft-beer producer won’t be found on tartan labels, in new beer recipes or the new tasting room.

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Tim Barnes, president of the brewer now known as Vancouver Island Brewing, said the biggest change can’t really be seen at all.

“Culture is the number one thing. We wanted to create a new culture where everyone on the team felt comfortable, excited and engaged to a level they felt was challenging,” said Barnes. He took over as president last summer when Ontario businessman Bob MacDonald bought what was then Vancouver Island Brewery from long-time owner Barry Fisher.

Noting at the time that the brewery had lost its relevance in a fast-growing craft-beer market, MacDonald promised to invest in the plant and the brand with the intention of re-establishing the brewer as one of the best in Victoria.

Barnes was brought in to make that a reality, and this week the company re-launched with new beer and a new attitude.

“We came into a place with so much potential and so many great people and it just needed energy. So we injected energy,” said Barnes. That came in the form of investment in new recipes, strategies, research, equipment, planning, renovations and people.

So far, the new regime has invested more than $1 million. Barnes said that will continue.

“The stuff you see in the marketplace — marketing, branding, new beer, the facelift in the brewery — that’s the easy part,” Barnes said.

He said they intend to keep working to create a company culture that is collaborative and excited about what the brewer is doing. “That’s the hardest part and it will take the longest, it can’t be done overnight.”

There has been the addition of some new faces to add new ideas and a fresh perspective, but Barnes said they have retained almost all of their staff and he believes they are starting to make believers of some of the skeptics, who have heard the word “change” countless times over the years.

The rebuild started last fall with research to determine where the brand stood in the marketplace. The news was not good.

“We found we were no longer relevant to today’s craft-beer consumer. There were no bad feelings, just no feelings,” he said. “From a marketing standpoint, that’s the most dangerous place you can be.”

So the company decided to start again with a new willingness to innovate and experiment with new beer. That meant a new lineup of products coming from a fully renovated brewery. Three classics were reinvented.

The Pipers brand has not been touched, but the recipe has been improved and rebuilt, which Barnes said makes it more complex and robust

Hermans dark lager is now called Dark 48, though that name may change again, and the beer has been changed slightly.

Carmanah Ale is a replacement for Sea Dog Ale and marks a complete reinvention of the brewery’s amber ale. Hermannator remains as a seasonal staple.

The brewer launched four new beers — Sombrio Session Ale, 19 IPA, Victoria Lager and Juan de Fuca Cerveza, their craft spin on Mexican lager.

The lineup is about enticing a younger craft-beer crowd.

“We are not all things to all people; we are going to take some risks and some are going to be good and some will be mistakes,” said Barnes.

Barnes said there are early signs of acceptance, which is encouraging, and he has been surprised by the amount of loyalty there has been from many bars and stores which had kept taps or stocked beer despite poor sales. “I would say we have distribution for some of our products that we don’t really deserve,” he said. “They weren’t selling because no money was being put into innovation and our brands had grown tired and our liquid grew less relevant to the consumer.”

Barnes said the message to those loyal customers is that the brewry is going to earn that loyalty. “We are going to pay them back with sales, they will sell more and make more money. We are here to pay back our debts to our customers,” said Barnes.

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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