Uncorking a Legend: Discovering the John Mitchell story

Canada’s Pilot Brewery: Frank Appleton and John Mitchell creating the nation’s first modern independent brewery in 1982

Judging by mainstream media coverage, the most newsworthy story in BC craft beer so far this year has been the passing of John Mitchell, widely regarded as the man who began the Craft Beer Revolution—in British Columbia, as well as in Canada. 37 years have gone by since Mitchell opened Horseshoe Bay Brewing, the “cottage brewery” that started it all, so the events leading up to that moment have become more and more distant. The story, already legendary back in 1982 when it was occurring in real time, has become even more mythical—but a bit murkier at the same time.

With Mitchell’s passing, it is no longer possible to elicit new comments directly from the source, so to pull out details we have to turn to John’s closest contacts. One of those is John Ohler, who will serve as MC at a Celebration of Life for Mitchell this coming Sunday at Red Racer Taproom in downtown Vancouver. Ohler spent a significant amount of time with Mitchell over the past few years. We connected with him to try to capture what the Genesis story of Canadian craft beer was about from Mitchell’s point of view, and what to expect at the Celebration of Life on Sunday.

Q&A with John Ohler

Beer Me BC: For those who have become craft beer fans or industry only recently: who is John Mitchell?

John Ohler: John Mitchell is the legend in Canada who kicked open the door for craft beer, by pressuring provincial and federal governments to change laws to allow independent breweries and brewpubs to become legal in Canada. His simple vision to offer Canadians a wider variety of quality beer launched [thanks to the indispensable participation of brewing industry veteran Frank Appleton] a vibrant industry and launched an economic and cultural revolution that continues to this day.

It’s important to know why he did what he did. It wasn’t about money or commerce, and it wasn’t about recognition. It was about entrepreneurial fairness and our ability as a society to have choice. And some wise people in government agreed.

John Mitchell and Frank Appleton washing kegs in 1982

During a meeting in 1981, BC’s Minister of Consumer and Corporate Affairs Peter Hyndman told the CEOs of Canada’s big three breweries that he was going to approve John’s plan for a “cottage brewery”. They said that John was a fool and would never make a go of it. One of the CEOs told Peter if they thought it was a good idea, they would have done it themselves.

Those three CEO’s were focused on making money. John knew that sometimes this focus limits choice and quality, and found a way to bring those elements into his Troller Pub by brewing his own beer.

John Mitchell wearing Howe Sound Brewing awards at Great Canadian Beer Festival 2007

Was he well known only in BC?

While John Mitchell is recognized for being the first to break through the Big Beer brewing cartel in Canada, his impact extended outside our country. John received letters and calls from people around the world after he opened the Horseshoe Bay Brewery in 1982. It seemed like everyone wanted to open an independent brewery, and they all asked John for help.

John became even more recognized after he opened Spinnakers [in Victoria, recognized by many as the first North American brewpub] in 1984. He was constantly in the news after that.

John knew the famous writer Michael Jackson, aka the Beer Hunter, and had great memories of him. I believe John was mentioned in one of Jackson’s books for having “the second best bitter in the world after Fuller’s London Pride“.

How would you describe John’s personality?

John was most definitely outwardly friendly, and people certainly adored him. But John was somewhat opinionated about how certain things should be done in a brewery, and he did not hesitate to tell whoever would listen. And people did listen.

Michael Jackson in the Vancouver ProvinceAbove all, John was an honest man and a humanist. His favorite word was “rectitude”; it refers to behavior that is correct, upright, and honorable. It was these traits that I’ve admired most about John.

What did John do after his brewery career?

John Mitchell never really retired; his role in craft beer just evolved. He loved keeping his hand in the industry. John and I went to countless breweries around BC and beyond. We were constantly checking out brew houses, talking with brewers, meeting with suppliers, going to festivals, and even ruffling a few feathers along the way. He really loved it and it is part of what kept him going.

Did John want a Celebration of Life?

Even though he was a well-known public figure, John was a private man. He did not want any fanfare upon his death. No announcements. No service. In the end, however, he agreed that the industry and craft beer enthusiasts should know about his passing and about his life.

What is planned for the tribute event, and who should attend?

John Ohler with John Mitchell in 2017, at the KPU Brewing Program

The John Mitchell Celebration of Life will bring together nearly forty years of craft beer history. There will be large-format prints of some of John’s memorabilia [thanks in advance to Westkey Graphics for printing the interesting and historic displays that attendees will be able to browse]. We will have some photo and video presentations of John Mitchell and his time in craft beer.

More importantly, there will be stories, with a lineup of respected craft beer industry leaders and veterans who will share their experiences with John. 100% of proceeds from sales of beer, donated by BC breweries, will go to the John Mitchell Scholarship at Langley’s KPU Brewing & Brewery Operations program. And of course there will be the usual variety of great beer and food at Red Racer Taphouse.

The event is open to the BC craft beer industry, as well as anyone who is a fan of craft beer. John’s Celebration of Life is a one-time opportunity to come together and pay tribute to a great man.

John Mitchell Celebration of Life

Categories: BC Craft Beer News

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Beer Me BC

Beer Me British Columbia: since 2012, BC's #1 resource for craft beer reviews, BC beer industry insights and career opportunities.

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