He might call Canada home these days but before moving to British Columbia Dean McLeod's brewing CV in Australia featured something of a Who's Who of Australia's craft brewing pioneers – stretching back to before the term "craft" was even a thing.
These days, a decade into his adventures on Vancouver Island, he plies his trade at Driftwood Brewery while keeping an eye on things here in Australia, often offering a dry comment on the news of the day on Twitter.
Given his long history in beer and experiences on both sides of the planet, we were only too eager to pick his brains as part of our Aussie Exports series.
When did you first start brewing commercially?
Ha! A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
I had just finished a Marine Biology degree in 1993 and decided that brewing was my calling. There wasn’t a whole lot going on back then, so I worked for a few years in a yeast research and development lab, and then went back to uni for some brewing study.
Tell us about your brewing career while in Australia.
I kicked around a couple of brewpubs in and around Sydney in the late 90s: Scharer's and the Lord Nelson. In 2000, I started at Malt Shovel and began to learn my trade properly under Chuck Hahn and Doug Donelan. These were the early days of the James Squire brand and I remember this time with great affection.
I then moved to Colonial, Margaret River, and did really well at the AIBA during that time. That business imploded, and I parachuted into Little Creatures Fremantle to decommission the original brewhouse and set it up as White Rabbit in the Yarra Valley. I quit soon after the brewery was completed.
When and why did you head overseas?
My Canadian wife and I packed up and headed to Vancouver after White Rabbit, with no job prospects. I had visited many times before, loved the rugged west coast and, as her folks were getting older, we figured it was the right time to go.
The Vancouver beer scene was in its infancy back then, and we decided instead to move to the city of Victoria on Vancouver Island. It’s a fun sized city, it has always had an independent brewing industry, and was in fact the birthplace of Canada’s small brewery revival when Spinnaker’s Brewpub opened some 35 years ago – the first brewery to open in Canada in fifty years.
Where have you been working in Canada?
So, we’ve been in Victoria ever since, coming up to ten years now. I shopped my credentials around to all the breweries in town when we got here but was met with a lot of blank stares.
“You worked where? You did what? Never heard of it.”
I ate a big piece of humble pie and began as a shift brewer at the venerable old Lighthouse Brewing Co. Uninteresting and poorly made English-style ales using terrible equipment. When the owner and brewmaster was sacked, I assumed the brewmaster’s role and began updating the beer portfolio.
That was a fun and exciting time; we brewed so many different beers, and I started bringing in Australian and New Zealand hops, which were well received by Canadian drinkers.
Five years of that with no equipment upgrades, I quit and jumped onboard a new brewery and whisky distillery venture. Designing and building it was so rewarding but, once operational, I soon became bored and left.
I’m now back on the brewhouse floor at Driftwood Brewing Co. Fantastic people and genuinely good beer. Who knows, I might stick this one out.
How have you found the beer scene there compared to Australia?
The biggest difference is the absence of national craft beer brands such as Creatures, Stone & Wood and the like. Every province has their own model for liquor distribution, and access to inter-provincial markets can be difficult. There are a lot of anti-competitive practices that you don’t see in Australia, such as tariffs for beer brewed in neighbouring provinces.
Recent legislative changes here in British Columbia have seen a very rapid change from multi-pack bottled product to single-serve 473ml cans. We are also seeing fewer new breweries choosing to package at all as the liquor store shelves are just groaning under the weight of a thousand different stale beer SKUs.
As breweries here can now effectively operate like pubs, most new breweries are hyper-local and often only fill growlers and crowlers on site. Every community of ten thousand people or more now has at least one brewery, and I think this is great.
Recently cannabis became legal all across Canada, and some were concerned that cannabis consumption may have a negative effect on craft beer sales in particular. [It] didn’t happen, as people who wanted to smoke pot were doing so anyway, legal or not.
Market share for craft beer in BC is about 30 percent overall, and over 50 percent on the island. Versus, what, five percent in Australia? [Latest Independent Brewers Association figures put independent craft beer at six percent by volume, ten percent by value.]
You mentioned Australian brewers helping develop professionals all over the globe? How and why do you think this is?
Not entirely sure. Australians have always liked a big adventure, and the idea of working overseas for a while has been appealing for generations.
I think that brewers are trained very well in Australia too. Wages are higher and there tends to be fewer workers but they’re using better equipment and having to work at higher level of professionalism.
Australian brewers have a confidence and a swagger that opens doors, and a skillset to back it up. Brewers like Chuck Hahn and Brad Rogers have produced an army of great underlings who are now ripping it up all over the place.
Have you been keeping track of the evolving scene here from afar?
It’s hard. I do read a lot, but I tend to follow the US news a little more closely as they have a bigger influence on the Canadian brewing scene. I can see the mountains of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state from my back window. I have noticed that mergers and acquisitions seem to be the flavour of the day back in Australia. Things seem a bit more cutthroat down your side of the Pacific.
What could the Australian industry learn from Canada?
Being a long-term integral part of your community is a very Canadian thing. Like what Scharer’s Brewery in Picton was.
The goal should not be to get rich quick or be bought by Lion. Do your own thing, follow your own compass, help build better communities.
Dildo Brewing Company and Museum in Dildo, Newfoundland, are a great example, as are most of the fifty or so breweries on this island alone.
Which breweries and beers have really impressed you in Canada?
The ones in Quebec. Their brewing scene kicked off shortly after ours, but they started with Belgian beer styles rather than English. Le Trou du Diable, Microbrasserie Dieu du Ciel, Le Trois Mousquetaires, and my favourite, Brasserie Dunham. And many more.
All the good stuff that has happened recently with craft beer has dovetailed perfectly with what they were already doing. Obviously, they ignored milkshake IPAs.
What would be your tips for any beer lovers travelling to Canada – what can they simply not miss?
Y’know, park your butt on any barstool, turn to the Canadian sitting next to you and ask her or him about the local beers. You’ll talk for hours, you’ll make a friend, and the Canadian will thank you for visiting and probably pay for your beer.
They are genuinely nice people everywhere you go.
You can check out the other features in our Aussie Exports series here.