Dan Small had finally discovered Kokanee.
The avid homebrewer had stopped in Revelstoke overnight while moving to Vancouver from Toronto. At the bar, he saw a beer label he didn’t recognize. A new beer! Dan thought it must’ve been a BC microbrewery, otherwise they would’ve heard of it by now. Right?
“They didn’t know,” recollects Tom Small, Dan’s younger brother. “They were so excited. Then they both started crying when they tasted it.”
This was the man – and now, three years after his death, the legend – behind Dan’s Homebrew, an influential figure in the Vancouver beer community who more than anything detested big brand beer.
“He was extremely passionate about [beer]. It was probably the most important thing in his life,” Tom says. “He always rooted for the underdog. He didn’t like the fat cats making a crappy product, with all the slick advertising fooling people into thinking they’re going to get chicks if you drink Labatt Blue.”
It was just the sort of curmudgeonly pluck Vancouver needed to kick start its nascent brewing scene. Friends describe Small as a true beer purist, a highly skilled homebrewer who cultivated a likeminded community without ever intending to.
His death in June 2013 – from lung cancer just a month shy of his 50th birthday – left a chasm in the beer community at large. He was a guru, a fountain of simple advice that gave the city’s novice home brewers coming through his store the confidence to thrive.
Above all, he stressed simplicity. No esoteric ingredients. No funky styles. Brew good pale ale and move on from there. It was advice that helped foster that community.
“Anybody who’s opened a brewery [in Vancouver] in the past few years has walked through Dan’s door at some point,” says Chris Booth, who took over managing the store after Small passed away. “He was the only game in town at the time.”
In the years leading up to his death, business was thriving, but it hadn’t been a boon for long. He started the shop in 1991 at 28 years old, and business dragged for over a decade. He made his own bread at times just so he could eat.
“There were lots of years that were really dry. Hard, grueling years,” Tom says.
But stubbornness kept him going, along with a driving need to educate people on what good beer actually is. He’d record interviews with the brewers of Shaftsbury, Granville Island Brewing and Okanagan Springs – back when these were still independent breweries – and use these for a homebrewing column he wrote for the Bum Report, a local zine dedicated to living on the cheap. He collected and compiled recipes in a Duo-Tang and made them available for all his customers.
“He was plugged into the beer scene when it was almost non-existent, when the most edgy brewery was Storm,” says Saul Moran, a Dan’s Homebrew employee since 2007.
It wasn’t until he moved the shop to its location in the Heatley Building on Hastings Street in 2006 that business began to pick up. This gave the shop some much-needed visibility, which was vital because the move coincided with a growing local interest in homebrewing.
“People were waking up to the fact that commercial beer is a fucking scam. Commercial beer had just been getting worse and worse,” Tom says.
At the time, there weren’t too many good options for beer, and people were discovering that they could make it at home for cheap. Moran says the shop’s peak business years were 2008 and 2009, as interest in craft beer swelled, but right before any of the craft breweries had opened.
“Vancouver got a leg up before we even knew we needed it,” Moran says. “We’re still not caught up with Portland, but we might have been a lot further behind [if not for Dan].”
Dan passed away less than a year after his diagnosis, and a month after moving the shop to its current location on East Hastings, between Hawks and Campbell.
After he died, Booth and Blair Calibaba – a close friend of Dan’s, who later opened Bomber Brewing – launched the Dan Small Award for homebrewing, given out every year at the BC Beer Awards. Bomber and Parallel 49 Brewing each released commemorative beers in his honour.
These were small tokens to remember a guy who’ll never get to see the community he helped cultivate blossom into a full-blown industry. It’s something his friends says he would have been impressed by. Well, mostly impressed by.
“To be perfectly honest, the periodic dartboard of styles that happen right now, he would’ve laughed his head off at that,” Calibaba says.
Because remember: Keep it simple.