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A toast to the grandfather of B.C. craft brewing, who has died at age 89

The man responsible for the eclectic mix of beer available on tap and at the liquor stores around the province has died.

The man responsible for the eclectic mix of beer available on tap and at the liquor stores around the province has died.

John Mitchell, considered the grandfather of the craft-brewing industry in B.C., Canada and, by all accounts, North America, died on Sunday. He was 89.

 John Mitchell. Photo by Ian McKainJohn Mitchell. Photo by Ian McKain

Mitchell is credited with forcing changes in legislation at all government levels, insisting beer be made without compromise.

“He laid the foundation for the craft-beer movement in North America,” said craft beer expert John Ohler.

Ohler, who described Mitchell as his best friend and a father figure, said Mitchell was a giant in an industry that has exploded in popularity since Mitchell opened the country’s first craft brewery at Horseshoe Bay in 1982.

“John didn’t just open a business, he started an industry,” said Ohler. “He fought to change laws and pushed for entrepreneurial fairness across sectors which really allowed craft beer to grow.”

“Mitchell, who was born in Singapore and raised in England, came to Canada at age 24, and over the years grew frustrated with the quality of beer available here and with the big-brewery shutdowns in the early 1980s.

The craft brewery at Horseshoe Bay was the result.

In 1984, after helping to craft the guidelines for it, and pushing for the regulations and legislation to accommodate it, he was a founding partner, with Paul Hadfield and Raymond Ginnever, at Spinnakers in Victoria.

Spinnakers was the first brewpub in the country — the first time a brewery was housed in the same building as the pub that would sell its beer.

Hadfield recalled there were 18 months of “basic pig-headed determination” to make Spinnakers happen.

“It’s also important to understand the magnitude of what John did in Horseshoe Bay and then redoing it all under one roof in Victoria. It became the first brewpub in North America,” Hadfield said. “Back then you could count all the craft brewers on two hands.”

There are now more than 150 craft brewers in B.C. alone.

Hadfield said at that time Spinnakers had a role to play in setting the table for the industry’s expansion. In 1986, a tour bus of craft brewers from the U.S. attending a brewing convention in Portland, Oregon, showed up at the pub doors. They found good beer and inspiration.

A number of people on that bus would go on to become leaders in the modern craft-brewing industry, inspiring small breweries and brewpubs around the U.S. and Canada, he said. “And John was on the forefront of this whole thing. There’s no question he’s the grandfather of this all.”

Mitchell returned to Vancouver in the mid 1980s and would help establish Howe Sound Brewing in the mid 1990s, and was consulted over the next 25 years as the industry evolved and expanded.

“He loved that it had become so popular and such a big part of our culture,” said Ohler, who first worked with Mitchell to open Howe Sound in 1996. “He was very opinionated about beer and how it’s brewed. He was a true artisan and passionate about doing things well.

“He didn’t open the first brewery to do anything but brew great beer.”

Hadfield said Mitchell’s influence is everywhere in the industry, and beyond.

“It led the way for craft cider and craft spirits,” said Hadfield, who raised a glass of Mitchell’s Extra Special Bitter at Spinnakers on Monday in a sign of respect. “What we’ve seen come out of [craft brewing] has really been the basis of a movement that extends to cider, spirits and farm-to-table food.”

As a nod to his influence on generations of brewers, in 2016, Ohler and Trading Post Brewing established the John Mitchell Scholarship at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Langley.

“Being able to help put brewers through school, well, he thought that was just the coolest thing that ever happened,” said Ohler.

Ohler noted Mitchell felt he still had something to offer the industry, and they had started drawing up plans for the John Mitchell Legacy Pub & Brewery.

“John really wanted to come back and do it all again,” he said.

“He was my best friend. I’m not sure how to replace that. He meant the world to me.”

Ohler said plans for the John Mitchell Legacy Pub will still go ahead, and will include a destination brewery and a craft beer museum tracing the history of the industry.

Mitchell is survived by Jenny Mitchell, his wife of 60 years, his daughter Louise, son Edward and several grandchildren.