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Commemorative brew toasts North Shore craft beer original John Mitchell

Wednesday, July 6, marks 40 years since he opened Canada’s first microbrewery in Horseshoe Bay

Much of Canada’s now-thriving craft beer industry can be tied to the efforts of one man, John Mitchell, who lobbied to reform prohibition-era regulations in B.C.

On July 6, 1982, he opened Horseshoe Bay Brewing – the country’s first microbrewery – paving the way to establish an industry in the province and across the country.

Now, 40 years later, a beer has been made to celebrate his legacy, while helping educate the next generation of brewers.

The team at Russell Brewing, along with alumni from the brewing school at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, have collaborated to produce the John Mitchell Tribute Ale, which launches on Wednesday.

The beer is a Cascadian dark ale made using Mitchell’s original brew sheets from 1982. Proceeds will be donated to the John Mitchell Legacy Scholarship at KPU, which will help cover students’ expenses at the school.

The scholarship launched shortly after Mitchell’s death in 2019 with a $10,000 donation from Spinnaker’s in Victoria, the country’s oldest brewpub, which he co-founded in 1984.

“He really is the grandfather of craft beer in Canada, and in North America,” explained John Ohler, executive director of the scholarship and steward of Mitchell’s legacy.

While the two Johns would eventually become friends working at Howe Sound Brewing in 1996, Ohler’s first fond memories go back farther.

When Mitchell started brewing in Horseshoe Bay, Ohler was around 15 years old. Every summer, he and his dad would take their boat out and hang around the area.

“I remember seeing this brewery, and I thought that was the coolest thing I'd ever seen,” Ohler said. “I wasn’t old enough to go into the actual brewery, so I'd stand outside and watch John Mitchell brew.”

Ohler recalled being infatuated with the aroma of hops and malts.

More than a decade later, fate would have it that the two became fast friends.

Their friendship continued outside the workplace, with road trips and regular dinners at Mitchell’s house in North Vancouver.

“He became more like my grandfather,” Ohler said. “So I'd call him gramps and stuff like that.”

As Ohler moved on to do more consulting work in the industry, Mitchell – then retired – was by his side at Old Abbey Ales in Abbotsford and Trading Post Brewing in Langley, which is across the street from KPU.

Mitchell would visit the brewing school there, and host talks with students.

Ohler wants people to remember the hard work Mitchell put in to petition for the industry to start, and lobbying against excessive taxation so brewers could actually make money.

“It's important because craft beer has really had a major impact on Canada's culture and economy,” Ohler said. “It all started with John Mitchell.”

Look for the John Mitchell Tribute Ale in participating liquor stores.

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