Writer’s Disclaimer: I was briefly a part of the Beer Cat Brewing Co-Op sometime in 2011.
Beer Cat Brewing Co-operative based in Vancouver recently shut down late 2019. Beer Cat was co-founded by Charles Latimer around the same time he started brewing sometime in 2008. “At some point I thought it was a good idea and I bought a home brewing kit at Dan’s Homebrew[ing Supplies]. ” However, he realised that he had a problem. “I found it was such a waste to have [the equipment] stored under my kitchen sink for 99% of the time. Sure I’d brew once in a while, but what a waste to have this stuff just picking up dust while people could be making beer. So, I thought, uhm, I should share this equipment with friends.” While Latimer and a group of friends tried to getting it going in 2008, Latimer went abroad after that, and the group didn’t officially kick off until 2010 when he returned to Vancouver.
Despite the name, Beer Cat was mostly a club, but with a twist. “Beer Cat Brewing Co-op was only a cooperative in spirit, meaning that if you want to start a cooperative in BC, it’s pretty much like any business with quite a bit of red tape. Beer Cat was a club, but the idea was that we were more than just making beer together. We shared the labour, the tools and the beer. A real boozy socialist utopia (with cats). Can’t really think of anything better. I was a fan of co-ops and…everything I wanted to be involved in had to share those [cooperative] principles.”
Members were expected to help out with rent, which was about $20-25 a month, and help keep the brewing space and equipment clean and organized. Beers from the brewing were communal and available on the communal beer shelf affectionately called the Beer Grotto. Ever beer that a member contributed to the shelf gave the member a credit, and every beer someone took from the shelf cost a credit. For member Matt Stevenson, it was an excited place to meet up and brew. “For someone who is keen to brew and continue learning about brewing, it was a great spot to talk beer and all things brewing. Everyone always had their own unique approach or style which made sharing beers a real treat. There was always something new or different on the shelf and we had a lot of flexibility to experiment.”
What was unique about Beer Cat was their symbiotic relationship with their host space, the Toast Collective. Latimer explains via email, “The only reason Beer Cat was able to succeed is because it had a space to exist. A group of friends got together to rent out a storefront (The Toast) at 648 Kingsway. We rented it, and didn’t really have a good idea of what we would do with it. My actual pitch for the first few months was that we would open a toast cafe. ‘All kinds of spreads and all kinds of breads.’ Needless to say that never happened. We were WAY ahead of our time. What did happen was the space attracted all kinds of homeless initiatives and gave them in-kind start-up in the form of a space. Beer Cat was one of those.”
When asked about his favourite memory, Latimer had this to say, “Once while brewing, a slug came out of the wall. Not my favourite memory, but gives you a bit of an idea of what shape the Toast space was in when we started. Anywho, my favourite memory of Beer Cat was the dance parties that we used to throw to fundraise for our rent and equipment…We always had cat themed dance parties. I remember one was called Cat to the Future (that was a halloween Back to the Future theme). Another was called Beach Cat, and we dumped a whole bunch of sand on the stoop and lit tiki torches. Those parties were amazing in that there was no cover, quite accessible, people could come as they were and dance like no one was watching.”
Matt Stevenson heard about Beer Cat through a Facebook post. “I forget what the post included but it was basically an open invitation to come check out the Beer Cat. It took me about a month to make it out to the first brew day where I met a few of the Beer Cat regulars at the time. After that I committed to joining the coop almost immediately, which was February 2016 and I stayed an active member until we shut the co-op down in December 2019.”
Stevenson had been homebrewing for a couple years before he joined Beer Cat, but only transitioned to all-grain when he joined the group. “At the time the Beer Cats exclusively brewed extract or extract and steep batches of beer. I wanted to continue my experimentation in all-grain brewing and I offered to bring my all-grain kit to the co-op. At the time there were a bunch of us that took up the challenge of all-grain brewing and we all learned and taught each other together. It was a great experimentation phase in my brewing and allowed for a lot of mistakes and learnings!”
When asked about his favourite Beer Cat brews, Stevenson broke it down into a few categories. For his highest quality Beer Cat brew, it was a fresh hop bock that involved an early stage experimental triple decoction mash with fresh Mount Hood hops. For his best Beer Cat brew day, it was the BeerCats Strawberry Pale Ale, which was an all grain pale ale with Hull Melon, Belma and Jaryllo hops, brewed in the back alley on a sunny day with all the Beer Cat members, friends and a BBQ. And for his most ‘out there’ Beer Cat brew, it was the SmurfPee, which was created from the spent yeast after fermenting a blueberry infused cider. “To create [that], we mixed water with LOTS of sugar and lemon juice; this created a “hard lemonade” type of drink that rang in at 11% and came with a distinct purple hue. It was really tasty and went over surprisingly well at parties!”
Stevenson recalls the brew days at Beer Cat very fondly. “My favourite times at Beer Cat were brew days were multiple members came out to lend a hand in a brew day. It was really nice to have a community around you while brewing to keep your company, help out with the many dishwashing activities, and to learn about all the different and new beers you didn’t know existed.” One of the brew day that stood out in particular for him was at a Beer Cat Open House Brew Day that he hosted. “We were able to get out quite a few people new to brewing as well as lots of a friends. I believe I was brewing an IPA, probably hazy, and trying to talk through the process and present our brewing manual (new at that time). There were lots of people interested in the process and in our coop. It felt great to bring this opportunity to learn about brewing and beer to people who hadn’t had exposure before. It really felt like we were accomplishing what we set out to do.”
Despite the enthusiasm of the community, low membership led to the eventual closure of the Beer Cat Brewing Co-Op. “Beer Cat had been brewing out of the Toast Collective for 10+ years at the time we folded. Really it came down to low membership not being able to keep up with rent. We had been hosting open house brew days, events, parties, going to markets etc. trying to get our name out there but it wasn’t enough. For us remaining in the co-op, we wanted to be able to focus on brewing but with low membership and looming debt we had to focus so much of our time on marketing, recruiting and pursuing new members. Ultimately we decided the debt and risk had overcome the benefits of the co-op.”
Despite the closure, Stevenson still believes that there is a place for brewing cooperatives. While both clubs and brewing co-ops share a goal of promoting homebrewing, he believed that his brewing co-op was focused on making brewing more approachable to anyone interested in learning how to homebrew. “Our group owned the equipment we used and had a dedicated brewing space rented out. This made it possible for anyone, new or seasoned, to join the co-op and start making their own beer. We were able to provide all of the equipment and training to a new brewer so all they had to do was show up and have an interest to dedicate the time to brewing. I don’t think many homebrewing clubs have that since they are generally a collective of individual brewers that gather to discuss the craft and share their beers.”