How Byron Vallis opened his own Metro Vancouver brewery at 24
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A few years ago, Byron Vallis noticed that his neighbourhood was lacking some serious culture, particularly in the craft beer department.
The Coquitlam, BC resident found himself trekking up to an hour to get to Vancouver whenever he wanted to hang out at a trendy brewery, or even when he simply wanted to try a new craft beer.
Eventually, Brewer’s Row popped up in Port Moody, but Coquitlam wasn’t keeping pace with its neighbouring cities — it just didn’t have a lot of interesting venues where someone could sit back, relax, and enjoy a locally made craft beer (or two…or five).
So, Vallis was faced with two options – either do nothing and accept his city for what it was, or take a huge risk and do something about it.
He chose the latter.
In 2016, he founded Coquitlam’s first brewery — Mariner Brewing.
Vallis took the time to speak with us about his experience as a young entrepreneur, what it’s like starting your own brewery from scratch, what happened when they made a giant batch of vomit-smelling beer, and what’s coming down the pipe for the brewery.
- Birthplace: Burnaby, BC
- Place you consider home: Coquitlam, BC
- Age: 27
- What you wanted to be when you were a kid: Engineer, then a financial analyst
- Favourite post-secondary class: Quantitative modeling of environmental factors at SFU
- Previous job: Permitting for mining projects with the federal government
- How do you commute: Typically drive
- What you always have with you: Definitely my cell phone, but other than that, not a lot – I travel light so I can be ready for anything!
- Favourite vacation spot: Manning Park, BC
- What time you normally wake up at: 9 am
- What time you normally sleep at: Midnight
- Typical breakfast: Smoothie with milk, fruit, and grains
- Reading/listening to right now: Some technical articles about brewing, hops, and a new technique called biotransformation
What’s your elevator pitch?
Mariner Brewing is Coquitlam’s first craft brewery. We focus on making unique fruit beers, sour beers, IPAs, and generally creating the best beer for our community, and doing that in a really unique and fun way.
When and how did Mariner Brewing start?
The idea started at the beginning of 2016. It only took a couple of months to coalesce into a business plan. From there, it was about a year and a half to do all the startup activities, like finding a space, getting permits, and doing renovations. We opened our doors a year and a half ago now, but the whole journey started three years ago.
Have you raised any money?
Yes. Brewing is fairly capital intensive. In order to get the doors open, it’s about a million bucks for a brewery our size. We have a couple of partners in the business. One of them, Wim Vander Zalm, is a long-time businessman in the Tri-Cities community. He owns a garden store. Another one of our partners, Jonathan Karelse, also runs a business in Coquitlam. They’re both pretty keen to see a young entrepreneur get a business off the ground, especially one who’s investing in their local community.
How has Coquitlam played a role in the development of your company?
We’re the first craft brewery in Coquitlam, which means we had to speak with our City Council to get an idea of what they were looking for in terms of up-and-coming businesses. We also had to make sure we fit in with their long-term community plan.
At first, the city was fairly hands-off, but since we’ve been open they’ve become a lot more receptive to the community-involved activities we do. For example, we’ve done a bunch of charity fundraisers for the Coquitlam Animal Shelter, and city staff has come down to thank us for that.
Being the only brewery in our city is pretty cool. We get a bit more attention because of that, and people are definitely noticing what we’re doing here. Before we opened, the community was always looking for things to do locally, and I think we’ve partially filled that need.
As an entrepreneur, what’s the biggest pain you’ve had to overcome?
Getting used to the role of being CEO. I’ve had responsibility before, but it’s so different when you’re the CEO! If I go silent on an issue or take a day off, quite a few things grind to a halt or get off track. The biggest challenge I’ve had is coming to terms with my role and responsibilities here. Even if it’s the end of the day or the weekend, I have to make sure things keep moving along.
What are you learning now and why is it important?
How to build an effective team that’s confident and capable in what they’re doing. I’ve always found that technical skills come easier for me, but it’s taken me longer to figure out how to motivate people, and how to make sure each team member is in the right role based on their skillset and personal career goals.
What quote or phrase changed the way you approach business?
Opening a business is difficult, it’s stressful, it’s full of a lot of ups and downs. There are days where you can start off on a great high because you just had some big success, and then before you know it something may have happened and you’re back in the trenches trying to get yourself out of a problem. So having some regularity is tough. But a quote that stuck with me a lot is, and I don’t know who said it, “This too shall pass.”
It helps me remember that sometimes things are great and sometimes they’re terrible, but really tomorrow’s just another day. Stay humble and don’t let things get the best of you.
Why is it you that needs to do what you do?
It comes back to my experience a few years ago when my friends and I first started really getting into craft beer.
We were going into Vancouver to find new craft beers. We enjoyed a lot of them, but we still found that there were a lot of beers that weren’t being made locally. A lot of the new beers that are popular — like hazy beers, fruit beers, or sour beers — are perishable, so they’re best when they’re made in a local area and distributed within a few hundred kilometers.
So, despite the market being crowded, we were motivated to open a brewery so we could make fruit beers and some IPAs that nobody was making in our area.
Do you have any mentors?
Yes — as I mentioned, we have a couple of partners in the business that helped out on the financial end to get things going. They’re both quite experienced business people. Wim Vander Zalm mentors me on an ongoing basis. His business is just down the street from ours, so he knows the community very well and really knows a lot about what we’re doing in the area.
How do you prevent burnout?
When I was younger, I got myself into a goofy spot by biting off a bit more than I could chew. I ended up having to take some time off between semesters in school. Since then, I think I’ve grown a lot as a person and learned that health is important. Really important. You can’t cut corners on that. Just like I schedule meeting times, I schedule time to go to the gym, to sleep, or to cook healthy meals.
What’s your morning routine normally like?
As soon as I wake up around 9 am, I pick up my phone to check emails, to see if anything drastic or dire happened while I wasn’t conscious. After that, I usually rush around, get dressed, and eat quickly before heading to work.
What’s the biggest failure you’ve experienced?
In our first year, we had some challenges just being a new business. I think the biggest failure that we’ve overcome is recognizing within our management team what are our limitations are. What do we need to concede as just over our head, and what do we need help with, so we can delegate to others. We were a bit overconfident or eager to succeed at first.
What do you wish you knew before you started a few years ago?
It would’ve been cool to know more people in the industry. I did a fair amount of networking early on, but you can never do enough. Before we opened, I wish I had taken a few months to stop by more breweries to chat with people about their experiences – we probably would’ve had a bit smoother of a start. But at the same time, everything went fairly smoothly.
What’s your favourite beer?
Mariner’s Northeast IPA. I’ve always gravitated towards IPAs, and this one has been our flagship since we opened. I’ve probably adjusted the recipe 50 times to get it to where it is.
Non-Mariner would be Bellewood Milkshark. It’s sort of a milkshake IPA from Bellewoods Brewery in Toronto.
What have you made that you shouldn’t have?
We make a lot of fruit sours. For this one batch, we tried a different process to make the beer sour. Typically, beer would be soured with a culture similar to yogurt. We tried to use a wild culture, so it’s actually bacteria from nature — except it turned out tasting very, very gross. More rotten than tangy. Definitely the wrong type of sour.
We’ve refined our process since then, but at one point, we had about 2,000 litres of strawberry beer that smelled like vomit. Luckily, we were able to give it to a farmer that takes out reduced grain and feeds it to his cows and pigs. I haven’t seen it myself, but he says they love beer!
What’s one of the biggest challenges your team has faced?
I think any craft brewery might admit this — there’s a lot of good craft beer out there.
The biggest challenge we face is making sure our products are unique and interesting. That we’re doing something different, and we’re here for a reason besides simply making beer.
So essentially, our biggest challenge is staying relevant. It’s constant work to stay on the cutting edge, and to make sure we’re fulfilling our mission of making fun and exciting craft beer for our customers.
Other than sales, how do you measure success?
We have a lot of quantitative metrics we look at in terms of the amount of beer sold, and production yield, and other things. But a big part of it is sitting in our tasting room and talking to our customers about the experience they’re having and if they’re enjoying themselves.
What’s something about running a brewery that would surprise people?
The amount of time that gets spent fixing, repairing, and building equipment. So when people think of breweries, they probably think of the stainless steel tanks they’ve seen. But underneath those, what makes the whole thing run is hundreds of pumps and wires and motors and tap handles and bits of equipment. So probably about a third of my time at the brewery is spent doing construction, maintenance, and mechanical work.
What’s next for Mariner Brewing?
We’re about a year and a half into our brewing activities, and right now we’re making and selling beer at about a third of our target size. So within the next couple of years, we’re planning to take over additional space so we can fit some more tanks and another tasting room beside this one. I’d say we’re in kind of slow and steady expansion.
Since we opened, we’ve already added about 60% more brewing capacity and about 30 more seats to our venue. We’re always expanding and there’s more on the horizon as well.
What’s your exit strategy?
What’s the next trend in the beverage industry?
What we’re seeing now is a lot of fruit flavours and a lot of sweet beverages. And then at the same time, there’s this trend in lower-calorie, lighter beverages that are still very flavourful – like ready to drink vodka soda in a can.
I think we’re going to see the same thing start to happen in beer. A few breweries that were making milkshake IPAs last year are starting to make light lagers like Pilsner’s or beers where the calories are mentioned on the can, so people can plan what they’re doing.
People just love fruit flavors and sugar, but at the same time, they also recognize that sugar kind of sucks, so some days they’ll want a lower-calorie beverage.
I think we’ll start to see more breweries playing both ends where they’ve got some of those fruity beers and then also some of those light, lower-calorie beers.
How do you want people to remember you, personally?
Interview edited for clarity
PS. If you’re wondering, owning a brewery doesn’t mean you’re always drinking beer. Byron samples new beers every day but has learned “there’s a difference between sampling and drinking.”
Get in touch with Byron via email and follow Mariner Brewing on Instagram at @MarinerBeer.
And if you know an entrepreneur that should be featured, let us know!