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Canadian craft beer maker brews up success in European markets

Eli Gershkovitch (au centre), en compagnie de la maître-brasseure Julia Hanlon et du reste du personnel, dans la salle de dégustation de la Brasserie Steamworks.


It was while sipping beer in the mid-1980s in a centuries-old brewhouse nestled in the shadow of the imposing 13th-century Heidelberg Castle that Eli Gershkovitch first tasted the possibility of his future as the owner of Steamworks Brewing Company.

The newly minted law school graduate was travelling around Europe. Belgian beer had already made an impression on him during his travels, but an even bigger revelation was fermenting as he sat in the famed baroque city of Heidelberg, in south-central Germany.

“It was a flash: What if I took the Belgian style of flavours with these craft production techniques and added the natural advantages of Canadian produce and agricultural products?” says Gershkovitch. This epiphany in Heidelberg led to a parallel career for him in the burgeoning industry of craft brewing.

“As a lawyer, I know I’m the grease in the wheel of making the modern economy go around,” says Gershkovitch.  “But I wanted to do something that added value to the world. I wanted to do something big enough to be impressive, but not so big as to be intimidating.”

Eli Gershkovitch (centre) pictured with Brewmaster Julia Hanlon and the rest of the team in the Steamworks Taproom.
Eli Gershkovitch (centre) pictured with Brewmaster Julia Hanlon and the rest of the team in the Steamworks Taproom.

And so, almost 25 years ago, Steamworks Brewing Company opened its first brewpub in Vancouver’s food-, drink- and art-trendy Gastown neighbourhood. In another flash of discovery and inspiration, the company repurposed the building’s legacy steam-heating system and made the most of it to power its beer and its brand.

Under current brewmaster, Julia Hanlon, her team and her predecessors, Steamworks has grown to produce quality craft beers such as its Flagship IPA, which was awarded Best in Show and Best IPA at the 2016 BC Brewing Awards.

Along with tapping the Canadian market and distributing its products to the United States, Steamworks began exporting beer to Europe in 2015. That was two years before Canada’s trade agreement with the European Union, Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), came into force.

Gershkovitch says the company was treated as a curiosity at first in European markets.

“The attitude back then was that European beer was, of course, superior to all other beers, and in particular, North American beers. Since the introduction of CETA, we’re not so much a curiosity, but we are part of the club now. We’re a member of the team. They want to trade with us. We are now treated equally.”

The elimination of tariffs on beer under CETA was a boost to Steamworks’ bottom line, but the benefits go even deeper. Steamworks has sales in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy.

“As a Canadian, I am very proud that we’re now exporting craft beer to the heart of Europe,” says Gershkovitch. “We are selling beer to Bavaria!”

Steamworks’ place at the European table proves that this Canadian company can hold its own in the international market.

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