Steamworks is much more than a brew pub
Call it a delayed gap year: after graduating from law school, Eli Gershkovitch knew he needed a break before he settled into a career routine. He enrolled in what’s fondly been called the université de ski in Grenoble for some arts classes during the day and exploring the French alps on weekends. Life’s little irony was that he was about to discover something that would, many years later, cause him to leave law.
“I got exposed to Belgian beer. It was an epiphany,” he says. On a side trip to Heidelberg, Germany, he also visited his first microbrewery. “It was big enough to be impressive but not big enough to be intimidating.”
This explains why he’s sitting at a corner table at his hugely successful restaurant in Gastown, Steamworks. Joining him at the 754-seat ode to craft beer and food is Walter Cosman, president of the ever-expanding brewery side of the business. A week later they will announce that they’re transforming a 30,000 sq.ft. space near the Burnaby boundary into a production facility that will annually pump out up to 90,000 six packs of Steamworks pale ale and pilsner and another 800 12-packs of their seasonal brews, such as this Christmas’s Blitzen. This, less than six months after launching the first bottled versions of Steamworks beer.
But don’t think that Gershkovitch’s law degree hasn’t been put to good use. It’s because his former Vancouver practice included legal work on clients’ liquor licences that he became so familiar with the rules and how to get them to work on his behalf. As a business owner, he still practises law — it’s just that he’s his only client. (In November, he created a brewhaha over his efforts to protect his trademark of the Cascadia craft beer name.) And the law practice gave him the financial breathing room — or what he calls the three Cs of confidence, contacts and credibility — to take that corner of Gastown and turn it into a neighbourhood destination as well as a popular stop on a tourist’s walkabout.
While the law can be a satisfying career, Gershkovitch felt the need to produce something tangible. “At the end of the day, lawyers don’t create anything,” he says. “I wanted to be the machine instead of the grease [that makes the machine work.] I wanted to be value-added.”
Built in the 1890s, 100 years later the Steamworks building housed a nautical store called Quarter Deck at the back and a Ralph Lauren store on the street side. Gershkovitch loved the space although, as he quips, “Gastown is a community on the verge of greatness for the past 30 years.” Certainly, people thought he was a little bit naive to dream up Steamworks. “Just about everyone said it couldn’t be done. The prevailing wisdom was ‘Why do we need another beer hall?’”
Gershkovitch didn’t want another beer hall, either. He wanted a place where people could drink the beer that was made on site. Part of his second epiphany — where the heavens part and all became clear — was discovering there was a dead storage area in the Gastown building. “I could picture a brewery over here and a kitchen over there.”
The problem was that the liquor control board didn’t consider Gastown enough of a residential neighborhood to allow Gershkovitch’s vision of a brew pub. He had to do a neighborhood referendum to get a “groundbreaking law” that allowed Steamworks to happen. He then partnered with architect Soren Rasmussen to do a retrofit, not adding the Ralph Lauren portion until it became available in 2003.
Steamworks generally produces 15 to 17 beers a year (usually eight at a time.) Last August, shortly after Cosman left his 10-year career at Granville Island Brewing, Steamworks launched its bottled beer. Its pale ale and pilsner are now in 85 government liquor stores as well as a number of private retailers.
The decision to start bottling the beer — wrapped in a successful “Steam World” branding campaign conceived by Bernie Hadley-Beauregard of Brandever — has already produced results. The Steamworks pilsner came first in the British Columbia Beer Awards last October and also won the Northwest Brewing News’ readers’ choice award for best pilsner.
The bottled beer is definitely tangible proof of Gershkovitch’s goal of being someone who produces something. “It’s tremendously fulfilling to see your product on the shelf and watching someone pick it up. [We all] need a purpose and to remain relevant. I really believe in my own small way that we need to put the emphasis on products. There are many ways of finding purpose and fulfillment. I feel the need to build.”
And build he will. He wants to tap into other, bigger markets, including that beer-drinking province to the east. “Here I come, Ontario.”