Bomber Brewing’s Blair Calibaba
- Produces 700,000 litres of beer a year
- One of East Van’s crown brewery jewels
- Hit them up on Wednesdays for their One-Off-Wednesdays to sample a once in a lifetime brew
- Bomber Brewing on 604List
Despite being only being open since 2014, Bomber Brewing has a reputation that far exceeds its few years of operation. Distributed across B.C and in about 70 bars, the real experience of Bomber Brewing takes place in it’s cozy, cave-like tasting room with its full product offering, knowledgeable staff, and front row seats that look onto the stainless steel vats and production line.
Speaking with Blair Calibaba, co-founder and Head Brewer of Bomber, you come to understand that Bomber—more than anything else—was a labour of love and friendship inspired by the people closest to him. Amidst plans for their upcoming five-year anniversary celebration and special brew, Blair recounts memorable milestones along the Bomber path, gives behind-the-scenes insight to the craft brewery industry in Vancouver, and spills the brew on who in the world he’d most like to cheers a beer with.
Can you give a Reader’s Digest version of the history of Bomber Brewing? Tell us how it all happened.
I had been homebrewing for about 10 years, playing on a beer league hockey team and I was the beer guy on the team. I was always bringing my experiments to the game and foisting all my experiments on my teammates. At a certain point, one of our players was this guy who had run a couple of restaurants and always wanted to open his own brewery and liked what I was making. We started talking about doing it and about a year and a half later, we opened.
That’s incredible. Which beer was your first?
The Bomber Pilsner one of the first beers I focused on making. That recipe was what we built the brewery around. All our other beers came after we perfected that one.
Is that the Pilsner that you recently won two BC Beer Awards for?
Yeah! We won Bronze for our Pilsner and Gold for our East Van SMaSH. Last year we got 1st place in the same category. That was a real, nice honour. We’ve been doing pretty good in the last couple of years in the Canadian and BC Beer Awards. We won 2 in the BC Beer Awards this year, 4 last year, one in the Canadian Awards this year, and a couple the year before that! It’s nice when people like your product and acknowledge you’re making something of good quality. We’re definitely not in it for the awards but sure, it’s great to be acknowledged. It’s important to recognize you can make all the beer you want but unless it sells, there’s not much there! Our Park Life Passion Fruit Ale has been recognized 3 times this year as well. We’re very thankful for the well-awarded beer years we’ve had.
It can be a difficult business to make money at. If you’re doing it to make money, you might want to consider another industry.
So you started with a Pilsner for beer but what was the conception for the tasting room and customer experience?
We were of the first craft breweries to have an actual lounge license in Vancouver, so we got to have our tasting room set up and open right away. It’s small, but it’s really nice to have an environment where people can taste our beer, figure out what they like, and get our packaged products. That was basically the conception—we just wanted a way to see people’s reactions to what we were offering. And I don’t mind hearing negative feedback, either. It just makes a better product. We’re also distributed in some bars and liquor stores but the tasting room really gives us that extra connection to our customers and I value that interaction. We’ve got great staff in our tasting room as well who also let us know what they hear.
Speaking of, can you tell us a bit about what you’re looking for people who want to get into the beer biz?
I hire the production side of things for Bomber mainly and when I’m hiring, I always focus on people who have a huge interest in beer and the process behind it. People who are homebrewers or just enthusiastic about beer in general. As far as the tasters and other staff, the main thing is having a good rapport with people. An extensive beer knowledge doesn’t hurt either! But people skills are really the most important thing.
You create a welcoming, community-minded space with events and movie nights. Did you always intend on that becoming such a big part of your business?
Oh yeah. We always want to engage with the community as best we can. We do a beer for the East Van Panto at The York every winter; we’ve done it for last 5 years. There’s a hockey tournament that benefits a local after-school hockey program at Britannia so we help raise money and secure donated equipment for their team. It’s very important for us to not only be a viable business but also contribute to the community.
What’s been the most surprising thing about the beer industry to you so far?
I’ve worked in a lot of different industries from music production to coffee roasting, and distributing, and I’ve never known an industry to be so collaborative as the brewing industry. Especially the craft brewing industry. It’s been really eye-opening, actually. Everyone you encounter, especially on the production side of things is so supportive and collaborative, always willing to share their best practices and ingredients. Like Steve down the road at Off The Rail, he’ll let me borrow some wheat or hops when I need it and vice versa. Sharing our operations and protocols really just help us all make better beer. It’s not just getting together to do a collab brew on the Hop Circuit in the spring; it’s constantly learning from each interaction and making better beer, and a better community. The Yeast Van Brewery District Collective happens in the fall and has 15 breweries and two distilleries all come together to do a brew where some of the proceeds go to the food bank. It’s just such an incredible, friendly, and inspiring industry to be a part of.
Beside your community involvement, how is your beer connected to the local area?
In the early days, our hockey team was really the founding group of Bomber. When I was making beer at home I was naming it after guys on my team. Like Shoutout Stout, a beer from the early days was named after our goalie. Our Superpest Double IPA that we bring out a couple times a year is named after one of my favourite humans in the world, Craig Northey, who was our hockey team captain. Our Winter Ale, Old Fat Heater, is the nickname a guy on our team gave himself! The footprint of where we came from and where we’re going with beer is inspired by guys on our team. We just always aim to combine them with different ideas and be creative with names, like every brewery. Our beer is immensely connected to the people who helped us get here and our personal history.
You’ve always got some changing flavours but can you give us a rundown of your beer cannon?
Our core lineup is a Pilsner, Pale Ale, IPA, ESB, Marzen (a German style lager), and our Imperial Stout, which is a 9% beer we cheekily put in tall cans.
How do you come up with new flavours?
Oh man. Well we’ve got this pilot brew system which allows us to make roughly keg’s worth of beer a batch. All new flavours are made this way so myself and other people on the production side can try it. A lot of the ideas come from the guys who have a history of homebrewing presenting us their ideas. Every Wednesday is One-off Wednesday where we put out the one keg of the beer we’re inventing. Today, for instance, one of our brewers made a Smoked IPA and so that’s on tap for as long as the 40L keg holds out! It’s also just a good way to engage other brewers and their creativity and let them feel like they’re part of it. They’re definitely the heart of the process but letting them get their creativity flowing and maybe putting something out into the community is really cool for them. Our tasting room is a huge help in seeing what works, too. If one keg sits around for a couple weeks, it might not be resonating with people; but if it’s gone right away it might be worth looking into making more.
What’s your personal favourite Bomber beer?
I go for beers that are on the hoppier and imperial side of things. I’ve got a soft spot for the Pilsner just because it’s our heart and soul beer. I also like our Imperial Stout. I really worked on the recipe and got information from other, bigger brewers who were kind enough to share insight on what to do and not do with stouts. I also love the Double IPA, not just because of the person it’s named for either! Park Life Passion Fruit Ale is another great one I worked on over a couple of seasons to get it to where it is now.
Do you have a favourite non-Bomber been?
Naughty Hildegard ESB from Driftwood Brewery is great. Shoutout to Driftwood they make a great beer!
What would you say is your favourite part of the brewing process?
I like it from every aspect. Milling the grain is a really zen process; the smell and taste of the malts as they go through the mill in preparation of the process; the smell of whirlpool at the end of the brew cycle and the hops that are left at the end. Then of course, the end result when you get to taste the beer is pretty satisfying too! I also love getting feedback from people about the recipe so that we can make it even better the next time.
What was one of the first Bomber milestones you can remember?
Probably our first cans coming off the line. We were the first of the smaller craft breweries to purchase a canning line right when we opened. We always joked that we’d shotgun a beer off the first canning line. We never actually did that, cooler heads prevailed. But that was a big and important day for us. It was pretty satisfying taking those cans to my next hockey game and seeing the growth from my kitchen-bottled beer to canned packages with the Bomber logo—which is our hockey team name, that’s a big part of the puzzle—was so rewarding. And seeing the guys’ reaction was pretty cool.
When we opened and we always joked that we’d shotgun a beer off the first canning line. We never actually did that, cooler heads prevailed.
What would be your advice to people looking to get into beer, whether a brewery or the production aspect?
It can be a difficult business to make money at. If you’re doing it to make money, you might want to consider another industry. But for people who are passionate about creating and collaborating around beer, there’s no better work. That’s not to say you can’t be successful, but it depends on your approach and definition of that. Research is also key. If you’re looking to join a brewery, take a look at their presence and ask “Are they doing well?” I remember reading an article about Moody Ales one time and they said they were able to get so much information before they opened that helped them be a better brewery when they finally got to open. And again that comes down to how awesome this industry is at helping each other out and sharing intel. Don’t be scared to ask questions and do some research.
Great advice. How much beer do you pump out a year?
Last year we did 700,000 litres. We’ve got the capacity to do a million so that’s what we’re working towards!
In the last few years there have been a lot of craft beers and breweries that have popped up. How do you differentiate yourselves in the marketplace?
It comes down to your direction and focus. I’ve always focused on balance for our beer. We’ve never been the type to make an IPA that’s the exploding hop bomb—though I do find joy in those too—ours are more suited to being able to have a couple of beers over a night. There should be a balance so that you can have a couple of them without feeling worn out. On the design side of things, our hockey team was the inspiration so we herald that on our cans with the 5 stripe homage but we still keep it subverted.
What would you say to someone who is resistant to try craft beer?
I’d say, if you don’t want to, you don’t have to! But if you’re worried about taste, just ask questions. It’s okay to go to a tasting room and ask for the most similar beer they make to the one you know you like. What’s the least bitter? Best dark? Most tasting room people will be happy to expand on their knowledge and explain what they know. Everyone has an entry beer, ours would probably be Skyline Lager. It’s a light German lager that’s a really approachable, good transitional beer. Or our Marzen Amber Lager is good for that too. My family drank Coors Light for my whole life and they all drink my beer now because I showed them Park Life and they said, “If this is craft beer, I like craft beer!” Don’t throw people in the hop-deep end, just give them a transitional beer.
Can you talk about the future plans for Bomber Brewing?
Yeah, we’ve got plans to increase the size of our tasting room and expand that over the next year. Everything is staying here in East Van but our plans are just to up the capacity and make a bigger tasting room. Hopefully, it’ll be upstairs with a view of mountains. The windows in here look at our stainless steel tanks and that’s a little different than looking at mountains while drinking a beer! I also haven’t run out of ideas for beer and neither have my other production partners. We’re definitely planning to keep releasing some interesting seasonals. Our fifth anniversary is this Valentine’s Day and we’ve got a special beer and celebration planned for that as well.
Bomber’s done a lot in five years!
Yeah, well I’m tired so we must have done a lot! I’m happy with the growth and the reputation we have. I’m always pleased when see other brewers drinking my beer, too. I feel so lucky when we get that nod from another industry person.
If you could serve anyone in the world one of your beers, who would it be and which person?
It would be our Imperial Stout and I’d serve it to Charlie Papazian who is the Association of Brewers in the US, founded 40 years ago this year. He was one of the early adopters of homebrewing and has been a great advocate for craft beer and homebrewing. His work is one of the reasons I’ve been lucky enough to do what I do. It would be so awesome to have an Imperial Stout with Charlie!