Interview with Brent Mills, Brewmaster/Co-Founder at Four Winds Brewing Company

The wind is blowing this interview from three different directions via the westcoast of Canada all the way to Europe. Why there’s no wind coming from the north and much more about an exceptional brewery located in a curious blindspot when it comes to craft beer awareness, you can read in this interview with Brent Mills of the Four Winds Brewing Company.

Which of your beers would you have served beer hunter Michael Jackson?

I would probably go with the beer that I drink the most: La Maison. It’s a Belgium Table Saison with rye, wheat and oats. We ferment it with wild sac trois yeast and Mosaic. It’s quite a unique beer, refreshing and flavourful at 4.5% ABV, which is nice too.

One thing I’ve noticed when I was travelling your part of British Columbia: there were many low ABV beers. What’s the reason for that?

I don’t think we have much of a tradition when it comes to low ABV beers – or beer in general. Craft beer is fairly new in British Columbia.
I cannot speak for other breweries, but for me as a consumer and as a brewer, I like to have more than a couple of beers. And if it’s super strong, I’m getting drunk. There’s nothing wrong with getting drunk every now and then, but not every day. So, we brew a bunch of low alcohol beers that can be consumed on a regular basis, without you getting carried away.

In a video interview on YouTube you talk about doing 50 different beers per year. That video is a couple of years old now. Are you now up to 50 per month now?

Nah, we are still at about 50 different beers per year, of different batch sizes. At any given time, we have about 15 different beers that we are pouring in our taproom.

Which beer pays the bills?

We are pretty unique in that regard: most breweries have a standout that is the most produced and consumed. We have that and it’s our IPA, which is our standard westcoast IPA. But it is only about 15% of our production. So, there’s an even keel over all of our regular brands, plus there are limited releases. There’s also a shift from year to year: a beer like La Maison used to be two percent of our production and is up to about 10 percent now. And it has momentum behind it: People want more of it.

Would you get bored out of your brain if you’d only get to do 20 instead of 50 beers?

In the past, probably yes. But now that we’ve grown, I’m finding solace in simplicity. Twenty beers would be a blessing.

I think you have a say in that.

Yeah, I do, but consumers are already hooked.

Do you get the perception there’s more excitement for your limited releases or for your regular brands?

Both. There’s a segment of the beer community that found their beer, love it and drink it all the time. And then there’s a part of the community that’s always looking for something new. If we’re releasing a new beer, they want to buy it. And if another brewery is releasing a new beer, they are going to buy that. I couldn’t say what the percentage of the community is of the one and the other, but there’s definitely a lot of excitement when we release a new beer.

What differentiates Four Winds from other breweries?

That’s a question people often ask and I don’t really have an answer to. I wouldn’t say there’s anything super specific that we do that is different. The one thing that we pride ourselves on is that we never settle. Whenever you’re tempted to say “this is good enough”, it only means it needs to be improved upon. Even to this day we are modifying recipes of beers we are brewing for five years; through process and ingredients we adjust beers continuously.
This might be something that consumers find frustrating, if they’re settled on a flavour and the flavours evolve. But we’ve never tried to stray away from the original flavour, we’ve just tried to improve upon it.
We also never take any shortcuts. If something’s gotta be done one way, but there’d be a way to do it cheaper and quicker, if the quality is not going to be there we are going to take the long road, spend a bit more money or even cause a little bit more stress for ourselves.

Do you think that will go on forever or will there be some recipes that you will settle on.

I hope so.

I’m just thinking right now about our IPA, which we modified continuously. I think it is at its best, but I still think it could be better. And if you take a sip of the beer we produce now and the beer we produced five years ago, it wouldn’t be that different, but it would just taste of a higher quality.
So, I don’t know. I can’t say we settle on something, because even if we reach a point where we’ll be like “Okay, this is it. This is exactly what we wanted it to taste like”, eventually we’ll be like: “okay, let’s bring it to the next level.”

Which of your beers is closest to you being willing to settle – even if just temporarily.

[laughs] I can’t say that all of our beers are always and constantly being adjusted. Like our Saison is one that we’ve been brewing almost the same.

Along with you, your brothers and your father are also in the business. How do you share responsibilities?

My role is brewmaster, so I am in charge of production. There’s a team of 12 staff that pretty much take care of all the beer production. My brother Adam is in charge of sales and marketing. So, he looks after which beers go where and what’s next as far as brand goes. My dad is the president, so he is looking after the general finances. And then I have another brother Sean who’s part of the packaging team and he has a big role in that department.

How many people in total?

We started with the four of us and we are now 43.

How does it feel like to be the general of an army of 43?

Luckily, we have great management, or to stick with army terminology, lieutenants, who are the leaders of their own teams. And in general, every staff member is awesome.
It’s something I’ve never imagined when we started. And at some point, I was definitely not interested to be at this scale. But through the years I’ve grown to accept it and appreciate it. And find the good and positive in having a larger scale production.

When are you going to reach 50 staff?

Hard to say, but probably by the summer time.

Will you ever reach 100?

I would imagine yes; a few years from now, probably. We have plans to scale up and build a new facility. They are still plans, but at that point, I’d imagine we’d be around 100 people staff.

What’s your production volume?

We brew 5,000 litres a day, six days a week. But we are going to seven days, which will get us to 35,000 litres a week. We brewed 11,000 HL in 2017 and looking to do approximately 15,000HL in 2018.

Through the process of getting to 43, you must have learnt a lot. When growing to 100, what do you think are the biggest challenges going to be?

Getting the right staff is always going to be a struggle, but it’s something we’ve been pretty lucky with.
The way we hire in production is usually by making sure the person fits our culture and has a good work ethic. We are usually trying to figure out what kind of person a candidate is outside of work and I’m trying to work out if they can work as efficiently as we are. Then there’s usually a trial before we hire and if it doesn’t work out for neither of us, we part our ways. We don’t want to waste their time and don’t want to waste our time.

Beer nerds or craft beer aficionados assign a certain romanticised glory to the profession of brewing. How would you describe it?

When it comes down to commercial production, it’s not super romantic. It’s hard work. It takes a lot of patience and determination. And it takes a lot of long hours.
You know the homebrewed beers you’re happy with, It’s not so easy just to scale it up to commercial scale. There’s a lot of pressure involved with a professional brewery. You need to make sure you have propagated enough yeast, so the beer ferments properly. You need to make sure you have the right temperature. There are a lot of different variables you need to consider or the beer wont be the beer you want it to be. There’s definitely a lot of stress with that in a brewery.

How important is a formal training?

I like formal training, because you have a great grasp of how beer is produced and packaged. I did some schooling and I’m grateful for it. But sometimes people with a formal training have a set of ideas on how things are done. In North America, every brewery is different. So, if you are stubborn towards how things are done in any one brewery and you want to change it, it’s not going to work. We’ve had experiences like that.
Currently, we have better success with training staff that are holding an entry level role, who are very hard workers, are smart and if we train them they can become brewers and are excellent at it.

You have a cooking background. What was your path to get here?

While I was in kitchens, I started homebrewing for a number of years and reading books along with online media, trying to understand the process as best as I could. I was hired by R&B Brewing in an entry level role, washing and filling kegs and things like that. After about six months, I left for a programme in Chicago at the Siebels Institute. Getting back, I was trained to brew at R&B, moved into a higher role and after about a year of that I became production manager.
My training definitely got me the upper hand at my job and the proficiency to be the production manager.

Apart from what you just said, was there anything else that was pivotal?

I’m pretty fortunate to be the guy that started this Four Winds with my family. In the brewery, Kylo Hoy is our head brewer. Without Kylo we wouldn’t be where we are. He’s creativity and his understanding of how beer is being produced, is unmatched.
He is one of the hardest working people I have ever known, hands down. I’ve known him since high-school and he’s coming from a cooking background as well, although he was far more advanced as a chef than I am. He came on about three months after we started and we worked side by side, creating different beers and brewing. His role is now primarily in the brewhouse and creating beers; we’re still doing it together, but he’s the one with the hand on the pulse.

How would your beers taste like if the two of you wouldn’t have a cooking background?

Hard to say. I think they’d be a lot safer. We probably would stick to what has already been done. Whereas now, we have great respect for the beers that were produced in the past, but we want to make them ours as well.

Brent Mills of Four Winds Brewing Company – all photos by Alison Page

The process to produce one of your beers, Operis, is complicated. Was that by design?

It was by design, definitely. It was inspired by some innovative US brewers: When I was in Chicago, one of the guys in my class, was pretty much the inspiration for that beer. He was working at this brewery, which is closed now, called The Commons. They did a beer called Flemish Kiss. My concept was to take a traditional Belgian Saison, put it into wine barrels and add Bruxellensis brettanomyces to give it a big of wild funk. We started with about six barrels and now have a 4000 litre foeder, as well as 30 barrels. It’s growing rapidly.
But I have to give it to Shawn, because it was their Flemish Kiss and that flavour that we were aiming for.

You have the East wind series “Eurus”, which is European style beers, the West series “Zephyrus” which are hoppy west-coast beers and lastly the South series “Notus”, which is low-ABV beers. Is there now a North wind?

There is not.

Why not?

In time.

So, there have been discussions about the North wind?

The North wind has been on the table for a while. But we only have so much capacity at this point, and what we want to do with the North wind is strong, barrel aged beers: Old Ales, Barley Wines, Imperial Stouts.

In a previous interview you said that Delta was convenient, because it was quite central. When we went there, it felt like it’s in the middle of nowhere.

[laughs] It’s a little bit. Fraser Valley is not a huge tourist destination, but that’s where about 50 percent of the population of Metropolitan Vancouver live. It takes us 30 minutes to be in either Vancouver or Fraser Valley – in that regard it is a pretty central location.

You’re surrounded by farmland.

Yes, we are in an industrial park, surrounded by farmland and a river. So when it comes to residential walk ins, that doesn’t exist. People have to drive here.

When we were there, there were a lot of cyclists.

That’s something we love seeing, because a lot of us are very passionate about cycling as well. Kylo and I are big cyclists.

Brent Mills of Four Winds Brewing Company – all photos by Alison Page  

Have you ever incorporated the surrounding farmland into your beers?

Not yet. Around us is all land for lease, so people farming there is very non-stable; it could be one year the one person growing a certain crop and the following year another person doing something completely different. But we do have a couple of farmers that we talk to regularly that supply food for our kitchen. Plus we have purchased some fruits from local farmers, but they are not based in our local vicinity.

Listening to you, this would be something you’d be interested in: Farm to glass beers.

Absolutely. And the new brewery, whenever that happens, that’s a big goal of ours: to be incorporating what we’re doing into the farmland around us.

Hence, you will be building the new brewery in the same area.

We hope so. Unless we don’t find a location.

From where you are, it’s just a short drive to the US border. Before visiting that area of British Columbia, I was expecting a significant amount of US beers and then was surprised how little there actually was. That’s not a complaint, because considering the number of great BC breweries, there’s no need for US beers. But considering how close it is, I still find it surprising.

We ourselves have a few connections to US breweries, but not as tight as others in Canada. We feel like it’s easier to reach out to somebody in Canada.
But you’re right: where we are in Delta, it’s basically on the border with the US. Just south of the border is a town called Bellingham, which, I think has the highest brewery per capita in the US. Kylo and I went down there last November and brewed a beer there with a brewery called Wander Brewing. Great people. And the beer in Bellingham is super high quality.
But to catch on your thought of there not being too many US beers here. It’s funny, not that long ago, about when we opened, it was standard for most restaurant and bars to have mostly American beer. It wasn’t necessarily because they wanted it, it was because there weren’t many Vancouver or B.C. breweries producing beers. Since local breweries opened and started making good beer, that good beer is actually much cheaper than imported beer from the States; it’s like 50 percent less. So now you don’t see many restaurants and bars that carry American beer, because the costs are so high.

You started to touch on this: What is your perception of the beer scene or community in British Columbia, both as a brewer and as a consumer?

I think it is very impressive! When we first started, it was very small and there weren’t many places serving local beer and there weren’t many options for local beer events. Since we’ve opened, about 50 breweries opened up in Metro Vancouver, which is insane, considering there were like ten when we opened up. And the areas outside of Vancouver had the same growth: all these little towns sprinkled around the district are getting their own brewery. Most of the breweries are quite small, but the standard of quality is still high. That’s great to see.
I think B.C. as a whole has the potential to surpass mass produced beer in the market. It’s on the right path and in a few years more than 50 percent of the market will be local craft beer.

That was one thing that amazed me the most, just how normal craft beer appeared to be in B.C., how it penetrated the common consciousness and is went beyond a distinct craft beer bubble.

It’s pretty amazing. There are a couple of things that are the cause of that. One thing is that people in Vancouver want to support local companies. They want to put a face to the product they purchase. And they want to try something unique. Craft beer checks all those boxes. The other thing is, and I just realized this recently, mass produced beer in Canada is not great. It’s not as horrible as the reputation amongst the craft beer drinkers, but it is not great, when you consider other mass-produced beers around the world in places like Austria or Germany.
I was just in Japan and their craft beer market is very small. And I think a lot of the reasons are, because their mass-produced beer, Kirin and Asahi, are excellent. Now if you have an excellent product that is easily available to you, you don’t need to look for something else. That is why here, I think, we have the potential to grow and grow and grow, because the beer these mass producers are making are sub-par.

Therefore, I take, the growth in number of breweries is sustainable?

If you’re making a quality beer, you’re going to be successful.

There’s only beer from one B.C.-brewery that is available in Switzerland. Can you guess which one?

I would take a guess and say maybe Steamworks?

Yes. How come you guessed correctly?

I kind of knew that they were doing some European exports. The owner, Eli Gershkovitch, he is, as far as I understand, an intellectual property lawyer or something along those lines and he does lots of work in Europe – or at least he travels to Europe a lot and has friends there. I think he wanted to sell some beers there to the people he knows and promote the product there.

Why no other brewery?

I think the market is challenging there. I know there’s a lot of breweries in B.C. that sell in Asia. It’s more direct, I guess, because you can just put it on a boat.
Countries like Switzerland have been consuming beer for hundreds of years. To bring some newbie brewery from North America there is a huge challenge. It takes an investment into educating the consumers: Why would someone choose this new beer over the beer from a brewery that has been brewing for 500 years – which I’m sure is delicious, so why even chose another brewery?
With that being said, there are two places in Berlin that carry our beer. And it’s not because we ship them beer, but they come here and buy it, as they have roots in Vancouver – which is pretty cool.

Another thing that I find surprising, how under-represented Canada and particularly B.C. is at European festivals. There are many great ones, with the Mikkellers Beer Celebration in Copenhagen and Beavertown’s Extravaganza in London being the standouts. According to a cursory look at the participants, no Canadian brewery is represented at Mikkeller and at Beavertown there were two, if I remember correctly. Considering there’s breweries from all kinds of nations at these festivals, and considering the quality of B.C. beer, it just seems like a lapse.

Those are two festivals I definitely have an eye on and I’ve met the folks of Beavertown. We’ve done a festival at Bellwoods last fall and Beavertown was there. Those guys were awesome. It was great to get to meet them.
They can only have so many people at their festival, but maybe in time. We’ll see. I mean, we’ll never be able to sell beer there, well, maybe one day, but at this point no. It’d be fun to go and see the market on an international scale and drink some amazing beers.

You should come over. I can introduce you to people [smiles]. Switzerland would also love to host you. Have you ever been?

No, never, but I’d love to go. A few years ago I’ve been to Germany and Czech Republic. Kylo and I went for Braukon in Nurnberg. We first visited Munich and then continued to Nurnberg. We brought our bicycles and we were going to ride from Nurnberg to Prague – we got about half-way and then it started snowing heavily, so we had to take a train. It was pretty amazing; a beautiful part of the world. That was the first time when I was in Europe outside of Copenhagen, which was earlier that year, actually.

Which five beers would you recommend for people to drink before they die.

Rodenbach Grand Cru.
Fresh Pilsner Urquell from the caves at the brewery.

Was that the highlight of the trip you mentioned before?

Oh, yes! It was eye-opening. For a brewery that produces beer for the whole world, to be able to still keep an eye on tradition and to be able to produce beer the same way it did a hundred and twenty or however many years before, is just outstanding.
Now for the other three: I don’t wanna lean on rarities, because I also want people to try something that’s for everyone.
Tilquin Gueuze.
Generally, anything from Jester King.
The carrot lambic from Mikkeller.

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