Sunday, September 23, 2018Canada's Leading Online Business Magazine

Pacific Western Brewing Company

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A Proud Tradition Based on Quality and Taste

Running Canada’s largest independently owned brewery is not an easy task, especially when it’s located in a remote area of Northern British Columbia. But Kazuko Komatsu, President of Pacific Western Brewing Co., says that the location is one of the brewery’s greatest assets. “There are not many other kinds of industries there—mostly forestry and mining.” This pristine landscape, through the nearby Caribou Spring, provides Pacific Western with what might be its secret to success, what has been called “miracle water.”

The brewery has drawn water from a nearby source throughout its history, and unlike other breweries, it has been able to meet market demands while staying put in its original location. The water’s purity has been assessed and its properties lauded. “We don’t have to treat the water. We can use the water directly into brewing the beer,” notes Komatsu. Dr. Bill Wheeler, chief nutritionist for U.S. President Jimmy Carter during his time in office, analyzed the water and was impressed by its properties. One of the water’s characteristics is that it contains calcium and magnesium in a ratio two to one. Magnesium is a key element, as it allows the calcium to be properly absorbed. The water also has a slightly basic pH level, which balances the often overly acidic North American diet.

Now, having swept past its 50th anniversary in recent years, Pacific Western has had time to develop a wide range of beers tailored to a wide range of tastes. Their offerings include Pacific Pilsner, which the company has produced throughout most of its history; Canterbury, a dark mild; Pacific Genuine Draft, or PGD, which is cold filtered for a clean, fresh flavour; Traditional Lager, brewed since the company started in 1957; Dry, a crisp beer first developed in Japan; TNT, with a strong taste that lives up to its explosive moniker; Ironhorse, fermented over a longer period of time, resulting in a higher alcohol content with a smooth taste; and Dude, a crisp and light brew, tailored for those who enjoy a simple, laidback lifestyle.

The company’s two organic beer offerings, Natureland Organic Amber Ale and Natureland Organic Lager, are both certified by recognized bodies. The Amber Ale’s 100 per cent organic ingredients include two-row malt—in which two-row barley is used to result in a clearer beer—and Hallertau Hops.

How Komatsu kept Pacific Western alive and healthy
In 1957, the brewery was founded near Prince George under the name Caribou Brewing. As decades passed, the brewery changed hands numerous times and was run by some well-known B.C. entrepreneurs, including Austrian-born Eugene Zarek, who had developed a name for himself brewing beer in Saskatchewan, and “Uncle” Ben Ginter, who took over in 1962 and changed the company’s name to Tartan Brewing.

Komatsu took over the brewery in 1991, when it was facing some serious financial troubles. “I had been exporting Pacific Western Brewing’s beer since 1987, and the previous owner had financial difficulties.” They tried to sell to various companies, but failed. At that time, North America was not a healthy business environment. “The employees almost lost their jobs and the union employees came to me to save their jobs,” she says. “So I decided to save their jobs. It was started from there.”

The previous owner offered to sell the plant without its unionized workers, but Komatsu declined, determined to keep the existing employees. This was not just for their sake, she says, but also to retain the expertise they had accumulated during their years at the brewery. “These union employees would have had a very difficult time if the company went down, because their training was only in brewing beer,” Komatsu notes. The staff went to the government for help, but they were only offered a paltry sum. “They got desperate to save their jobs,” says Komatsu.

Not everyone thought that Komatsu should take the helm of a business that had struggled throughout most of its history—she would be the brewery’s seventh owner. “Many people were against me buying this brewery because it had failed six times in 35 years.” But, says Komatsu, “I knew I could make it work: I said, ‘When we work together, it will be successful.’” This sums up Komatsu’s management style since she took over the operation, and she credits it with the company’s achievements. “We have been successful because we work together,” she says. Komatsu attributes Pacific Western’s success to the meaningful communication that takes place between employees and the company’s constant innovation, creating new products and new processes.

Staying strong amidst rocky international markets
Komatsu estimates that 40 or 50 per cent of the Pacific Western’s beer is exported. Japan has been an important market for the company in the past, but troubles in the country’s economy weakened that relationship for a time. “Last year the Japanese yen was very weak,” Komatsu notes, “and the Canadian dollar was too strong, so we were exporting only about 10 per cent of our product.” This trend has recently reversed, however, so the company is seeing more demand from the Japanese market. Pacific Western’s exports to other international markets—including the U.S., China, Argentina, France, and Russia—have risen and fallen in volume, often at the mercy of the country’s own economies and buying power. “Now currency is even more important for exports,” notes Komatsu.

As for the past months’ turmoil, Komatsu comments that she had been expecting the worst, and she prepared the company accordingly. “We have been ready for bad rainy days.” Komatsu says her advisors in Japan predicted “business chaos” in the U.S., similar to the trouble that their economy has encountered since its bubble burst in the 1990s. “I had been warned, so we prepared, starting last year, how to react,” she says.

Komatsu notes that Pacific Western has been able to avoid layoffs thus far. In part, she credits this to the company’s expansion to different divisions, including new organic, non-alcoholic products and the agility that this lends to its operations.

Brewing up some healthy alternatives
Natureland, which focuses on organic, low-calorie beverages, was started in 1998. As with Pacific Western, Komatsu is the sole owner. The products are sold in grocery stores in Western Canada, as well as through B.C. schools. These health-conscious markets are perfect for the drinks, which contain no artificial additives and no sugar, and instead use organic agave nectar for sweetening. Natureland’s products are certified organic by the Organic Crop Improvement Association and by the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) organic program.

Komatsu is confident that the organic market, for both these non-alcoholic drinks and for organic beer, will continue to expand in North America. “I think Canadians are not as keen as Europe and Japan are on organic,” she says. “But here I think it’s slowly growing. People are becoming more aware of the health and environmental benefits of organic products. They are more interested in healthy, organic food.”

Pacific Western’s priorities: quality, quality, and quality—and taste
Pacific Western has achieved a number of milestones in recent years that illustrate its commitment to quality and taste. These two things are the brewery’s ultimate guides in how it does business, says Komatsu. “My company’s philosophy is quality number one, quality number two, quality number three.” Modelling it after the high standards maintained by many Japanese companies, such as Toyota, Komatsu is proud of the recognition the company has received for its work. In 2003, Pacific Western was the first brewery in North America to attain an ISO 9001 certification. This standard applies to all the brewing and packaging the company undertakes in its daily operations.

Komatsu was also keen to point out that Pacific Western won a gold medal in 2005 at the Brewing Industry International Awards, which took place in Germany, a country that undoubtedly knows its beer. The company’s Natureland Organic Amber Ale received a gold medal in the International Ale Competition, making Pacific Western the only Canadian brewery to win in any of the nine categories up for grabs.

Giving back to the community
Pacific Western Brewing has maintained significant involvement in B.C. communities. For a number of years, it has been running a program called Hometown Heroes. The company had received numerous requests from athletes for financial help to further their training. Komatsu notes that, at the time, there was little financial support coming from the government, and for very young athletes, it was impossible to have their parents come along to important out-of-town competitions. Pacific Western has also worked with a number of athletes with disabilities to support their training. This ongoing initiative gives back to the communities of Northern B.C., which have supported the brewery throughout its history. Komatsu notes that the Hometown Hero initiative was quickly picked up by local media and soon Pacific Western was joined in supporting the region’s athletes by other local companies, such as the Pacific Sport Regional Sport Centre of Northern BC, Pattison Broadcast Group, and the Prince George Free Press.

Pacific Western’s other community ties include sponsorship of the Swiftsure International Yacht Race for the past five years, and ongoing support for the B.C. Senior Baseball Association and the Penticton Pinnacles soccer team, which was named originally after the brewery’s own Pacific Pinnacle lager.

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