Our second instalment of our Hanging Out With series brings us to Darby’s Gastown to chat with bar manager Alex Berner. We both are enjoying pints of Happyness. I (Heather) met Alex a year ago at a mutual friend’s bottle share birthday party. We ended up riding the Skytrain together and a friendship quickly blossomed. Alex is an important member of the beer community as he continually strives to maintain a solid and diverse tap list at Darby’s Gastown. He is hilarious, intelligent, talented, humble, and handsome af. We’re excited for you to meet him.
The Wet Hop: Tell us a bit about yourself.
Alex: I’m an ex-Albertan. I moved here about 12 years ago. I wasn’t always a beer geek, and actually, when I first moved here, I hated beer. I kind of sustained myself on highballs when I went out to the bar and never even considered touching beer. It wasn’t until around 2007 when I started drinking Unibroue beers. When I first moved here, I was a chef for a while. I was doing back of house stuff for a number of years and one day I just made the change. I wanted to get into bartending and front of house stuff. At the time I was in school for something completely unrelated and I wasn’t happy with it. I finished the program, but I knew ultimately I wanted to get into something beer related. It was an opportune time because shortly after I graduated, I got an offer to work here at Darby’s. I came from Craft Beer Market and had developed beer experience there. Now I have this baby. They trust me with running the place. My boss, Brendan, is awesome. He’s been in the industry for a long time and he really understands what people want to drink. The tastes are changing and people don’t necessarily want to drink Canadian or Kokanee anymore.
TWH: How is Darby’s Gastown different from Darby’s Kits?
A: I’d say mainly in the feel of the room. Darby’s in Kits is more of a neighbourhood pub and Darby’s Gastown is a comfortable cocktail bar…you know, with the exposed brick. Slightly more of a restaurant feel than a neighbourhood bar.
TWH: You mentioned Unibroue. Was that the beer that made you fall in love with craft?
A: Yeah, I remember specifically. I was a food geek so I would read the WestEnder, the food pages, and at the time, Andrew Morrison from Scout Magazine wrote the columns. He was talking about this beer called La Fin Du Monde and I’d never had it or heard of it before. I knew it was being sold at BCLs so I figured I would give it a shot. I was starting to drink beer at that point, like Sleeman’s Honey Brown. Anyway, I picked one up and it was a 750ml, massive cork and cage bottle that put me on my ass, but I loved it. It was full of flavour and blew my mind to what beer could be. I think that was the turning point for me.
TWH: How has Darby’s changed since you took on the bar manager role?
A: The whole concept was there with Darby’s in Kits. Keeping as many local taps as possible…they slowly whittled away Molson and what have you. They turned their regulars to local stuff. So, when I got here, it was pretty craft orientated already. They expanded the taps from 6 to 28 and a couple of wine lines. But we’ve recently switched those wine lines to two more beer or cider lines. We want to keep it local, but also bring in imports that people don’t get everyday. We had a Brasserie Dunham tap takeover recently that was a lot of fun. Most of the beers people hadn’t heard of over here. It’s a good way to get people in the door and try different things.
TWH: Since you’ve been bar manager, I’ve noticed an increase in tap takeovers here. What do you have planned in future, if you can mention?
A: We have some things planned. Darby’s in Kits does a rare brews and BBQ ticketed event every year. Last year we featured a cask event, no BBQ but it was still fun. We’re splitting it into two events this year. They’re doing theirs on May 27th and we’re doing ours on the 20th; it’s called Rare Brews: North America.
TWH: Is there going to be something here worth buying a ticket for?
A: Oh yes. Definitely. We also have a few other surprises up our sleeves for summer time.
TWH: I hate surprises! So, what are some of the future tap takeovers that you envision happening? What do you want to see here?
A: I’m a massive beer geek. Obviously I want to see stuff like a Hill Farmstead tap takeover. Maybe something a little bit closer to home like De Garde or Holy Mountain. Bringing up breweries that nobody’s seen in Vancouver or off and on.
TWH: If you could only drink one style of beer for the rest of your life, what would it be and why would you commit to that beer?
A: Can I pick a whole brewery?
TWH: Haha, you could pick a style and/or pick a brewery.
A: Recently I had the opportunity to try even more beers from De Garde and I honestly think they’re one of the best in North America right now. If I had to pick a brewery to drink from for the rest of my life, I’d pick them because everything I’ve had of theirs has been brilliant. Locally, I’d say…I hate being biased, but I guess the brewery that really makes beers to my taste is probably Twin Sails with their mostly IPA and hoppy releases. They’ve been killing it on that front. For style, I’d pick IPAs. I’d always really liked bitter and growing up I loved brussel sprouts as a kid –I was a weird kid– so I never had an issue with bitterness. Even though the first time you try beer is challenging, once you get past that, it really opens up. I have an easier time tasting what’s behind all that abrasive bitterness. I know some people say they can’t drink IPAS all night but why not? It’s what I want to drink all night sometimes; I can’t get enough. Especially with the advent of juicier IPAs…those are way easier to marathon all night with. It’s not necessarily a palate wrecker and it is still refreshing.
TWH: I actually burnt out on IPAS and I couldn’t touch them for several years. I slowly started getting back into them. This juicier IPA trend has been pleasant and easier for me to come back to drinking IPAs. If I was to pick local, i’d pick Boombox or Superflux. Out of country, I can’t decide between Hill Farmstead or Cantillon, so, I’ll just pick both. I also can’t decide between IPAs or saisons, so if there was a blend of those things, I guess I’d pick that.
A: So, a hoppy saison?
TWH: Which is what I made for the Siris cask festival.
A: The best of both worlds. I’d say that Twin Sails, Boombox, and Superflux are kind of this trifecta leading the way for these crazy hazy IPAs. That style may get old eventually, but I’ll still drink them. I still drink and like West Coast IPAs.
TWH: What do you think the next beer trend in Vancouver is now that we’re in the middle of a juicy hazy IPA trend?
A: I honestly think that since many breweries are getting more established, I think we’re going to see a lot more spontaneous fermentation, barrel aging, open fermentation. I think Fieldhouse was a bit ahead of their time when they went to rent the coolship, but they can definitely do some fun stuff with it. They’re not far off since they’re in a farm-y kind of area. I could see breweries putting petri dishes and collecting cultures and doing a sour program. It takes a long time, but you have to be established. In BC, you can’t start brewing until you get the go from the government. Strange Fellows, notwithstanding, they’re already doing some really awesome stuff in barrels and I think we’re going to start seeing a lot more of that in future.
TWH: Fingers crossed. I signed up this year for the Strange Fellows fellowship program. Last year I tried almost all of the Fellow beer, but this year I’m actually giving them my money.
A: Strange Resemblance though. So. Good.
TWH: I don’t think it’s Strange Times up there, but it’s close.
A: They’re two sides of the same coin.
TWH: I need to get another bottle immediately. It has such a nice lemon pepper thing happening.
A: Beautiful beer.
TWH: What hop are you loving right now?
A: I’m really a fan of citra right now. I also really like mosaic. Brassneck’s One Trick Pony with Mosaic, really turned me onto Mosaic and recently with Dat Juice or things like Zombie Dust. It drinks so easy and isn’t really offensive. Single hop beers can be challenging, picking the right hop, Citra does wonders for a single hop beer. I know there are all these crazy experimental varietals but I always go back to Citra then Mosaic. You can’t go wrong.
TWH: Kent and Phil picked Citra and Mosaic too.
A: I’m not surprised, haha.
TWH: Are you going to do more beer and food pairing dinners here?
A: Our kitchen is kind of cramped. We might look at doing chocolate and beer pairings or charcuterie and beer pairings whereas at Darby’s Kits, they have a full kitchen and it’s a lot easier to feature full dinners. We tried a dinner here, and it went really well, but we felt for the time beginning it would be best to keep them in Kits and focus on a different type of dinner pairing here.
TWH: You recently changed your menu here and it’s really good.
A: Thank you. It’s a challenge. For one, we don’t have an exhaust back there, so we can’t have deep fryers, which is good because we can bake things, and it’s healthier. There’s not a ton of storage in there, but we also have to make sure we bulk up on enough stuff so that we don’t run out of half of our menu on a weekend. We’ve gotten better and better though.
TWH: Gentrification is a huge problem, particularly in this neighborhood. Is there anything that Darby’s Gastown does to give back to and support the Downtown Eastside community?
A: We’re still fairly new in this location, but I would love to be able to give back. There is actually a list of businesses in this neighbourhood that are exclusive, and we’re definitely not that. We are an inclusive space. With the current fentanyl crisis, if someone has an overdose, we have kits here.
TWH: You all have Narcan training?
A: We’re not all trained yet, but we have a kit available and we are also right next to Portland Hotel Society. We are looking to get training. I’ve been trained and one other person has been trained.
TWH: So, you want to get Naloxone training for your staff, that’s amazing. Is mealshare something else that you’re looking into?
A: Absolutely. Darby’s in Kits does it and have been part of that program for quite some time. We’ll be doing it in the future as well.
TWH: Is there anything else you want our readers to know about you or Darby’s?
A: Being a beer bar in Vancouver I feel like it’s not something that’s a saturated mark. I feel like there’s room for more beer bars. People always ask me to recommend another spot, and I have no problem sending them to Alibi Room, 12 Kings, St Augustine’s, all of these other places to go try, we help each other out. We tell people about each other. I’ll always recommend the Orchard and the Sea to people that love cider. But there is still lots of room for other spots. We want to be the kind of place that people can come in and get a local pint, play some board games, maybe a D&D campaign, or go on a first date. We want people to open up their mind to craft beer. We do flights, we pour tasters to people all the time, people that might not even like beer and suddenly they make fall in love with sours or stouts. It’s good to chat with people and get them to experience what Vancouver has to offer in terms of beer because we have a ton right now. We’re in a renaissance right now.
TWH: It’s nice to hear that you’re recommending other places to people. That happens all the time with breweries, but I didn’t realize it also happened with pub type environments. Breweries will say, if you like these beers, go here, here and here. You recognize that there is competition, but at the same time, you’re not all going to have the same tap list at the same time.
A: Or, we might have the same beer, but tapped at different times. We might have Superflux on tap, and a person going to Alibi misses out on it, they can come here to try it. It’s still very collaborative. I also recommend breweries. I keep making these really crappy hand-drawn maps that name the streets and are very approximate, but I’m known for making these for tourists. I don’t have any copies of the growler that have brewery maps on them, so I make my own for them.
TWH: I’d love to see one of these maps!
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