Village Brewery’s Jim Button all about building community in Alberta’s craft beer industry and beyond

By any measure, Jim Button is a pretty amazing guy.

To the nascent craft beer market, he has been a leader, a visionary, and, perhaps, it’s best mascot. He’s well-known as a co-founder and spokesperson for Village Brewery. But, he is far more than that. Button is a family man, a volunteer par excellence, an “athlete,” and Ed McMahon to Dave Kelly’s Johnny Carson.

TheYYSCENE had a chance to sit down for a lengthy chat with Button in preparation for a recent article. The entire conversation was well worthy of publishing.

Ironically, it happened over a coffee as Jim is no longer able to drink beer (read more about his health journey here). The fact that it happened at all is a testament to spirit of helping that is so deeply ingrained in him. At a time when he could be retreating, he is still out helping others and building community. It was a distinct privilege to capture even a small portion of the oral history of Village Brewery from a co-founder.

Q: When did Village start?
A: The first beers came out December 21, 2011. It took us a year and a half. There were a lot of discussions with the provincial government about the 5,000-hectolitre rule. We were the first new brewery in 15 years. There are a lot of things where we had to get out there and do the frontier work since nothing had changed in so long.

Q: When you started, given your background (with Big Rock, in particular), how important was marketing?
A: When Big Rock was my client, and when I was a VP there, I used to say, “We are a marketing company that happens to sell beer.” So, that was the priority. For Village, I took a different perspective. It’s not a marketing company, it’s a movement as much as it is a seller of beer. Beer happens to be the conduit, but, really, we are a movement first and a beer company second. I had to sit down and explain my vision. That was the beautiful thing about the partnership. We had arguably the most experienced brewmaster in North America, a guy who was CFO of a brewery, a guy that started on the bottling line at Big Rock and ended up getting his MBA, a guy that was in sponsorships and community, a marketing guy, me, and two guys who assemble and disassemble breweries around the northern hemisphere. Each one came with expertise, so decisions were made quickly. Everyone worried about their areas and we just did stuff. So, I had a lot of autonomy on how I was building the brand. We’d all meet at this card table that is now circulating around the brewing community. I had them do mood boards, cut up magazines. For these guys, it was, “what the hell are you doing?” They’d never done it before. But, they all appreciated it and we came to the conclusion it was a community-driven brewery.
I think the highest priority for any company, regardless of whether it’s a craft beer company or not, is purpose. I think, going forward, the only companies that will succeed are the ones driven by purpose, not by product. The way things are happening, it’s getting so democratized. Consumers have way more power. Two things being equal, they will pick the company that has a belief system that aligns with theirs. Fast followers are going to change everything.

Q: Very quickly after Village came out, Wild Rose and Big Rock rebranded. Obviously, Village had a pretty strong impact on the local industry at that point.
A: I think it continues. We help other breweries. We help with equipment and installation. Larry (Kerwin, a co-founder) helped build the program at Olds College. Stefan (Horsky, another co-founder) is on the board of the Alberta Small Brewers Association. We had an impact in so many different ways. In terms of how breweries are doing it now, a lot are focusing on the community and the arts. It makes great sense. I think it’s really cool. We tried to build a community. If they do the same thing, that’s part of our legacy.

Q: It’s pretty amazing how the brewers help each other out. Does that exist elsewhere?
A: Not the way it does here. When we were working on creating the Alberta Small Brewers brand, this was one of the elements that kept being pulled out in research, “We love how everyone works together in this industry.” One of the things I keep arguing for is — the starting point for every brewery is barley, water — the research is showing us that consumers don’t care about that. It’s a nice back story, but it’s not the reason they choose. They are choosing beer because — you go to Montana, they’ll say “barley,” you go to Colorado, they’ll say, “water,” everybody has their things, BC can say “hops — they care about the story, the people, the super-hyper local nature of the conversation. We are going to be having a challenge not talking about barley, not talking about water, but, instead, talking about collaboration and the togetherness in Alberta.
All brewing has greater collaboration than other industries, but Calgary is a notch above and I think that is because of the character of the city. You saw it with the Olympics, you see it with the Stampede. There is a zeitgeist that everyone helps each other out here. We are not cutthroat like many other places. From my 20 years of experience, I am very aware that this is not the norm around the country or the world. This is just very pronounced in Alberta and something you see in many other ways. Beer has pushed it further as everyone came on the scene in a short period of time and honestly assumed this was how it should be. And, it should continue to grow. That’s my dream that we understand this, embrace it, and use it as our collective positioning tool to consumers and tourists. We actually collaborate in a collaborative competitive way. It can be done over the long haul to the betterment of us all.

Q: How do you define brand in beer?
A: in 2007, the word of the year was locavore. This movement towards hyper-local was been growing. My whole annual report story in 2007 was the word of the year, “locavore.” Big Rock was going to capitalize on that. Craft is defined by that and there is a lot of dialogue in the beer industry about “what is craft?” It’s almost becoming irrelevant because craft is an overused word. My definition is “what you make it with, all natural, locally sourced, how you make it — can’t be big machines — and what I argue is, what you do with it when you make it, the impact on the community.”

Q: When you launched you also had the most unified look and it was very easy to tell if someone was drinking a Village beer and to find it on the shelves. The idea to come out with four packs was great.
A: Yes, that was a good idea, coming out with sample packs. It was under $10 and it appealed to females, which was my biggest demographic since they represented the biggest area of growth in the market. For the longest time, breweries have been marketing to men, and women have more refined palettes and understand ingredients. This is a very stereotypical statement, but they understand how to put things together and how they taste. Men are trying to catch up. I can’t tell you how many times in my career, I’ve had women in the tap room and I say which one would you like to start with and they say, “Give me the lightest one, I don’t like beer.” And, I go, “Alright, I know by the end of this conversation you are going for the blackest, darkest beer! Let me take you on a journey.” Almost consistently, they like the brown ales, not the lighter ones — the chocolate, the espresso, the licorice. Now, it’s not weird to see women in bars drinking something like a Blacksmith whereas you would have lost your mind 20 years ago. The majority still prefer lighter beers, but that is the group I can change over time.

Q: My wife likes kettle sours and saisons …
A: She’s going to like the bigger flavours because she’s part of the generation that was brought up with “beer tastes like shit,” it gives me a beer belly, and so many things that are unappealing, so my branding is very female-friendly.

Q: Your website, at the time, was groundbreaking with the stories and the common, consistent style that was integrated.
A: The word “village” is such an important one. Take away the idea of Village Brewery or Village Ice Cream. You see it everywhere now. Before, village was an old town. Now, it is understood as a group of people that have come together. It you look at our wordmark, there are two parts to it: handcrafted, woodcut, paying homage to the old, and then the art side, progressive, modern-looking. Past, future. Each character is different. Like in a village, every character is different. I put a lot of effort into defining that. The “V” formed by clinking two bottles together, that is the symbolic gesture of why we drink beer, “Cheers!”

Q: What about on the bar side? What are the bar owners asking for?
A: It’s different by bar. A lot need their staple. Village Blonde is a staple. Some places it’s Blacksmith, some it’s the Wit.

Q: Are you under attack from new breweries coming in and asking for taps?
A: Always. But, some bars do not want that much change. The National always has rotating taps. The majority of craft guys fight for rotating taps. We don’t pay for any of our taps. We have consistent quality. Small brewers tend to make it unique each time. All of a sudden, the bartender has people complaining because it’s not how it tasted last time.

Q: Have we reached “peak beer?”
A: We may have reached peak volume. But, not peak breweries. Non-macro has so much room. Consumers will change. Craft brewers will start fighting in the price area. There are some big brewers coming on stream. Soon some will get into the volume game. It only natural that people will switch to something local and natural. You take about eight per cent market share, and split it amongst all the breweries, it would double our size. So, the room is there. One per cent can support a lot of breweries in Canada. Brewpubs will be profitable. Brewpubs have stories to tell. Breweries will expand.

Q: Is Calgary-only still part of the Village strategy?
A: No, a couple of things happened along the way. It was going to be 20,000 hectolitres and Calgary. That was my box. First, retailers from Red Deer and Lethbridge were driving into town and buying from other retailers. I remember phoning them up and saying, “Hey, I hear you are selling my beer!” They would get all defensive. I’d say, look I’m a small business guy, I’m an entrepreneur, I get it. Buy directly from me, make your margin, I’m not delivering to you, but I appreciate why you are doing it. There was like 15 or 20 of them. The second reason was a few of the chains only bought beer from Connect (ED: the Alberta liquor distributor in Edmonton). People were saying, “Why aren’t you in Sobey’s? Why aren’t you in Safeway?” That was becoming a pain. We didn’t tell anybody, but because we were going through Connect, everyone in Alberta had access to our beer. This included the Northwest Territories! All of a sudden, I see eight flats of beer going to the Northwest Territories! So, then that happened faster than we expected. So, now we have to hire a salesperson in Edmonton. Our guys have to start traveling. I have to start investing in those communities because I have a 10 per cent mandate. If they hit a threshold, I’ve got to start supporting them in their communities. Also, the economic downturn hit and so much of our sales was the downtown core. I had to expand distribution anyway.

(Photo courtesy Pat Button.)

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Jay Nelson is a beer geek, not snob, who has written for a small number of mostly forgotten publications, in a wildly erratic manner, since being named the Editorial Editor of his High School newspaper. He is a non-award winning home brewer and a non-BJCP certified judge, although he aspires to both.