__MAIN_TEXT__
feature-image

21 minute read

BIOGRAPHY: AFTER TEN YEARS: STILL HERE FOR THE BEER

AFTER TEN YEARS: STILL HERE FOR THE BEER

>> DAVE SMITH

British Columbia is home to many firsts in Canadian craft beer history. The province gave birth to the nation’s first microbrewery, its first brewpub and its oldest beer festival. In our last issue, we examined another pillar of the craft revolution: beer writing, in which passionate advocates document their experiences in print—or, using today’s technology, on their social media channel, blog or podcast. Podcasting. It’s the radio of the Internet. But craft beer is on the real, old-fashioned radio too. Google ‘Canadian beer radio show’ and you’ll find something called Just Here For The Beer, Canada’s original and longest-running all-beer talk show. It’s the broadcasting equivalent of just-referenced Horseshoe Bay Brewing, Spinnakers and Great Canadian Beer Festival.

The story of Just Here For The Beer has special meaning for this author. It involves young people embarking on a bold adventure. It’s about pursuing a dream, even in the face of tragic loss. The tale begins 32 years ago when two college students become friends for life.

WHEN RICK MET COLIN

In 1988, Rick Mohabir enrolled at what is now Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Richmond campus. There, fate introduced him to a fellow with whom he had a lot in common. Like Rick, Colin Jack lived in Richmond’s Ironwood neighbourhood. Like Rick’s, Colin’s family was of Caribbean extraction, and both their fathers were teachers.

“I used to give him rides home, because we lived not even a five-minute drive from each other,” Mohabir reminisces. “Our friendship just naturally evolved from there.” They remained friends well after their time at Kwantlen. Colin eventually transferred to the University of British Columbia in pursuit of his teaching degree, then in August 2004, he took a part-time job there as a mini school coordinator. Photo: Brian K. Smith In higher education, ‘mini schools’ handle basic non-credit general interest courses like photography, web design, and guitar. A popular theme at the time was wine tasting. Colin conspiratorially shared this tidbit with Rick, noting, “I don‘t know anything about wine. Why don’t we do a beer course?” Today, Rick admits that it seemed like a dumb idea at the time. But Vancouver did have a tiny craft beer movement, and the idea of beer tasting was just beginning to catch on. Somehow, Colin sourced a brewer to help teach the proposed course. One problem: nobody signed up for it. So, five buddies— Colin, his brother Byron, Rick, and their friends Zayvin and Roy—used its scheduled time slot to hang out, drink beer, and talk about what they tasted. Kind of like beer geeks will do on a bottle share, or on a podcast (that’s foreshadowing, folks). Colin didn’t give up on the idea of teaching beer appreciation. In early 2005, the course was offered again, and this time 17 people signed up. He broke the news to Rick: “Holy shit, what are we gonna do now?” They didn’t really know anything serious about beer, and they needed to learn fast. So they got to know a fellow named Dave Varga from Taylor’s Crossing brewpub in North Vancouver. Varga was kind enough to show the neophytes around the brewhouse and kickstart their learning. Today, there is much more of a network for this. A newbie who experiences their beer epiphany and decides to become an evangelist has a whole community of beer fans to help them along (as we’ll explore in this magazine’s next story). The JHFTB guys were not connected to any such network. There were small groups of beer fans like CAMRA BC, which produced a newsletter called What’s Brewing that members could write for, and which occasionally organized educational events. But there was no template for teaching a course about beer. “Slowly, we started to evolve the curriculum,” Rick recalls. “Zayvin and Colin and I just kind of split up the different areas based on our specialties. Coming from a business background, I handled the marketing and advertising side of it.” Through sheer enthusiasm, the youngsters made the idea work, and Just Here For The Beer Ltd. became an official entity.

Rick recalls, “In the five years we offered that course, we had people coming back each term. The students would travel during their summer break and bring back beers from Europe, Australia, or Southeast Asia for us to sample in class. The curriculum didn‘t really change, but the beers we brought in did.” Over time, the beers they brought in also got better. Asked what he considers his gateway to really appreciating craft, Mohabir identifies Central City’s Raspberry Wheat Ale as a turning point. He and Colin developed the ability to evangelize about beer, becoming self-styled ‘beer ambassadors’.

The pair naturally found themselves attending some of the beer festivals available at the time. This led to thoughts about expanding their young beer business in a new direction.

SERVING VANCOUVER A BIG CUP OF BEER

This author’s initial acquaintance with Colin Jack and Rick Mohabir was through our shared Caribbean ancestry. Once Colin and I discovered we were both beer fans, I learned what he and Rick had started with Just Here For The Beer. I watched what these two younger guys were doing with curiosity, impressed how they fearlessly waded into the “beer expert” pool and found acceptance. Going well beyond the initial idea of teaching a course, Colin and Rick began to think about putting on their own beer events.

One of the first they attempted was a wine and beer festival at UBC’s Student Union Building in March 2005. Rick characterizes it as a success. It led to bigger things.

In September 2005, I ran into Colin and Rick roaming the grounds at Victoria’s annual Great Canadian Beer Festival. They and their friends were all wearing Just Here For The Beer T-shirts and looking around in a purposeful manner. I found this curious and snapped a photo.

Just Here For The Beer pals scope out Great Canadian Beer Fest 2005:

Kris Meisterman, Rick Mohabir, Zayvin Haqq, and Colin Jack About nine months later, I understood the significance: they’d been on a reconnaissance mission. The friends had travelled to Victoria to study how to put on a major beer festival, and GCBF’s outdoor format became the template for their newest bold venture: the first Canada Cup of Beer took place in July 2006 at UBC’s Thunderbird Stadium. It would become an annual tradition, with 10,000 attendees over the years. Joe Leary always wanted to be a disc jockey. Growing up with two older sisters smitten by the British Invasion, he realized early on he didn’t want to be one of those mop-tops on stage. He wanted to be the guy spinning their records. Specifically, he wanted to be the classic screaming Top-40 DJ, but as he likes to say, he’s always happy with “any format under the sun except country.” Even as a youth, Joe could discern a Joe Leary talented radio host. Although he’s a Columbia Academy graduate, he credits a lot of his learning to listening to the classic jocks on stations like CFUN and CKLG and patterning his communication after them. He sounds like a radio broadcaster even when he’s just standing around with a vodka soda in hand.

Leary’s resume in mainstream and independent media is extensive, with prime broadcasting roles such as long-time weatherman at CKVU-TV and anchor at major sports radio stations. He’s also a freelance writer who has written weekly columns for publications like The Province and 24 Hours.

One of Leary’s favourite work memories is getting a call one lonely night shift from the uber-classy Fred Latremouille, who complimented Joe on a nice segment. Connections with people like that are a big part of what Joe loved about his time in traditional broadcasting. Before his tenure as an employee came to an end, one such connection gave Leary the key to his future career.

THE STARS ALIGN

It wasn’t pre-ordained for Joe Leary to get to know Colin Jack and Rick Mohabir. But let’s say that, in hindsight, the chances of it happening were reasonable. After all, the two young guys were running beer festivals, and Joe didn’t mind the odd beer. Joe got talking to them at some of their events.

“I went to one of their early beer fests at the Edgewater Casino”, Joe recalls, “and I just found Colin was a very likable guy.” That Colin was, but there was additional motivation to befriend the event proprietors. “If you get to know the guys behind the table, they‘ll probably give you more beer tickets, right? That was kind of my initial game”, Leary admits. At the time, Joe hosted a talk radio show on CFUN. As he got to know Colin, he threw out a thought: “Hey, come on and talk about beer some time.” By this point, thanks to promoting JHFTB, Colin was an old hand at media appearances, so he took up the offer.

Leary was happy to have him, pragmatically noting that a session with Colin “was always good for getting free beer. The opportunity to consume beverages and fill airtime was kind of a bonus.” After a couple of these visits, Leary’s boss, Stu Ferguson, said, “Hey, that person on your show knows his stuff. Do you think there‘s any money in a beer show?”

What Ferguson was getting at is that, when you tune into dedicated programming like a beer or wine radio show, the people and products being showcased are paying a fee to be there. (To those gentle souls who might be offended by such a notion: sorry to burst any beer bubbles.) Non-prime-time radio and TV have many such situations.

Serendipitously, around the same time that Ferguson nudged Leary, Colin Jack did the same with his pal Rick. Not satisfied with the success they already had as educators and event promoters, Colin had his eye on a bigger stage.

“Colin and I had this drunk night where we talked about doing a TV show,” Mohabir recalls. “But that‘s big money and sponsorship, and we‘re not there yet. Why don‘t we do a radio show?” Rick thought, “Well, Leary‘s on radio. Why don’t we talk to him?” And in one of those perfect courtships where both sides were the suitor, they did.

The original concept the radio folks had been working on in the summer of 2010 was a Beer & BBQ Show. “I think we put the pen to paper in September, near the end of barbecue season,” Joe recalls. “There was no point waiting a full year to try it again, so we said, ‘Screw it, let‘s just do a beer show.’” Just Here For The Beer Radio kicked off October 2010 as a one-hour monthly show, broadcast live from CISL’s studios on a varying schedule. You can see the early episodes on YouTube, with Colin and a young-looking Leary. You can see that Colin was a little green but wasn’t afraid of the microphone at all. This would surprise nobody who knew him. In the early going, the pair interviewed guests pulled from Colin’s contacts at beer industry stalwarts like Whistler Brewing, Russell Brewing, Pacific Western and Legacy Liquor Store. Joe says, “Colin was my access to beer, and I was his access to airtime.” It was a match consummated on the JHFTB airwaves.

At CISL for the third show, February 2011. Colin “wore red for Valentine’s Day”

A STUNNING LOSS

As 2010 turned to 2011, Joe and Colin did shows in January and February. Colin was also writing a weekly column about beer for the hip, new, free newspaper 24 Hours, and Joe was doing just the same on the topic of music. In late February, Joe was planning the March beer show, and sent Colin a message. “We were about a week away from doing a show,” Leary remembers. “I‘d called Colin and didn‘t hear back. I texted him the next day and didn‘t hear back.” Joe wanted to know who Colin had lined up for the March 15 show. “He was my beer conduit. I didn‘t know beer people at all.” At that time, both Joe and Colin had a column due at 24 Hrs. “I remember distinctly, I was in Red Card sports bar downtown, and I got a phone call from the editor. I thought he was calling me to say, ‘We didn‘t get your file’. But it was, ‘Hey Joe, just curious: you do that beer show with Colin Jack. Have you heard from him?’

Leary recalls, “I had a bad feeling because Colin was usually pretty punctual. And the last time I saw him, after the [February] show, he had seemed slower and more laboured.

“I can‘t get ahold of him,” the editor continued apprehensively, “And I just saw something on Facebook that says ‘RIP Colin Jack.’” --- Colin Edward Jack passed away on February 26th, 2011, at the age of 40. What a blow to his father Moseley, brother Byron and sister Arietha; they received the news while away in Trinidad. They had lost Colin’s mother not long before, and now Colin was gone, too.

Looking back at my correspondence with the Caribbean community, to whom I would frequently disseminate information at the time, I’m reminded how palpable the shock was for people of all ages. There were countless email responses of disbelief that the younger son of Moseley Jack had fallen.

The loss was also widely mourned in the craft beer community. CAMRA Vancouver’s newsletter of March 2nd began with a tribute. A death in the young Vancouver beer community was a very unusual event.

Colin’s memorable Celebration of Life was held at the Vancouver Alpen Club on March 6th, 2011. Both Joe and Rick spoke to the large room, absolutely packed with Colin’s students and fellow teachers, the Caribbean community, beer folk and others. Rick’s tearful testimonial to his recently-departed friend concluded with a vow to keep their young beer enterprise running.

I thought, that’s a big commitment to make. I hoped that Rick would not come to regret taking that burden upon himself. I wondered how things would turn out.

CAN THIS SHOW GO ON?

Joe Leary and Colin Jack had only done three radio shows together before Colin’s death. But they had a series of 2011 episodes booked and paid for at the radio station.

Joe was shaken by Colin’s death, but knew these shows didn’t come with refunds. He said to Rick, “This is an awkward conversation, but we‘ve got a show booked for next week and we‘ve got to do it. We can‘t let the show fall apart.” As a business partner in Just Here For The Beer Ltd., Rick understood that the show must go on. But it wasn’t going to be easy. “Colin was the face of the company,” Mohabir admits. “He was the Just Here For The Beer guy, and I kind of liked it that

Joe and Rick in October 2012 way. It gave me an opportunity to handle everything on the back end. When we did things like Canada Cup of Beer, I‘d be the one meeting with the insurance guy, the table rentals, the porta potties. I was sort of second-tier with most of the brewers. When Colin passed away, that kind of pushed me to the front.” It probably helped Colin that he’d done a number of media appearances over the years before the show debuted. Now Mohabir, until then the quiet partner, would have to step in as “next man up” and take on this role…and there wasn’t much time to grieve. Only nine days after delivering a eulogy, the next radio show loomed.

Rick was up to the challenge. In his favour was his naturally warm and outgoing disposition. Like many others of Caribbean heritage, Rick is easy to talk to, and he quickly became a natural complement to Leary’s interview style. At the same time, Rick still has that business side which allows him to run the admin aspects of Just Here For The Beer. That’s great for Joe, who can focus on the content and broadcasting.

As the years have passed, Rick has grown into the talk show cohost role. Colin was a big personality, but Rick has a big voice that is great for radio and his good humour brings positivity to the biweekly proceedings. Although it can’t be seen on radio, he’s quick to flash a broad smile that sets guests at ease. That’s important when asking people to speak on the airwaves. “Our role is to make them feel comfortable talking about their brand, because a lot of times, radio is a new environment,” Leary confirms. “Most people deal with it well, and some have become superstars. We‘ve cultivated a good roster of people who know what to say and not say—we’ve only had two F–bombs in ten years.” Shows were held in the kitchen area at CISL. “Folks would come down and bring beer and have food run in,” Leary recalls. “It was a big old kitchen party. Meanwhile, we‘re on a live show and we‘ve got a hard 60-minute deadline.” That could lead to some interesting times keeping things moving when a segment was over and the hosts had to get the guest out so the next one could come in before the show went back on-air. “When you‘re talking about beer people who have been drinking for a good half hour waiting their turn, you‘re herding cats,” Joe remembers.

Joe likes to joke that the show was always going to stay live, until one afternoon when Cariboo Brewing brought in a beer called Big Black Bock, and the ensuing hilarity caused a rethink about That led to another major tweak which changed the character of the show: recording on location. “When we started, we were in a very sterile radio station studio environment,” Joe points out. “You could bring in some beers but there was no ambiance.” “Then I was laid off by Bell Media in 2013, at which point I didn‘t want to even go in the studio”, Joe continues. “So, we found a bar to do the show, and then we found the fact that bars would pay us to come there…and we‘ve never looked back.”

Leary notes that his favourite part of the show has become the resulting social aspect. Case in point was an episode at Coquitlam’s John B. Pub in which the management was on air reminiscing about John B. stories, and listeners started messaging in about their own memories.

The show moved to AM 1410 (then TSN’s second station, now BNN Bloomberg Radio), then to TSN 1040 in September 2017. Joe notes that it grew exponentially in that time period: “It‘s morphed a long way but had just the humblest beginnings.”

Recording the shows on location has changed their dynamic

GROWING WITH THE INDUSTRY

As the show became established, so did BC’s craft beer industry. “Our show could not have been timed better,” Leary enthuses. “It was 2010. I think there were 51 breweries in BC at the time. Now we‘re north of 200.” The show struggled to fill time in the early days, but the growth means there are enough clients now to develop a solid roster.

The radio show represents a niche opportunity for smaller advertisers to get on radio in a way that would normally be impossible. “Let‘s say you walked into a major radio station” to enquire about commercials, Joe explains. “They might be looking for a fifteen-thousand-dollar advertising buy or something like that.” On Just Here For The Beer, small businesses can access a major radio station with an audience of beer drinkers, many of whom are on (or ready to join) the craft beer bandwagon. Each sponsor gets around 10-12 minutes of airtime with which to showcase their new releases. Joe calculates, “We do 24 shows a year. Each show has four segments for breweries.”

“We buy the time, and (in the pre-COVID world) it came with a dedicated producer (their master of the mixing board, Justin Kwan) included in the price”, which Joe adds has not increased since 2010. Rick says of their microbrewing clientele, “Since we are so craft heavy, and because they helped us grow, we owe them some loyalty.”

Rick and Joe with the show’s technical producer, Justin Kwan What’s Brewing readers might not consider every guest of the show to be “craft beer”. Sponsors such as Pacific Western Brewing and their Cariboo brand may raise eyebrows among those whose beer ethic was formed in recent years. But PWB is BC’s oldest independent brewery, and their willingness to support a show that mostly showcases the much smaller craft breweries who compete with them—and who could in theory throw shade at them—has to be admired.

This goes back to Rick and Colin’s original attitude, which they thought of as ‘inclusive’. Canada Cup of Beer welcomed almost anyone who wanted to get the word out, and in theory so does the show. “The show is 95 to 98 percent craft, but we never called it Just Here For The Craft Beer,” Joe asserts. That being said, Rick and Joe aren’t looking to sign up Molson for a Coors Light promotion. Nor would promoting a foreign macro label like that be of interest to Molson, Rick explains. “They realize that that’s not what our show is; that’s not going to work the best for them.” On the other hand, their subsidiary Granville Island Brewing is a regular attendee. Their lack of pretentiousness is a result of the founders’ formative years drinking suds, back when good beer was something people didn’t have a lot of access to. Joe’s introduction to beer was stealing his dad’s Lucky Lager. He’s come a long way.

“I think the first craft beer I ever had was Shaftebury,” Joe recalls. He thought it wasn’t bad, which was a good reaction for a noncraft drinker. He credits Granville Island’s Winter Ale for being the gateway beer that finally pushed him into discovering better beers. “When we started the show, I hated IPAs,” Leary confesses. But his palate grew on the job. “Now, that’s all I drink.” That might explain the recipe selection when it comes to JHFTB’s collaboration series with BC breweries. Doing its part over and above the radio exposure, the show’s beer series has featured creations like Lighthouse Brewing’s Just Here For The Beer Imperial IPA and Fuggles & Warlock’s The Four Hops IPA, sporting a classic label featuring Rick and Joe front and centre. After Colin’s passing, Rick kept his memorial promise and the Canada Cup of Beer was held a few more times. But Rick noticed that newer Vancouver festivals were drawing people and sponsors away, making an already burdensome marketing challenge even tougher.

CCOB eventually succumbed to the inevitable. The final festival was held on July 13th, 2013 under a clear blue sky at Burnaby’s Swangard Stadium. Bottles of Antidisestablishmentarianism Amber Ale, created at Dead Frog Brewery by family friend Tony Dewald, were sold to raise money for the Colin Jack Scholarship Fund. It was a fitting finale, but thanks to radio it wasn’t the end of Just Here For The Beer.

Joe’s broadcasting career has taken him from employee to entrepreneur. On this he says, “When you‘re a career broadcaster you face a lot of unemployment, because formats change and personnel changes. I just wanted to stay employed.” “It comes back to Stu Ferguson”, says Joe of his former boss at CFUN. “He was the original visionary that suggested this concept.” It may seem de rigeur now, but beer radio certainly wasn’t in 2010.

As a business arrangement, JHFTB Radio has worked out well for Joe Leary and Rick Mohabir. For Joe, it’s provided countless contacts and become the launchpad to a mini empire of four liquor-oriented shows on three radio stations. Joining the biweekly TSN 1040 beer show are monthly shows Through The Grapevine and Hand-Crafted Spirits on BNN Bloomberg Radio 1410, as well as Ciders, Sodas and Cocktails on Sportsnet 650. In total, the franchise provides a replacement for his former broadcasting career.

For Rick, who works at Coast Mountain Bus Company, JHFTB allows him to be part of an industry he happens to enjoy. Leveraging skills from his day Social distancing on set job, Rick has added Just Here for the Beer Brewery Tours to the mix. Pre-COVID, the beer bus could handle up to 20 guests for tours on Saturdays and Sundays. For Rick, there is also the comfort of continuing what he started with his closest friend before a painful loss.

Thinking of how the arc went with the beer events and radio over the past decade, Joe wistfully reflects, “Had Colin survived, JHFTB might be an even more substantial enterprise.” “Every year on the anniversary of the show, we pay homage to him”, Leary reveals. “We always say he would be so damn proud.” Speaking for myself, I think Colin would be amazed at how his idea of teaching a mini school course has produced a 15-year-old institution his friends can continue to build on.

They could pack it in anytime they choose to. But after ten years of getting the word out about beer—through all the ups and downs, the stress, and the sacrifices—as far as Joe and Rick are concerned: this show will go on.