Running out of beer might not seem like a great start for a budding craft brewery, but for Category 12 Brewing’s husband and wife team, Michael and Karen Kuzyk, it marked a sign of greater things to come and reassurance that pursuing a career change in Saanichton may not have been such a crazy idea after all.
Following years of planning, five days is all it took for patrons to drain the tanks at the company’s funky new taproom on Keating Cross Road back in December of 2014.
“We ran out of beer, so we had to close up shop for a few weeks,” says Karen.
The delay evidently didn’t leave a bad taste in anyone’s mouth as the brewery now employs 11 full-time staff, carries some 24 year-round and seasonal brews that can be found in shops across Victoria and beyond, and has imminent plans for a tasting room expansion and lounge.
Now fully immersed in their craft brewing experiment, the couple says it’s hard to believe there was ever any doubt about the road they’ve chosen to travel together. Little more than five years ago, Michael was working at a scientific software company just down the road from the brewery. The job was the culmination of doctoral studies in microbiology and biochemistry at the University of Victoria, followed by a promising early research career. With two pre-teen children, Michael and Karen appeared to be living the dream, yet financial uncertainty and questions about their future had them searching for plan B.
|Category 12 Brewing owner and brewer Michael Kuzyk looks over his brewing tanks. Don Denton photograph.
“I didn’t want to ever say, ‘I wish we had tried’ for the illusion of security and having a semi-regular paycheque,” says Karen. “You’ve got one life, so what are you going to do?”
Fortunately, Michael wasn’t only studying cellular structures and microscopic organisms during his university days; the Parkland Secondary grad had also cultivated a knack for home-brewing beer.
“I had friends who were always saying, ‘you should start a brewery,’ but it was kind of a joke,” he says. “Then it just dawned on me following a round of layoffs at my office.”
When some of those friends who’d suggested Michael consider brewing full time offered to invest, the prospect of launching the business suddenly became a real possibility.
Like many young home-brewers, a taste for good beer and a tight budget encouraged him to expand his hobby. Unlike many basement brewers, however, Michael’s natural aptitude for experimentation, meticulous record keeping and the scientific method sent his beers in all manner of new directions.
A look through Category 12’s eclectic selection is an exploration that pushes the boundaries of beer making.
“We discovered that the anal retentiveness that helped him obtain his Ph.D is really applicable to different parts of the brewing business,” Karen says.
Karen, who confesses to being a “wine snob” in a previous life, says she developed a taste for ale when she learned about the variety of beers available, a discovery assisted by her husband’s pastime. She says the specific beer that got her hooked was a full-bodied Belgian-style brew with a whopping alcohol content of just under 10 per cent.
The sum of Michael’s brewing and scientific background, mixed with Karen’s aptitude for design and marketing has created a unique gem in a province that offers some pretty stiff competition: a boutique brewery wedged into an industrial park that’s churning out some impressive award-winning selections.
|List of the days beer offerings on tap in Category 12 Brewing taproom. Don Denton photograph
“We’ve been described as Mad Men meets Breaking Bad,” Karen says. “The industry has been and is increasingly so busy that having a genuine ‘differentiater’ and having branding that represents something true to yourself is really important. That was a pathway that we embarked on very early on,” she says.
Part of that difference is evident by a glance at the brewery’s intricately detailed labels, which were mostly inspired by real life events. Many offer insight about the pair’s personalities and experience. Take the label of Hiatus, for example. A man and woman are on the deck of a ship sailing through a West Coast inlet. The woman leans on the railing, taking in the view as her partner sits on a nearby bench, focussed intently and writing in a journal. It only takes a few minutes with Michael and Karen to figure out who the couple in that label might be.
Disruption, an award-winning Black IPA, reveals an underground laboratory beneath the couple’s Peninsula home. Inside, a figure is busily concocting the next great beer. Parked outside is the couple’s faithful Volkswagen Westfalia.
Personal touches such as these are a good match to Category 12 Brewing’s astounding range of flavour profiles. Unlike many craft breweries, Michael and Karen’s tasting room limits their hoppy selections to about half of their taps. The rest are nods to experimentation and variety.
“There’s a common perception that all craft beer is really hoppy, but it’s not. We want to show that there really are a lot of styles out there,” she says. “One of our goals is to promote anything that broadens our customers’ understanding of what beer is. We want everyone to know what’s out there and we see our taproom as a way to bring them into the fold, expand their horizons and show them what beer can be.”
|Patrons take in the viewing of the brewing tanks from a seat inside the Category 12 Brewing tasting room. Don Denton photograph
In addition to Michael’s sense of curiosity and experimentation, the secret of Category 12’s diverse and ever-evolving menu of brews stems from his infatuation with yeasts and bacteria. Whereas many breweries focus on different hop varieties for flavour, Michael teases out an additional layer of variables by turning to an amazing variety of yeasts, which he grows onsite in his brewing lab.
“Many places use one or two yeast strains and that’s good enough for most breweries, but I actually find how wild yeast and bacteria fit into the historical production of food very fascinating so we’re always experimenting,” he says.
And that’s good news for craft beer lovers on the Saanich Peninsula, because it means Category 12 Brewing isn’t likely to run out of beer again any time soon.
-Story by Sean McIntyre Photographs by Don Denton