Meet Tony Dewald, recipient of the inaugural John Mitchell Lifetime Achievement Award for Brewing Excellence

Rock star is a term that has occasionally been used to describe certain iconic BC brewers. Brew master Tony Dewald suits that label, but unlike others, he is doubly qualified: as a star musician in his youth, and as a star brewer today.

One night, years ago, while a band they were watching was taking a break, Tony, and his buddy Gerard Van Herk, went up on stage and tried out the guitar and drum kit much to the delight of the audience. Within six weeks, they were doing shows under the stage name The Half Tones. With Tony on drums, Gerard on guitar, and a friend as lead singer, the trio was a smash hit.

After the singer quit, they simplified their sound. Gerard modified his guitar, using only four strings, and Tony played a drum kit with no cymbals, resulting in a raw, low-treble punk/rockabilly sound they termed ‘Sludgeabilly’. They named their group Deja Voodoo. They became popular enough to earn a living touring Europe and America. Deja Voodoo eventually warranted a Wikipedia entry. By 1989 they were both turning thirty and Gerard needed to support a family. They abandoned Deja Voodoo. Tony needed a job.

Through a mutual friend, Tony met a fellow brewer Joel Manning who was working at Toronto’s Amsterdam Brewing and its sister brewery, the Rotterdam Brewpub. Joel persuaded Tony to join him as an assistant. Both Amsterdam and Rotterdam had a variety of beer styles on tap.  Tony was able to learn everything he needed to know in order to eventually step out on his own as a head brewer.

Tony returned to Montreal and took a job with Les Brasseurs GMT brewing Belle Gueule. Later, at the expanded Les Brasseurs RJ, Tony made styles ranging from Belgian ales like La Chouffe (under licence) to supermarket lagers. 

Tony travelled to the West Coast to visit Harley Smith in Nanaimo, BC. Tony was attracted by the local craft beer scene and the laid-back lifestyle of Vancouver Island. He had also enjoyed one of the early beer festivals at Vancouver’s Plaza of Nations in the late 1990s. He took the plunge and moved west, at first missing out on brewing jobs on the Island and in the Interior. 

Tony was making doughnuts at Tim Hortons when Yaletown Brewing’s Iain Hill invited him to come work for the Mark James Group (MJG) brewpub chain.

In August 2002, Tony started brewing part-time at MJG’s Dix BBQ & Brewery, part-time at Spagnols (the beer kit manufacturer), and Storm Brewing under brewer James Walton. It was a pivotal era in the development of Vancouver’s craft beer scene. 

In July 2003, Tony and DIX bar manager Mark Andrewski, along with CAMRA Vancouver, organized Caskival, the first in a series of cask festivals. Weekly Thursday casks commenced the following month. Walton brought his ‘fetish crowd’ of friends along to DIX, and Thursdays became party night.

As a former rock star, Tony was accustomed to life in the public eye. He was a major presence at Thursday cask nights, at Caskivals, and at fundraising events. He was also happy to greet anybody who showed up on brew days and knocked on the glass wall of the brewery. Tony can switch from boyish zest for life to intense technical discussion of brewing minutiae, and back, in the blink of an eye.

Tony began evolving a Northwest IPA at DIX which attracted and became highly influenced by an ex-Californian couple named Adam and Gillian Gile. They pushed Tony further toward the huge Southern California-style. As BC’s brewers and industry attended cask nights and Caskivals, more and more of them realized there might be a substantial market for really big, hoppy IPAs in BC.

Tony and his partner Andy were subletting an apartment from Keith Lembke, who was working for Chicago’s famed Siebel Institute brewing school. When Keith finally committed to Chicago, Tony and Andy decided to take on the rural lifestyle they had always wanted. They rented a farmhouse at the end of an unmarked, dark, tree-lined track across the road from the Doppler Radar station in Aldergrove. It was a ramshackle old place, covered in hops and kiwi vines, and with owls in the barn. Tony would greet visitors from the hop-festooned porch, looking for all the world like the Wizard of Hops out of uniform.

Commuting to DIX from Aldergrove was a pain, so Tony asked to swap jobs with Derrick Franche and take over MJG’s Big Ridge Brewing in Surrey. Big Ridge was a lot quieter than DIX, so he was soon pulled away by an attractive offer from Dead Frog Brewing, fifteen minutes’ drive from home. Tony used his experience at Les Brasseurs RJ to help set up Dead Frog’s new bottling line. After that, Tony took a break from the brewing industry and for three years made wines at Lotusland Vineyards until the business got into financial trouble.

A call from Dead Frog brought Tony back to the craft beer industry. After a year, craft beer veteran John Ohler, enticed Tony to join him to open Old Abbey Ales in Abbotsford. This took Tony back to his Belgian-style brewing origins. Tony followed John Ohler to Langley where they were hired to help open Trading Post Brewing. During his years brewing south of the Fraser, Tony has been a mentor to many of the brewers now working in the Valley craft beer scene.

When asked to name the beer of which he is most proud, from his long and varied career, he slowly smiles and admits it’s still that DIX IPA. Its ghost, the Spirit of DIXmas, is now reproduced annually at Brassneck Brewery in collaboration with veteran brewers Conrad Gmoser and Derrick Franche, on the very brewing equipment which formerly created Tony’s legendary brews at the now-defunct DIX.

– with files from J. Random, What’s Brewing Magazine.

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