What’s it Like to Start a Brewery With Your Best Friends? Ask Tapworks Brewing Company

What do an environmental scientist, a business major and a plumber have in common? A love for craft beer.

“Hey, let’s open a bar!”

We’ve all said it. And yeah, it seems like a great idea after a night out, but actually putting that into practice can be a little tricky.

So while the meeting that gave life to Gibsons’ Tapworks Brewing Company featured one of those classic conversations, the crew involved actually stuck to the plan.

“It’s funny, every brewery over here has its own unique thing,” said Geoff Gornall, co-owner of Tapworks, referring to the Sunshine Coast’s competitive scene that includes Gibsons neighbours Persephone Brewing and 101 Brewhouse + Distillery. “We tried to set everything up so you feel like you’re in a good friend’s living room—that’s how we wanted to make people feel when they walked through the doors, and that’s how we tried to form our own identity.”

Warren Gregory approached his cousin, Gornall, and his childhood friend, Neil Bergman, with the venture concept. “None of us had brewery experience or anything like that, but we were all social people and wanted to leave the rat race behind. So, that’s when we started talking about the brewery,” said Gornall, explaining how Gregory and Bergman had both started homebrewing and had fallen in love with the process.

Originally, Gornall offered to use his business analyst background to lend a hand and help with the business plan. He thought the idea of opening a brewery on the Sunshine Coast sounded fun, but he and his wife Vicky lived in North Vancouver and had a deep social network over there.

“My initial reaction was ‘Wow, this sounds amazing—too bad I’d have to uproot our lives to go over there’,” he said. However, the more the trio started thinking about it and their own long-term futures, the more it made sense. After a while, it seemed like an absolute no-brainer.

“Warren, Neil and I officially incorporated in February of 2016, and started getting into the details of the business plan—before we knew it, we bought a place over here,” said Gornall, who became sales director, overseeing the financial and marketing aspects of the business, as well as front of house management. As an environmental scientist who loved to create home brews, Gregory became product director and Bergman, formerly a plumber, served as operations director—both dabbled in sales. The brewery opened almost exactly a year after incorporating.

“We have a group of people who care a lot about the community and Tapworks’ role in it—that’s been the most important thing,” he said. “When you have a team who cares and are smart and dedicated, it means that the experience that people have when they come here and drink our beer can always be top notch.” A few years ago, the challenge was creating the desired warm and friendly ambiance in a sparse building. Now, it’s grown into a successful business and the main challenge is not running out of beer.

The rooftop patio was created just 18 months in, instead of the original estimation of five to ten years. The Burger Shack—a repurposing of a former office space on the patio, is their newest addition to replace the sporadic food truck appearances. It was made with the Tapworks vibe in mind, using recipes with in-house ingredients, such as Tapworks beer in the barbecue sauce or batter for the fish and chips.

Other key ingredients are also locally sourced from establishments such as The Gibsons Butcher to ensure fresh, quality ingredients. “Breweries have become this social hub where you get a taste of community, and I love what it’s meant for beer in general—it keeps things local and high quality.”

Gornall wanted to ensure that the food was the craft beer equivalent to that fun, care-free ambiance he enjoyed at Ambleside’s beachside concession when he was a kid. “It was really simple burgers, fries, chicken strips, slushies—that kind of thing. But it always tasted so good, because it went with those fun care-free days at the beach,” he reminisced.

Even the tagline, “Crafted for the Coast” represents the community-focussed culture at Tapworks and the reason behind many of their decisions—whether it’s what kind of beer or food they serve or how they lay out their patio furniture. Every can or bottle has a “pairs well with” section, which includes a west-coast style activity. One of the bestsellers is the “One Sailing Wait” IPA—very relatable, especially right now.

The success isn’t just commercial. Tapworks received a gold medal for its craft lager, “Crispy Buoy”, at the 2020 Canadian Brewing Awards. Among the other popular beers are the “Blonde Logger” and Gornall’s go to, the “Stormrider” New England IPA. He describes it as “super flavourful, with lots of stone fruit type flavours like peach and nectarine—just a really fun but accessible beer—you can definitely have a few of them and not feel like you’re destroying your pallet.”

A temporary patio area has also been added to what used to be parking in order to accommodate COVID restrictions. “We’ve at least quadrupled our production capacity since we opened, and we’ve kind of maxed out the floor space, I don’t know that we can do anything more for now,” said Gornall.

He also noted that it all feels very whole, “like we’ve grown up as a brewery, from this tiny little taproom with very sparse walls and a really small system where we were doing probably far too much ourselves in-house.”

When asked about future expansion plans, Gornall noted that “there can be some growing pains, and you start to lose that community if you get too big.”

Although establishing and running Tapworks has had its challenges, Gornall still describes it as one of the best experiences of his life. “It’s afforded us the opportunity to lay down roots in a community that we love and have a family-first life with plenty of incredible things to do on the weekend.”

His advice to others: “I don’t think this is specific to breweries, but if someone’s considering taking a leap and thinking about that lifestyle-first kind of business, I highly encourage them to do it,” he says. “Take time to plan and take advantage of the many resources that are out there—don’t let it fall by the wayside.”