Follow beer writer, Troy Burtch, as he explores the wonderful world of craft beer and the pubs that serve it. Great Canadian Beer is a place to come to catch up on beer news, read tasting notes, check out event listings, and for pub previews and reviews.


Monday, August 16, 2010

Meet Jack Bensley: Russell Brewing Co.

Meet Jack Bensley, Russell Brewing Co's. brewmaster. Bensley, who got into the commercial brewing industry just two years ago, has had a big year, winning two bronze medals at the 2010 World Beer Cup in Chicago and working on product development/new recipes for Russell's Brewmaster Series of beers.

Here's Jack!

Where is the Russell Brewing Co. situated and what beers do you currently produce?
We are located in Surrey, BC. Currently we produce: Russell Cream Ale, Honey Blond Ale, Extra Special Lager, Pale Ale, Lemon Ale, Lime Lager, Rocky Mountain Pilsner, Marzen, IP'Eh, Black Death Porter, and A Wee Angry Scotch Ale. The last 4 are part of our Brewmaster Series which started last year.

Describe the history behind the brewery.
Russell Brewing was started in its current location by the Russell family in the mid 90's. The cornerstone brew for Russell Brewing was (and still is) Russell Cream Ale. The Harris family purchased the brewery in 2004 and took the company public. With the brewery expansions that have occurred and the new products we are now producing, sales have gone from $135000 in 2004 to projected sales of 9 million dollars this year! That's a lot of beer out of our (relatively) small brewhouse!

What is your best selling beer?
Our best selling beer is still Russell Cream Ale. Out here on the west coast Cream Ale means something very different than in the rest of North America. Our Cream Ale would probably remind people more of an English Mild than a "traditional" North American Cream Ale. It's toasty, nutty, and dangerously drinkable.

Our Brewmaster series beers are really starting to fly out the door. So much so that we're looking at getting another bottler to increase our 650 ml bottle filling ability. Now that our Wee Angry Scotch is available in BC Government Liquor stores it's going to be fun trying to keep up!

What's new at the brewery?
Well, the big news for us is our 2 bronze medals at the World Beer Cup. One for our IP'Eh in the English-Style IPA category, and one for our A Wee Angry Scotch Ale in the Scottish-Style Ale category. We were actually in Chicago at the Craft Brewers Association Conference when the awards were announced and were thrilled when we got the first bronze. When the second was announced I nearly fell out of my chair. That 3 out of the 7 awards received by Canadians (at what was the biggest judged beer competition ever with 3330 different beers entered) came from Surrey breweries is unbelievable.

We are working on some new beers at the moment, but right now we're just in the planning stages. Look for more Brewmaster Series releases before the end of the year. We're also focusing on growing our cask program. There are at least a couple of our casks pouring every week in the Lower Mainland.

Why did you get into the brewing industry and describe your passion for it.
That's a long story! 2 years ago I was teaching senior Mathematics and Physics at a local high school. I loved the teaching but was becoming disgruntled with the general state of the public school system. My love of craft beer, inherited from my parents, was driving me to devote more and more time to brewing at home. I began researching brewing education programs and realized that I could do a M.Sc in Brewing and Distilling through Heriot-Watt University and then would earn more as a teacher. The plan was to finish the program and then think about switching careers, but by the time I'd finished my first 2 courses I'd gotten a job at Russell and quit teaching! It's been 2 1/2 years since I started at Russell, and my life has changed immeasurably. In that time we've doubled the types of beer we offer, created the Brewmaster Series, and won some major awards.

I love brewing and everything about beer in general, a fact my patient wife will attest to. I get to make and drink great beer, and work with some fantastic people every day. Most days it doesn't actually feel like work (aside from when I'm shoveling 1200 pounds of malt out of the mash tun...).

What is the best aspect of working in the Canadian craft brewery industry?
The people!

It's such a small scene here as compared to across the border. All the brewers locally know one another, and are more than willing to help one another out with whatever they can. There is so much good beer being made here, and it's so cool to watch the continued growth and change in the BC beer scene. I love going to local beer events and seeing not just the same faces over and over, but fresh new faces excited about exploring the world of craft beer.

The guys I work with in the brewery are a prime example of the kind of remarkable people in this industry. Cheers to Eric, Anders, Jitendra, and the packaging crew for their hard work!

Where can someone find your products?
You can find our beer in most cities in BC, and as far away as Winnipeg. If you're in BC and looking for our beer try using the beer locator at If you're out of province then give us a shout at the brewery and we'll help you find our product.

Tell us something about Russell that not a lot of people know about.
We make lots of different beers! I love introducing a Russell Cream Ale drinker to one of our big beers. Often these are people that were drinking our beer on draught before we canned or bottled, and they're sometimes not aware of all our new products. They're a little harder to find on draught or in the liquor stores, but they're worth tracking down.

What advantages do smaller breweries have over the big guys?
Our ability to move and adapt quickly. If we decide to do a new product, we can usually brew it within the week. This means that we can move from idea to packaged product in as little as 4-6 weeks.

Best time for a pint?
Seeing as how I'm usually at the brewery by 5:30 am, anytime after 7 am!

Actually, the first beer after the work day is done, or a beer up on the local mountains after snowboarding always tastes great.

What is the highlight of your brewing career?
Without a doubt the night in Chicago when we won the World Beer Cup awards. That's going to be hard to top..

Cold clean lager, big hoppy pale ale, or a nicely roasted stout?
Big hoppy pale!

Name your favourite non Russell produced beer.
Anything from Gary at Central City Brewing. His IPA, ESB, and Barley-wine make me drool just thinking about them. Fantastic local beer made by great people.

How successful have the seasonals been? And what has been your favourite?
More successful than we could have imagined. We're not far off maxing out our capacity without making major changes, and a lot of that is due to our Brewmaster Series. Some of these beers have gone from one-offs to regulars in our lineup.

My favourite so far is still the Scotch Ale, it goes so well with so many different foods.

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