“British Columbia Eh” is the latest episode of One Pint at a Time.
Though we had visited British Columbia a number of times, we took the opportunity of a niece’s wedding to explore the province’s growing beer culture. During our trip, we traveled from Vancouver Island, up to Whistler, finishing in Vancouver. We experienced as much of the beer scene as possible in a quick week.
So enjoy our beer adventures north of the border…
For all the episodes of One Pint at a Time go to beergeekTV.
Over our week in British Columbia, Merideth and I explored the beer scene from breezy Vancouver Island to snow-capped Whistler to bustling Vancouver. With a baker’s dozen of new breweries already added to the List, we had one more day to finish things up before family time began.
We began our day in the Vancouver suburb of Surrey at the glass-enclosed, modern Central City Brewing. This was a much anticipated stop as Central City has won a number of beer awards, most recently being named “Best Brewery” at the Canadian Brewing Awards a few weeks prior.
The brewery was also well-known for losing a legal dispute with Healdburg’s Bear Republic Brewing over its Red Racer brand. Too closely resembling in name Bear Republic’s iconic Racer 5 and Red Rocket beers, Central City brews distributed in the States now go by the moniker Red Betty. Red whatever, I was anxious to try the beers.
The lunchtime crowd was mainly gathered to watch the European Football Championship semifinal between Germany and Italy. Used to being amongst other German fans, Merideth and I found ourselves in a bar full of blue-shirted Azzurri supporters. Locating some open seats on a deserted corner of the bar, we ordered a sample flight.
The dozen brew flight was the most diverse since the similar-sized selection we sampled at Howe Sound earlier in the week. Ranging from a light-colored, Bavarian-style Lager to an ink-black, smokey Stout, we tasted some of the best beers of our Canadian trip. In between, we tried a Pale Ale, Raspberry Wheat, Wheat, and smoked beer to name a few.
Merideth was sold on the crisp lager when she heard the words “Bavarian-style”. I was most impressed by both the Canadian Brewing Awards gold medal winners, Red Racer ESB and Central City Imperial IPA. Their assertive, floral bitterness contrasted sharply with the unpleasant bitterness I felt with Germany losing 2-0 to Italy.
I would be remiss not to mention the wonderful food. The Red Racer IPA Bangers and Mash paired nicely with a pint of the Red Racer IPA.
On a rainy evening, we took the Sky Train from our airport hotel into central Vancouver.
Walking through Gastown, we marveled with a multitude of other tourists at the steam-powered clock, a Vancouver landmark since 1977. Passing the Steamworks brewpub, which Merideth and I visited in 1998, we gave each other the puzzled “that doesn’t look familiar at all” look. But it’s on The List, so we knew we had, in fact, been there.
On the far edge of Gastown almost back in East Vancouver, Merideth and I reached our final beer stop of the Canada trip, the Alibi Room.
Over the course of our journey, we were told a number of times, we HAD to visit the Alibi Room. Peering into its arched windows as we walked past, the Alibi Room’s popularity was confirmed by the large number of beer drinkers filling its long communal tables.
I somewhat panicked, worrying that we came all this way to have a long waiting list or no place to sit. Much to my relief, we were able to grab a corner of one of the high tables in front of the bar. (We later discovered there was a downstairs. While less spacious, the basement was complete with bar and duplicate set of taps.) As numerous customers came and went, Merideth and I settled in for our trip swan song.
Over the course of our trip, we had been introduced to the wide variety of local beer. Now, it was all here in front of us one more time to enjoy. Though they had a few beers from the States on their 44 taps and three hand pumps, British Columbian beer was front and center at the Alibi Room.
I already knew I was going to start with the R & B ESB on cask, a beer even more delightful than the keg version I tried the previous day at the brewery. The soft carbonation really brought out the hoppiness of the brew.
Merideth went with Driftwood Farmhand Ale, a 5.5% ABV version of a Saison. Black pepper gave the brew an extra layer of spiciness. After I tasted the Saison, I again regretted that we didn’t get to visit the brewery during our stay in Victoria.
While Merideth stuck with the Saison throughout the evening, my next (and next) beer was Driftwood’s Fat Tug IPA, maybe my favorite brew of the week-long trip.
The Alibi Room was a perfect way to end the trip. With its wide selection of local beer, we were reminded of the strength of BC’s beer scene.
Early next morning, Chris and I left the shadows of The Chief and headed for Vancouver. While most tourists visiting Canada’s third largest city beeline to Granville Island, Yaletown, Gastown, or Stanley Park, we were destined for the gritty, industrial East side, the epicenter of Vancouver’s growing beer culture.
Chris estimated the drive to be just under an hour. What wasn’t accounted for, however, was the blood pressure enhancing experience that is Vancouver traffic. After inching our way through several extremely inconvenient construction zones, we finally arrived at our first stop of the day: R & B Brewing Co.
Located in East Vancouver (called East Van or the East Side by locals), R & B Brewing doesn’t usually provide tours. But Barry Benson (the ‘B’ of the operation) chuckled as he told us that Chris must have caught him on a good day when he agreed to meet with us. We ended up “rescuing” him from paperwork when we arrived, so in the end everyone was happy. Barry was a fun and gracious host as we dodged the usual hoses, puddles of water, and brewers as we made our way around the brewery.
Barry offered us healthy samples of their award-winning beers. All of the brews, including the Bohemian Lager, Hoppelganger IPA and the Red Devil Pale Ale, were fantastic but Chris’ favorite was the East Side Bitter. An aggressively hopped Pacific Northwest version of the the traditional style, Chris was overjoyed when Barry advised us to check out the nearby Alibi Room, where he could have East Side Bitter on cask.
When our hour-long visit came to a close, Barry wished us luck at our next stop: Storm Brewing Ltd. We didn’t understand why Barry would say that until we stepped into Storm Brewing and met the owner/brewer James Walton.
James sported bleach blond, spiky hair, a tight purple t-shirt and black platform shoes with springs in them; an outfit more expected at the club than a brewery. Up on a short ladder when we came in, I think the first words out of his mouth were “This fucking glycol system isn’t working and I’m trying to fix it.” This was the beginning of a colorful time at Storm and I think it’s safe to say that it was the most interesting brewery visit we’ve ever had!
James offered us a Basil IPA. Even though he admitted it was old and wasn’t sure how it would taste, it was quite good. The spiciness of the basil was a perfect complement to the hops.
He bounced around the brewery (probably from the spring-filled shoes) alternately fiddling with the glycol system, stirring his brew, answering the phone and stopping momentarily to chat with us or the other visitors. In the meantime, we simply wandered around checking out all the interesting “stuff” he has around the metal shop/mad scientist’s lab/brewery.
Before we left, he also offered us a whiff of a cardamon tincture he made for possible use in an upcoming brew and a taste of one of his renowned sours. One of the tartest beers we have ever tried, Chris said it reminded him of the recently released Russian River Beatification.
Don’t let James’ unique (and dare I say eccentric) approach to owning/operating a brewery fool you, the beers were amazingly different and tasty.
Continuing our beer tour of East Van, we moved from the old guard to the new. A few blocks from Storm Brewing, Parallel 49 had opened a few weeks earlier. Or so Chris thought. Finding the address, we peered into the darkened, not-yet-finished tasting room. Disappointed, we continued on to the next block over to visit the East Side’s other new brewery, Coal Harbour Brewing Company.
Their brewmaster, Kevin Emms, was nice enough to receive us even though we didn’t make arrangements ahead of time. (He said that we must be Americans because Canadians don’t just pop in). As he showed us around the modest facility, Kevin remarked several times that Coal Harbour is an operation working on a shoestring budget. Apologies weren’t necessary, however, as Coal Harbour is a place where hard working folks are making great craft beer.
We tasted one brew, Smoke & Mirrors, an 8.5% ABV smoked Imperial Ale. The rich color and smoked aroma were not completely lost on me, even though the style is far from the top of my list of favorites. The flavor was very smoke-forward and I’m sure that those who like Rauchbiers would enjoy this one.
Their standard lineup includes a Helles, Vienna Lager, Rye beer and a gold medal winning IPA and all are available at the local bottle shop. Kevin was unable to sell us bottles and unfortunately we didn’t have time to pick some up before we left the city. Shoestring budget or not, Coal Harbour’s beers are well worth checking out.
As we were leaving Coal Harbour, Kevin asked whether we were visiting Parallel 49. Chris explained that we had walked by and saw the not-yet-completed tasting room so assumed we couldn’t visit. Kevin replied, “just walk around the back…”
A larger brewery than Coal Harbour, we were surprised to learn that Parallel 49 had been up and running for only a few months. The brewer, Graham With, showed us around and talked with us about the Vancouver beer scene.
He then took us to the tap room that we had peered into earlier to taste some beer. Chris liked the Hoparazzi, a 6% ABV Golden Lager given the West Coast IPA treatment. Coming in at a respectable 50 IBUs, Hoparazzi had wonderful citrus notes.
The most surprising of the brews was the Seedspitter, a watermelon Belgian wit. It was crisp and refreshing with a subtle watermelon flavor; perfect for the summer season. We joked with him about serving it with a slice of watermelon on the side, just like our friends at 21st Amendment. He politely said that they wouldn’t be serving it that way, but the bars probably would be. Once it’s open, the tap room will be a comfortable spot to sample Parallel 49’s beer.
And that concluded our beer tour of East Van. Some call the area “gritty.” But given the proximity of the breweries to each other, we agreed with one of the brewers who called it “brewer’s alley.” In any case, it was a fun day out and a great introduction to the colorful side of the Vancouver beer scene.
While Merideth and I felt we could spend the rest of our trip traveling around Vancouver Island, it was time for us to move over to the mainland. There were more breweries to visit and more of the British Columbia beer scene to explore.
We left the aptly named Departure Bay early Monday morning destined for the Lower Mainland. It was a beautiful, sunny day. With the gorgeous weather, Merideth and I enjoyed crossing of the Straight of Georgia from the upper deck. With the backdrop of the massive mainland coastal mountains, the scenery was spectacular. I almost wished we could do it all over again, but we disembarked at Horseshoe Bay and journeyed north.
Our first destination of the day was Whistler, the famous ski resort known most recently for hosting events during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. Even in summer, the semi-posh Whistler Village teamed with tourists and outdoor-types strolling its quaint pedestrian zone. Not being skiers, Merideth and I took it all in with a bit of curiosity.
Normally, we would set out for a hike first, but Merideth was hungry. Instead, we wound our way to the far end of Whistler Village destined for High Mountain Brewing. Under a brilliant sun and snow-capped peaks, we settled into one of the outdoor high bar tables.
Starting with the light-bodied Lifty Lager and ending with the seasonal Imperial Stout, Merideth and I sampled the brews in the six beer flight. All the beers were very drinkable, with the Alta Lake Amber Ale and 5 Rings IPA being the favorites for Merideth and I respectively.
The network of hiking/biking trails around Whistler was quite impressive. Wanting to set out from the Village, we settled on a 7-8km loop around Alta Lake. Our hike was more of a long walk on paved paths around the lake, but Merideth and I enjoyed the exercise and being out in the sun.
Post hike, we had another quick beer at the Brewhouse before heading back down the mountain to Squamish.
Squamish billed itself as the “outdoor recreational capital of Canada.” Merideth and I were oblivious of this claim to fame as we exited off Hwy 99 at Cleveland Avenue, the town’s main drag. Squamish was our destination because of Howe Sound Inn & Brewing Company. The seventh brewery of the trip was also our hotel for the night.
Checking into the hotel, we quickly dropped off our bags and headed back downstairs to the pub.
There is no better reward for staying at a brewery hotel than a dozen brew-flight. Merideth immediately fell in love with 4 Way Fruit Ale, a Wheat Beer made with mango, passion fruit, raspberry and pomegranate. Light-bodied and full of fruit flavor, 4 Way tasted exactly like a breakfast juice.
Merideth’s other favorite and go to beer during our stay at Howe Sound was Rail Ale Nut Brown. A silver medal winner at the 2012 North American Beer Awards, the brew had the nice nutty flavor that she enjoys. My stars were Devil’s Elbow IPA and Baldwin Cooper Best Bitter, a bronze medal winner at the 2012 North American Beer Awards.
Merideth and I were both fond of Megadestroyer, an Imperial Licorice Stout. Maybe an ‘acquired taste’ brew, this 10% ABV full-bodied Stout had, as the name would suggest, a wonderful licorice flavor.
Sitting in the pub, we couldn’t help notice the huge granite monolith that looms over Squamish. Known at the Stawamus Chief, the huge rock face towers 2,300 ft. over the town. Merideth and I joked that we would climb the face before we left.
Later, we learned from our friendly waitress that there was a hiking trail to the top that offered amazing views of Howe Sound and the surrounding mountains. Inspired, we vowed to get to the top of the Chief the next day.
The following morning we awoke psyched up to conquer the Chief. Doing some trail research online before we left, I saw a notice on the BC Parks website that the trail to the top of the Chief was closed for maintenance that very day (and only that day). Not really believing our unlucky fortune, we drove to the trail head to confirm that it was true.
Extremely disappointed, Merideth and I settled on another 7-8km hike at Alice Lake Park that wound around four different lakes. A bit more remote than our Whistler hike, the ‘Danger bear in the area’ warning added a bit of excitement. But, we still weren’t climbing the Chief.
Back at Howe Sound and again under the gaze of the Chief, Merideth and I lamented our missed hiking opportunity over a few pints. In the end, we re-framed our day. We didn’t conquer the Chief, but that just means we need to return to Squamish.
Sunday’s adventure took us further north on Vancouver Island; the first time we’d explored beyond Victoria. And what an adventure it was!
We picked up a rental car at the Victoria Airport and followed the instructions of Canuck Karen, our endearing nickname for our GPS, towards Nanaimo. We dodged packs of bicycles participating in the Tour de Victoria as Karen led us through scenic back roads and graveled private roads. Chris had assumed that our route would be down and around the Saanich Inlet, staying firmly on dry land throughout the journey. However, Karen led us to the ferry crossing where we waited 30 minutes for the ferry and took 25 minutes to cross. Once back on land, it took us under a half-hour to reach the town of Duncan. This quaint town is the home to 80 totem poles created by First Nations artists, as well as Craig St. Brew Pub, our first brewery of the day.
Craig St. felt simultaneously spacious and cozy. The dining room, complete with a fireplace, on the left was separated from the antique bar by a large entry way with a high ceiling. There was also an upstairs deck, but we chose to sit at the bar.
The young staff was friendly and attentive as they brought us our “toolbox” sampler set. The wooden box held five beers (Lager, Hefeweizen, Irish Ale, Pale Ale, and a Porter) plus pretzels, which I thought was a nice touch. The seasonal Hefeweizen was a tad too lemony tasting for me, but the Shawnigan Irish Ale, Arbutus Ale, and Mt. Prevost Porter were all solid and paired well with my Asian Cole Slaw with Prawns and Chris’ Chicken Sandwich.
While at Craig St., we made a few adjustments to our schedule and headed straight for Nanaimo. With just one more brewery to visit before we checked into our B&B, we had plenty of time to look around this harbor city. The weather was warm and intermittently sunny, so we opted to walk along the waterfront starting at Maffeo Sutton Park, a busy, family-oriented place that serves as Nanaimo’s signature park.
By late afternoon we stopped at our second and last brewery of the day, Longwood Brew Pub. Situated in an upscale strip mall, the large silo makes it easy to locate. We walked in on the second floor, which is the restaurant. Downstairs, the pub is equally elegant with its dark wood features and black-clad waitstaff. As usual, we chose to join a handful of others sitting at the bar. As we soon discovered, Longwood is very much a locals place. During the 90 minutes or so that we stayed, there was a steady stream of locals stopping by for a beer. I think we were the only ones the bartender didn’t address by name and a confirmation of the usual drink order.
A friendly lot, we thoroughly enjoyed chatting with our bartender and barmates about everything from the virtues of being bi-lingual and hiking opportunities on Vancouver’s west coast to the beauty of golf at Pebble Beach.
Longwood had several beers to sample, all solid and many brewed with British influence. The Hefeweizen, Irish Ale, and ESB were tasty brews, but my favorite was the Dunkleweizen and unsurprisingly, Chris favored the IPA. Before we left, we purchased a bottle of their Framboise (a refreshing dry brew with just the right amount of raspberry flavor), which we later drank on the deck of our B&B.
Speaking of which, I would be incredibly remiss if I didn’t mention our lodgings for the night–MGM Seashore Bed & Breakfast. With absolutely stunning views, it was quite affordable and our hosts, Marilyn and Glenn McKnight, were very gracious. They even grow hops used by the Longwood Brew Pub.
With their help, we ended a somewhat stressful day that didn’t go to plan by sharing great local craft beer and wonderful conversation all while overlooking the most spectacular view possible.