Drinking Vancouver Island
Globe and Mail
Arriving from England to study at the University of Victoria in 1991, I found a local beer scene dominated by the kind of insipid factory brews that could turn a hardened lush instantly teetotal. Not that I was a lush. Oh no. But I certainly enjoyed a piquant ale or three. Just not, apparently, in my new taste-deficient student town.
Fast forward to now and everything has changed. Victoria has become a craft beer capital, crammed with innovative microbreweries and tasty tap houses. While across Vancouver Island and beyond, little breweries have popped-up to serve those locals (and thirsty visitors) who’ve permanently turned their backs on generic suds.
Victoria-based brewer Sean Hoyne has been at the centre of this regional craft beer reformation. Honing his beermaking skills over two decades at stalwart city brewpubs including Swans and Canoe, he took the plunge and opened Hoyne Brewing in 2011. Offering growler refills and intriguing seasonals, his top sellers include Dark Matter, a chocolate-hued porteresque ale.
“I wanted my own brewery for 20 years, but we ended up starting a family instead,” says Hoyne, taking a rare break between mashing and wort-cooling duties. The enforced delay may have been fortuitous, since it’s taken a few years for enough locals to move beyond Blue and Canadian. “There’s such a love of craft beer now and so many beer geeks around, you couldn’t be in this business at a better time.”
And the biggest geeks of the bunch? The brewers themselves. Ask the region’s beermakers about their alchemical potions and they’re giddier than a happy drunk at an open bar. “We’re way more interested in making great beer than producing clever marketing campaigns,” says Jason Meyer, co-owner of Victoria’s Driftwood Brewery. “We sell the steak, not the sizzle,” he adds.
For Driftwood – a runaway success story with taps throughout B.C. – that means a Belgianesque roster including the highly quaffable Farmhand Saison and the sharp-but-balanced Fat Tug, regarded by many as the province’s best IPA. But Meyer isn’t resting on his hops. He’s concocted a challenging sour beer program that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. These tart tipples are the definition of acquired taste.
“I tell people sours are a bridge between wine and beer – Napoleon called them the champagne of the north,” he says, adding that Driftwood’s upcoming five-year anniversary will be marked with a special sour and the brewery is also mulling a craft-distilling sideline. The key to growth, though, will always be access. “The most important change in B.C. was that bars began embracing craft beer – give people the opportunity to taste it and they never go back.”
But while larger microbreweries can ship around the province to eager beer nuts, smaller producers in farther-flung communities need a laser-like focus on the locals: they’re the ones who’ll turn-up at the brewery door for takeout and lobby area restaurants to carry their favourite ales.
This brew-it-and-they-will-come approach underpins diminutive producers like Tofino Brewing. Founded on Vancouver Island’s Pacific-whipped west coast in 2011, the owners knew they’d have to aim beyond the summer tourist trade. Luckily, according to head brewer Dave Woodward, Tofitians were thirsty long before the first batch of Tuff Session Ale was ready.
“There was a demand for a brewery here for years,” says Woodward. “From the start, we’ve developed a rapport with the locals to make the kind of beers they want – it keeps us going through the winter when they turn up with their empty growlers.”
Tucked into an inauspicious light industrial unit, the brewery makes three main beers, but is planning an increasing number of small-batch seasonals. “We did a spruce ale this year which was very popular. And I like the idea of using more local ingredients like seaweed,” says Woodward.
There’s a similar approach at the even tinier Salt Spring Island Ales, a 35-minute ferry hop from Vancouver Island. In a cute, barn-like woodland brewery that serves a community of several thousand, co-owner Becky Julseth says islanders have been very supportive. “We try to fit in with the Salt Spring ethos. We use as many local ingredients as we can, including planting our own all-organic, GMO-free hops.”
Opening a tasting room for the first time this year, the cottage producer also introduced handsome glass growlers for take-outs. The first batch sold out to Salt Springers almost immediately.
English ales and session beers dominate, with the subtle Heather Ale a flagship and the Dry Porter recently emerging as an island favourite. “Because we’re small, we can experiment a bit more – we’ve already done a couple of really interesting gruit ales,” says Julseth, who also mentions plans to supply bars in Vancouver, the region’s biggest craft beer market.
It’s a reminder that managing expansion is ever on the radar of producers here, according to Harley Smith, brewmaster at Longwood Brewery in Nanaimo, Vancouver Island’s second city. Opening a swanky, gabled-roofed brewpub in 2000, Longwood didn’t launch its offsite brewery – specializing in tall can versions of its bestselling beers – until 2013.
“We’re really into steady growth. We’re not trying to go too far out on a limb with crazy beers. But at the same time, we don’t want to be too easy on the palate,” says Smith, who says his most popular beer is Berried Alive raspberry ale, from a roster that includes IPAs and a rich imperial stout.
“We’ve discovered that drinkers – especially women – are more experimental than ever and are willing to try new flavours. When we started you couldn’t sell wit beer to anyone, now people ask for it as soon as the sun comes out.”
It’s this increasingly adventurous palate that veteran Victoria brewer Matt Phillips – founder of Phillips Brewing – thinks is the main reason for the region’s craft beer golden age.
“When I started in the mid-1990s, it was a crazy boom time and everyone wanted to open a brewery. But there just weren’t enough consumers to sustain the market and several closed – which meant I was able to buy a bunch of equipment cheaply and get started,” he says, adding that his most popular beers include crisp Blue Buck Ale and the aptly-named Amnesiac Double IPA plus many seasonals.
“Because I’m a brewer without any common sense, we’re always excited about new beers – sometimes we do several a month,” says Phillips, who believes that the enthusiasm of local brewers is finally now matched sip-for-sip by drinkers, which can only fuel the scene to even tastier heights.
“It’s exciting to see more diverse breweries emerging. In the coming years, I think we’ll see more of a commitment to local hops and other ingredients grown here. But really, it’s going to be driven more and more by drinkers pushing us all the time for something new.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Sean Hoyne, who adds that the region’s beermakers all know eachother and often hangout. “There’s friendly competition,” he says. “But there’s also a strong feeling that we’re really lucky to be around at this time and that we’re all in this together.”
“I think, eventually, we’ll get to where Portland and Seattle are, with a much larger portion of local sales coming from craft beer,” he adds. And whatever happens to the Vancouver Island scene, he’s convinced Victoria will be leading the way. “We’re already the best beer city in Canada. And there’s a lot more still to come.”
Top picks for fall beers at each brewery:
Hoyne Brewing (www.hoynebrewing.ca): Off The Grid Red Lager
Driftwood Brewing (www.driftwoodbeer.com): Sartori Harvest IPA
Tofino Brewing (www.tofinobrewingco.com): Double IPA
Salt Spring Island Ales (www.gulfislandsbrewery.com): Estate Hopped Whale Tail Ale
Longwood Brewery (www.longwoodbeer.com): The One That Got Away Red Wheat Beer.
Phillips Brewing (www.phillipsbeer.com): Bottle Rocket India Session Ale