BREW UP A STORM

John Lee tours the bou­tique beer pro­duc­ers of Bri­tish Columbia with­out leav­ing its largest city

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

IT’S 1pm on a cloud-free Satur­day af­ter­noon in lo­tus-land Van­cou­ver. But rather than soak­ing up the rays around Stan­ley Park or strolling the shops of Yale­town, I’m hunched over a jet­black glass of beer in the shady cor­ner of a lo­cal bar.

Of course this isn’t just any old beer. The Cana­dian prov­ince of Bri­tish Columbia has un­der­gone a mi­cro­brew­ing re­nais­sance in re­cent years with the emer­gence of dozens of craft-beer­mak­ers. With an af­ter­noon to spare, I hit the city streets to find the re­gion’s most ex­otic lo­cal tip­ples. First stop is the Al­ibi Room on the edge of Van­cou­ver’s her­itage Gas­town dis­trict.

Sip­ping a 5.2 per cent Back Hand of God stout from Crannog Ales, I’m sur­prised at how much lighter it is than Guin­ness, with a dis­tinc­tive but not over­pow­er­ing cof­fee-like fin­ish. ‘‘ It’s prob­a­bly our most pop­u­lar beer,’’ Al­ibi co-owner and chief brew se­lec­tor Nigel Springth­orpe tells me; he works hard to build re­la­tion­ships with unique re­gional brew­ers such as Crannog.

Founded eight years ago on a 4ha farm in Sor­rento, the brew­ery has prob­a­bly be­come Bri­tish Columbia’s favourite mi­crobeer­maker. Led by chief brewmeis­ter Brian MacIsaac, it is one of only two cer­ti­fied or­ganic pro­duc­ers in Canada, grow­ing seven va­ri­eties of hops in its fields and us­ing spring wa­ter from an on-site well to pro­duce an eclec­tic ros­ter of dis­tinc­tive brews.

But Crannog isn’t the only beer worth try­ing here. Among the 13 other taps lin­ing the Al­ibi Room bar — it’s Van­cou­ver’s big­gest BC beer se­lec­tion — are lips­mack­ing con­coc­tions from Chilli­wack’s Old Yale Brew­ing, a tiny op­er­a­tion run by Larry Caza in the Fraser Val­ley, 100km east of Van­cou­ver. There’s beer from Squamish’s Howe Sound Brew­ing, which — with its own on-site brew-pub — is just off the Sea-to-Sky High­way be­tween Van­cou­ver and Whistler. And a tap for Swan’s Brew­ery, which is sit­u­ated in the her­itage-rich pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal, Vic­to­ria, on the ground floor of a down­town bou­tique ho­tel which also houses a highly con­vivial brew-pub.

For beer tasters, the Al­ibi Room is a chance to trip around BC with­out leav­ing town, es­pe­cially since small tast­ing glasses here cost just $C3 ($3.13).

I try a fruity, un­fil­tered Salt Spring Golden Ale; made from Cana­dian two-row bar­ley and lo­cally grown hops, this beer is con­cocted by Gulf Is­lands Brew­ery on Salt Spring Is­land, be­tween Van­cou­ver Is­land and the BC main­land.

I’m tempted to spend the af­ter­noon at Al­ibi, but head back to the sunny thor­ough­fares of the city. Strolling along nearby Wa­ter Street, I soon reach the land­mark Steam­works Brew­ing Com­pany, one of the city’s lead­ing brew-pubs.

It’s half-filled with chatty lo­cals. I snag a cor­ner ta­ble and pe­ruse the house-brewed se­lec­tion. Mulling over Oat­meal Stout and Li­ons Gate Lager, I opt in­stead for a glass of Em­press In­dia Pale Ale, which has a dis­tinc­tive, al­most flowery af­ter­taste, the re­sult of dry hop­ping with a com­bi­na­tion of Mount Hood and East Kent Gold­ings hops.

I also study the lunch menu: beer doesn’t cover all the food groups, so Steam­works of­fers hearty fish and chips and tasty thin­crust piz­zas.

Mak­ing my way out­side an hour or so later, I climb up­hill into the heart of down­town, to the in­ter­sec­tion of Dun­smuir and Sey­mour streets. With a con­ve­nience store dom­i­nat­ing the cor­ner, it’s easy to miss the unas­sum­ing en­trance to the up­stairs Rail­way Club, per­haps Van­cou­ver’s best old­school bar.

The dingy car­pets and worn wooden ta­bles re­call tra­di­tional English pubs. But along with its di­verse nightly menu of live mu­sic, there’s a con­nois­seur’s approach to BC beer, with taps from Rus­sell Brew­ing, Tree Brew­ing and Phillips Brew­ing jostling for bar space. Rus­sell Brew­ing’s beer is cre­ated us­ing nat­u­ral, non-pas­teuris­ing meth­ods, in the com­muter-belt sub­urb of Sur­rey, 19km south­east of Van­cou­ver. Tree Brew­ing is in Kelowna in the heart of BC’s Okana­gan Val­ley wine­mak­ing re­gion and Phillips Brew­ing oc­cu­pies a site on William Street in Vic­to­ria. They’re all here at the Rail­way Club.

There’s a sleepy feel to the club’s af­ter­noon pro­ceed­ings and it is al­most empty when I visit. Eas­ing into a seat at a win­dow ta­ble and smugly watch­ing the rest of the city bustling be­low, I’m ac­com­pa­nied by a creamy glass of Big Ket­tle from Cen­tral City Brew­ing. An­other Sur­rey beer­maker, this one oc­cu­pies a large brew-pub near the Sur­rey Cen­tral SkyTrain sta­tion, 30 min­utes ride from cen­tral Van­cou­ver.

This sassy new brewer, led by cel­e­brated brew­mas­ter Gary Lo­hin, con­cocts sev­eral dis­tinc­tive and award-win­ning sups with care­fully se­lected in­gre­di­ents from Bri­tain, Ger­many and the US Pa­cific north­west.

Within a few min­utes, I’ve moved on to a lus­cious Red Truck Ale from a small-batch pro­ducer in North Van­cou­ver. Spe­cial­is­ing in fresh, non-pas­teurised brews, the com­pany makes only two beers, which it de­liv­ers in dis­tinc­tive ver­mil­ion-toned vin­tage trucks. By this stage, I’m start­ing to won­der if I can keep up the pace.

Re­luc­tantly peel­ing away from my comfy nook, I stroll to nearby Howe Street, where a 10-minute bus ride takes me to tourist­friendly Granville Is­land. Es­chew­ing the pop­u­lar pub­lic mar­ket, I head straight for Granville Is­land Brew­ing, the beer­maker that kick-started BC’s craft-brew­ing golden age. Es­tab­lished in 1984, pro­duc­tion has largely shifted to a roomier, out-of-town fa­cil­ity. But the orig­i­nal brew­house re­mains and is now home to a small-batch beer­mak­ing op­er­a­tion and a bar that show­cases its brands. It’s also the site of the city’s only brew­ery tour.

Join­ing a small group of ea­ger beer-lovers — in­clud­ing two visit­ing lads from Tas­ma­nia — an en­gag­ing guide leads us around the small op­er­a­tion, com­plete with stain­lesssteel kegs, bot­tling ma­chin­ery and bulging sacks of pre­mium Cana­dian bar­ley malt. Thirsts duly trig­gered, we’re soon back in the bar for some gen­er­ous sam­pling.

The Rob­son Street Hefeweizen turns out to be frothy and fruity — an un­fil­tered wheat ale, it’s an ideal sum­mer quaff — while the lager-like English Bay Pale Ale is sim­i­larly light and smooth. Much more dis­tinc­tive, the Kit­si­lano Maple Cream Ale (yes, it con­tains maple syrup) has a sweet af­ter­taste and slides down eas­ily. My favourite is the rust­coloured 5.5 per cent Gas­town Am­ber Ale. Full-bod­ied and slightly bit­ter, it’s aged for six weeks in gi­ant stain­less-steel tanks.

The chatty young Aus­tralians are not sure which they pre­fer, so they pour an­other round from the jugs left on the ta­ble just to make sure. In con­trast with their en­thu­si­asm, my groggy head feels like a bowl­ing ball on a tooth­pick. I de­cide to bring my BC beer tour to an end.

Check­list

Granville Is­land Brew­ing runs tours daily at noon, 2pm and 4pm; $C9.75. More: www.gib.ca. www.al­ibi.ca www.steam­works.com www.therail­way­club.com www.bcbeer.ca

Pic­tures: John Lee

Tap dance: Van­cou­ver’s Gas­town, main pic­ture; right from top, pump ac­tion; Steam­works bar; Granville Is­land Brew­ing

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