BREW UP A STORM
John Lee tours the boutique beer producers of British Columbia without leaving its largest city
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.
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
Tap dance: Vancouver’s Gastown, main picture; right from top, pump action; Steamworks bar; Granville Island Brewing