Drinking in BC's Beer Identity

At the local fest, I solicit brewmaster views on what makes a true West Coast brew. And heroically narrow down my top 10.

By Nick Smith 22 Sep 2012 |

Nick Smith is a veteran beer drinker who lives on the Sunshine Coast in British Columbia.

North America's craft beer renaissance may have started right here in B.C. After all, John Mitchell and Frank Appleton started Horseshoe Bay Brewing in 1980, concocting ales and stouts steeped in a British pub tradition that stood head and shoulders above the bland pilsners and lagers of the era.

When Spinnaker's Brew Pub opened in Victoria four years later, it's probably safe to say that today's celebrity brewers were still in high school, hoping to score a six-pack of Coors from someone's older brother.

These days American brewers get much of the attention, turning out barrel-aged ales, Belgian tripels and cask-fermented brews that reap international awards. Towns like Portland, Oregon and Asheville, North Carolina have spawned a thriving industry that caters to pub-crawling tourists. Germans and Brits longing to learn traditional brewing techniques no longer found in Europe now study with the Americans, in a strange twist that would have surely seemed satirical a generation ago.

But B.C. thrives today too, though with a different style. According to a 2011 report by BC Business, B.C. craft brewers doubled sales through the Liquor Distribution Branch in five years, from about $56 million in 2007 to $111.5 million in the 12 months ended March 2011.

I had a chance to speak with some local brewers about the craze over craft beers, and where B.C. fits into the whole scheme, at the Great Canadian Beer Festival held in Victoria the first weekend after Labour Day.

The general consensus here? Forget the American hop craze. Today's B.C. brews are all about subtlety.

No love for the hoppy

While B.C. breweries do pay attention to their stateside counterparts, I heard from a few brewers that they'd prefer to collaborate with one another rather than play catch-up. That's helping to create a tradition that is distinctly British Columbian.

Andrew Harris of Surrey's Russell Brewing is a barrel-chested fellow with a firm handshake and an Australian twang.

"B.C. breweries are being challenged by the Americans," he admitted. "But we are getting very good at making big beers."

We spoke of Rogue and Deschutes Brewing, both out of Oregon, and of Stone from California, huge names in West Coast brewing.

"I think that honestly, a lot of the heavy-hopping of the stuff down there is hiding pretty mediocre beer," he said.

When you have Lagunitas Brewing in California calling a beer "Hop Stoopid," Harris might have a point.

Harris said he's proud of Big Smoke Ale, a collaboration between Russell Brewing and East Van's Storm Brewing. Scotch drinkers go crazy for its peated malt which provides a characteristic smoky finish. He tells me that East Van brewer Parallel 49 has recently set up shop along the working waterfront near Storm, and that I'd do well to note what they're doing with West Coast hops and grains like wheat and oats.

He also recommends I follow Victoria's Driftwood Brewing, which picked up "Beer of the Year" at the 2011 Canadian Brewing Awards for their Fat Tug IPA. I get the idea that Harris is not trying to outdo anyone, but is just proud to be part of something good.

Kevin Emms of Vancouver's Coal Harbour Brewing comes across the same way. He doesn't think that B.C. is behind anyone, just that the "history of the brewing scene is different here."

"We have more of a connection to a British brewing tradition," he said. Emms recently returned to Vancouver from Edinburgh, where he completed an MSc in brewing and distilling.

When I asked what makes Canada different, he paused. "We have more amber ales. We aren't just going crazy with the hops."

I sampled his Smoke and Mirrors cask-fermented imperial stout. This monster of a beer, rich with licorice and thick with peaty malt that clocks in at 10 per cent ABV (alcohol by volume) stands in contrast to the rest of the Coal Harbour fleet which tends toward balance and understatement.

I didn't brave the lineup for Sorrento's Crannog Ales, Canada's only certified organic brewery. Their popularity, built upon Insurrection IPA and Backhand of God Stout, is not about hype but solid ales that go easy on the alcohol and hops.

Instead I headed to Surrey's Central City to have a taste of their much-lauded Thor's Hammer Barley Wine. This aged ale, which weighs in at 11 per cent ABV, is meant to be sipped from a snifter so that its fruity aroma can be taken in, and notes of vanilla and honey can be savoured.

Fermenting a revolution

Chris Stirling from Kelowna's Tree Brewing feels that the B.C. craft brewing industry is "young, still growing, but not too fast" -- and is still "consumer-driven."

He tells me that as locals become more educated, demand for different styles is growing. But he doesn't see niche markets opening up anytime soon for the likes of sour beers and wild yeast strains available in places like Portland's Cascade Brewing Barrel House, which boasts 18 taps including smoked saison, kriek, and honey-ginger-lime sour beer.

"It comes down to demand," he told me.

But he's still upbeat about B.C.'s craft beers, with Tree Brewing picking up a gold medal at last year's Canadian Brewing Awards for their whiskey barrel-aged beer.

"Right now, the big breweries are hurting. The craft brewers are not," he said with a grin.

The Bradley clan of Victoria's Moon Under Water Brewpub can attest to this. They founded Bowen Island Brewing which they sold in the late '90s. What they now serve are "session ales" typical of British pubs that you can drink all night without getting intoxicated.

I tried a pint of their refreshing stout, which starts with roasted caramel and chocolate notes, then ends with tangy cherry. At this point you have to head to our provincial capital to experience these session ales at the brewpub itself, but it's worth the trip. You can pack home some 650 millilitre bombers that are only available at nearby liquor stores.

Back at the festival, a carnival marching band wended its way through the thickening crowd as I wrapped up with Andrew Harris. He said he expects B.C. beers to evolve through innovation, describing a wheat wine that he is working on.

He left me with a pat on the shoulder and something to look forward to.

"Hey, we have a mandate to put out a new beer every 60 days." Hordes of thirsty Canadians were lining up, and Harris had beer to pour.

Craft beer fan? Get ready for BC Craft Beer Month! Check out this website for more. Oh, and what are you drinking?  [Tyee]

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