Savouring Victoria’s micro-brew boom

Culture Food | Drink

When I order a craft beer in my hometown of St. Albert, Alta., I’m met with strange looks. Even on nights where the few local breweries have pints on special, most St. Albert citizens would much rather pay extra for a bottle of their macro-brew of choice, cohering with a sort of conservative, corporate loyalty.

Here in Victoria, it’s quite the opposite. Anyone who buys a macro-brew in a downtown bar seems out of place. Fine dining restaurants that have two-page wine lists, but only have Kokanee and Coors on tap, are often met with confusion.

These anecdotes have always allowed me to explain Victoria’s flourishing craft beer scene. “We just love good beer here.” I assumed it was as simple as that.

However, on a recent tour of Victoria’s newest breweries, I learned the real secret to the success—a truth that goes deeper than our taste buds.

At 11 a.m. on the second-last day of Victoria Beer week, eight strangers met outside Garrick’s Head pub and hopped into a West Coast Brewery Tours Van: one Rodney Dangerfield-esque  wine blogger; a Vancouver beer blogger; a bearded, techie, volunteer videographer for Beer Week; an older couple from PEI, their son, and their daughter-in-law; and finally, myself. We would see three breweries—all under a year old—in three hours. With beer samples at each stop, our host Elton had us fill out waivers. “No one has puked in the van yet,” he said, “and that’s not a challenge.”

We stopped outside Driftwood Brewery quickly because Elton saw one of the employees outside that he knew: he just wanted to say hi. Elton made his company two years ago. It runs in direct correlation with the booming craft beer scene, and a big part of his success seems to come from his close personal relationships with the people involved.  Even with a busy tourist season, Elton says half of his client base are locals.

The first stop was the unopened Log House brewpub right by the Liquor Planet on Millstream Road. Even though they weren’t able to get the brewery opened for Beer Week, they didn’t cancel the tour. Instead, the brewmaster just popped over to Liquor Planet and let us sample some of his favourite beers, local and otherwise: Van. Island Brewery’s Absolute Darkness India Dark Ale; Swan’s Riley’s Scotch Ale; from Mount Vernon, Skagit River’s Gospel IPA; and Saison Dupont from Belgium.

Elton watched us tasting and sighed: the only downside to the job. But, as he is used to it now, he didn’t let it bother him. Instead, he talked to us about how after moving from New Zealand he tried a Granville Island Lager, and it changed how he understood beer. Although he is let down that Granville Island has since been bought out by Molson, he still remembers his introduction to craft brewing.

We pulled up to 4 Mile Brewing out in View Royal for a taster of four of their eight(!) beers on tap and a quick snack—the highlight being their smooth English Strong Ale. A local hotspot, the brewpub and historical building had a good sized group of patrons for noon on a Saturday.

By the time we made our way to our final stop at Category 12 (the newest brewery in town), the social lubricant was doing its job, and the van was discussing craft beer. We shared stories of nano-breweries that can’t even make enough beer for the small towns they’re in, and we collectively celebrated the closure of some macro-breweries in Vancouver since the Craft Beer Boom. We were talking about our favourite stouts and porters just as our van pulled into our next destination.

Category 12 had their weekly food truck outside their operations and a storefront full of interested patrons. In the back, brewmaster Michael Kuzyk was holding a class on homebrewing with the local BrewVic club. We tried each of their three beers: the Critical Point Pale Ale, Unsanctioned Saison, and the Disruption Black IPA.

At the end of the tour, five out of the eight attendees paid the extra $1.50 to sample Category 12’s new Transmutation Belgian Specialty Ale. It’s not officially released—trust me, I tried to get them to sell me a growler—but it will be worth the wait. The sampler had a whole spectrum of flavours. Notes of banana, a bite of hops, and a smooth, rounded finish; it was almost like a beer version of Willy Wonka’s three-course-meal gum except with three different, but equally delicious, beers—and you also didn’t turn blue after drinking it.

Standing in the busy brewery, our guide Elton calmly stated: “We love our beer here, and we love community.” And with that, Elton finished the equation. Before that, I already knew that B.C. hasn’t reached its saturation point for breweries because we all loved good beer, but it really is the community aspect that makes the difference. Getting to shake the hands of each of the brewmasters when you fill up your growler. Attending events for the second annual Beer Week and meeting beer-crazy strangers. It all adds up to a mural of this little community we live in. It might have been the buzz I got from all the sampling, but I knew right then and there that we wouldn’t see the saturation of the B.C. beer market for years to come.