Here in Vancouver we’re sadly a bit removed from the actual amber ambrosia we like to consume so readily. Sure, we have two fully functional local craft breweries in R&B and Storm, but honestly folks, what percentage of your BC beer diet is by those guys? I rarely pick up R&B products in quantities less than 50 litres (aside from East Side), and Storm doesn’t bottle at all.
Take a look in your fridge, or on the shelves of your local LRS, and you’ll see that the majority of what we consider good local beer is actually produced in Victoria. Hence my decision to go there and have a look around.
Before we get into the details, here are my general observations for those not inclined to reading my War-and-Peace length ramble about this trip.
1/ As always, brewers and the people in the brewery industry are the happiest, friendliest people you’ll ever meet. I guess it makes sense, since very few people get into brewing if they don’t like beer. And beer makes you happy (it’s a fact!).
2/ Two of the breweries I visited were started when employees of another local brewer up and left to do their own thing. This is a good thing: a younger generation learns the trade and then goes out on its own to create their own take on things, and then hire on employees who learn the trade and go out on their own… The net result is that the speed of new breweries opening is only accelerating.
3/ Everyone is expanding. Both Lighthouse and Driftwood are eagerly eying up neighbours with expiring leases, and Hoyne is the result of the industry expanding itself. This is the result of craft beer sales growing at a much faster rate than breweries can scale up. There’s room for everyone!
4/ Growlers are everywhere in Victoria. In my short time at Phillips I’d estimate that easily two dozen growlers went out the door. Hoyne shipped less actual growlers, but more if you take into account the difference in brewery size. With the number of good breweries in Vancouver recently doubling, I wonder if we’ll see something similar soon?
5/ Driftwood is thinking of getting on the growler/tasting room bandwagon. Some of that expansion space referenced above may (*may*) go towards a storefront, but maybe that thought is because Jason hasn’t opened the latest issue of Used Wine Barrels Monthly and gone on a buying spree.
6/ I’d said that I somehow manage to miss Swan’s every time I’m over there, and sadly this visit was no different. Sorry guys.
7/ Rumour has it that Driftwood and Hoyne might team up to host a GCBF after party in their shared parking lot. Now that’s what I’m talking about.
8/ Also noted on the Phillips tour: a shiny new canner. Look for Phillips’ lesser beers to start showing up in cans soon.
Okay, summary over. Now for the details. I had about one and a half days to be a beer geek on holiday, and here’s how I spent that time.
Stop One: Spinnakers — Oh, it’s been too long. I was a bit worried about this one, as I’d read recently that the food and service might have gone downhill a bit. Utter tosh, I tells ya. Both food and service was excellent, the beer was as I remember it (good) and it turns out the view of the bay was still there. The prices are a bit higher than I remember, but I thought it was worth every penny. The beer market might be moving more towards specialty beers, but I believe Spinnakers will continuing selling good british pub ales until the world ends.
Stop Two: Lighthouse — A private tour of a brewery? Okay! Dean McLeod met me on Saturday to give me a quick look, and I think he was more excited to show off his babies than I was to taste them. Sadly, all but one bottle of Belgian Black had already left the building by the time I arrived, but luckily that one bottle was for me.
Dean also shared a sample of a one-off project straight from the conditioning tank, and talked at length about his hopes for the Small Brewery, Big Flavour series. The idea is to start using New Zealand hops more and more (and man there were NZ hops everywhere), with the goal of establishing their unique flavour as Lighthouse’s calling card. When asked what was next, Dean indicated that Lighthouse will be expanding into a neighbouring space and hopefully starting a barrel program. I hope you guys do, too.
Stop Three: Hoyne — The new guys on the block. How new? They have only just managed to start shipping out bottled product, and one of their beers isn’t even ready for market yet. I know because Sean Hoyne let me try it straight from the conditioning tank (but in another few weeks it’ll be great).
When I was leaving Lighthouse I pulled Dean aside and frankly asked: “Hoyne is next. Are they worth a damn?” Dean had yet to try their beer and thus tactfully declined to answer, so let me answer that question: Yes, they are.
The beer market in BC is maturing, and with that comes a trend towards more specialty beers (think Double Imperials, Sours, Lambics, etc). This is a good thing, and I love it, but where do you go if you want a nice lager with dinner? Or a simple pale ale? These table beers are being left behind as the market matures, and into this space comes Hoyne Brewing.
Are their products the best Pilsner, Pale Ale or IPA I’ve ever tasted? No. Not even close (although their Pils really is quite good). Is it good beer at a reasonable price that you don’t feel guilty about knocking back over pasta? Yes, yes they are. I’ll be buying lots of beer from Sean, and so is everyone else; while I was there the front did a decent growler business, and Vintage Spirits stopped by to top off their stock–only a few days after receiving the first shipment.
The only problem I foresee here is expansion. Sure, they only just opened up, but Sean’s fermenters and conditioning tanks so massively outclass his brewing kit (3 brews to the fermenter) that it will prove to be a major choke point. If they are as popular as I think they’ll be, look for supply to be spotty until this is cleared up.
Stop Four: Phillips — I have to admit, I thought Lighthouse was a bit small compared to how big I had imagined it in my head. This was not the case at Phillips. Phillips is a huge brewery, brewing vast quantities of frankly mediocre beer (how vast? I’d estimate they easily push out more beer than all the other breweries on this tour combined).
However, they’ve recently completed an interesting collaboration brew with Garrison, and some of their smaller runs beers are honestly decent (Hoperation in particular), so I was happy to stop by and have a look-see. I was given a behind-the-scenes tour by the equally happy Bill (a man with a beard–and therefore beer geek credentials–that made me envious).
The production floor here is cram-packed with huge fermenters and conditioning tanks, plus there’s a row out back of colossal bastards that wouldn’t even fit in the door. This is a big, big brewery. Breweries essentially all look the same on the inside minus one detail: the bottling line. Small breweries have hand-bottlers that do four or eight bottles at a time, but bigger breweries have a massive room-filling line like you’ve seen in Strange Brew. That’s what Phillips has.
Stop Four: Moon Under Water — They were closed until the 25th. Arrrrrgggggghhhhhhh. As I mentioned during last spring’s CAMRA Spring Sessional, MUW was one of my main reasons for coming over. Sigh. Instead, I hit up:
Stop Five: The Beagle — A decent pub with honestly great food (some of the best wings I’ve ever crammed into my wing hole), but the tap list is only alright. Much as I do when I’m stuck in a meh pub in Vancouver, I was forced into drinking Fat Tug all night. Not sure why The Beagle keeps showing up on the Victoria beer geek twitter feed with this in mind.
Stop Six: Driftwood Brewing — Jason Meyer was kind enough to meet me early in the morning (before noon is early for me, man. I barely made it) and give me a tour around their operation. If Phillips was much bigger than I had pictured, Driftwood is much smaller. In fact, they’re smaller than R&B. Despite it being so early, Jason and I had a great beer geek chat about where the brewery is, what they’d like to do in the future, and the BC beer scene in general.
My impression was of a man that takes making quality beer seriously. Perhaps this was because he said as much about a dozen times, but the pile of whiskey barrels looming behind him gave this claim some credibility. The barrels of kriek fermenting in the corner under a blanket also didn’t hurt. Or the desire to become the “Russian River of the North.”
This “inspired by the US” feel was only enhanced when a look inside their cold room revealed (aside from beer, hops and groceries) Cascade Apricot, Sierra Nevada 30th Anniversary and Block 15 Pappy’s dark amongst others. This is the beer fridge of a serious beer geek.
After Driftwood I would have liked to head over to Swan’s, but the weather conspired against me so a mad dash to the ferries was in order. Good thing, too, because otherwise I wouldn’t have had the chance to sit in a line for 6 hours and then spend the night in Sidney. But hey, at least it was cold and rainy.