Not too long ago in BC (as recently as 10 years), the only way a bona fide barley-phile could get their fix on was to wander into a local brewpub and have some delicious, locally made, old-world style ale. Actual craft breweries were still few and far between (eg Storm or R&B), and most of their product was not bottled.
Sure, you could search out the good samaritan pub-owners that put those products on tap, but those places were also not great in number, and not guaranteed to have any actual beer because of the production issues inherent in small breweries. Even if they did have something on offer, it would very likely only be a single tap squeezed in between different sub-brands of Molson.
But the brewpubs were guaranteed to have the goods, and usually more than one kind, if only because it was the only beer they could sell. Thus the BC Brewpub became a sort of quasi-destination resort for what passed for the local craft beererati in those days.
We’d rent a van, book a ferry, and head off to have three meals at Spinnakers without getting up because, fuck me, they have six kinds of craft beer on tap. And you know what? They’re all pretty freaking good. Then you’d buy a few cases of off-sales (if they had any), pack up, and head home, sad for the fact that your next visit would be many months away at best.
The recent revolution in bottled brewpub beer changed all that, and I honestly haven’t pulled a shift at a brewpub in at least five years. You see, it wasn’t just the fact that I could get Spinnakers at home that stopped me from getting on the ferry. It was also the fact that I could get Driftwood in bottles, and Driftwood is better than Spinnakers.
When you remove the ambiance and food, all that’s left to stand is the beer by itself, and with that realization came an unpleasant fact that no one really wanted to talk about: traditional brewpub ale is boring. Yes, it’s brewed from the best ingredients by people who know what they’re doing, but c’mon, a straight Nut Brown? English IPA? Pale Ale? Pilsner? What is this, 2005?
It’s not the beer; it’s us. BC’s craft beer market has matured rapidly in the past five years, and while a fantastic traditionally brewed English-style pub ale will always have it’s place in my brew lineup, it’s just not enough to seriously compete in the market any more.
That brings us to the present, and to Steamworks’ recent announcement that they’re going to market in bottles. Despite being invited, I was unable to make the fancy launch party, but I was able to taste some of the product myself. You know what? It’s fine. All that worry about it not being brewed by Steamworks’, but instead under contract up the valley using excess capacity at Dead Frog came to naught. The beer is just fine.
But the beer is also boring. It’s a Pilsner and a Pale Ale in six packs, and a Wheat, Frambozen and Pumpkin in bombers. I might buy the Pumpkin and maybe even the Frambozen, but the others are going to compete in a fairly crowded market, and honestly they’re far too pedestrian versions of those styles to stand out from the crowd enough to get worked up over.
So where does that leave us? Well, by my count we now have no less than seven brewpubs cramming their amber gold into bottles or cans in this province. Some have learnt their lesson while others just keep on keeping on. Here are my thoughts on each. I’ll be comparing them to Spinnakers a lot because, hey, they were first.
Steamworks; Bronze Seal of Approval
Despite the “fineness” of the Pilsner and Pale Ale, the seasonals hold some promise. Great Pumpkin has always been one of the better BC pumpkin ales, and the Steamworks seasonal stouts are probably the best thing they make. Bottle those, guys, and I’ll buy them by the caselot.
Spinnakers; Bronze Seal of Approval
Spinnakers will always have a soft spot in my heart because of that overly long story above. While their mainline ales are still the same as when I first walked into the pub all those many years ago, they’re trying a few (slightly) new things and yeah, I’ll buy em.
So you’re just like Spinnakers but without the slight innovation? Aside from the occasional Coconut Porter at the Alibi, I just plain never buy this stuff if there’s any alternative.
Howe Sound; Silver Seal of Approval
Much like Spinnakers, HS’s main line of ales hasn’t really changed, and is quite boring. It’s made somewhat more tolerable by being better than Spinnakers, though. Add to that a fantastic seasonal release program that is constantly trying to innovate (usually through making imperials), and I find myself regularly going home with those wicked flip-tops.
Not only is it mediocre, it’s incredibly hard to find. If you stumble into an LRS that, for some reason, has this on the shelf, it’s a good sign that you’re in Victoria. That means the bottle right next to this one is almost certainly much, much better.
Moon Under Water; Bronze Seal of Approval
MUW has decided to focus on low ABV session ales. While this is absolutely an old-world style, it’s not boring because no one else does it. I’ve long gone on record saying that this is a far too ignored field, and I mean it. Only bottling a few varieties and being hard to find keeps my purchases down, though. As well, a recent ownership change has MUW’s future uncertain.
Central City; Silver Seal of Approval
You want to know why BC has lots of good beer? Blame Gary Lohin. Gary decided to make proper PNW-style (or Cascadian style, if you will) ales, and to can them all. CC IPA is still considered by many to be the best beer in BC (not by me… cough… Tofino… cough), and their Pale Ale is a great adaptation of a fairly boring style. Throw into that mix seasonal releases in bomber form (including the very rare Thor’s Hammer), and man oh man we’re cooking with gas.