Today Vancouver Island Brewing announced that they were being sold. Not to AB-InBev or Molson, nope, but to Bob MacDonald, who also owns Muskoka Brewing. Bet you didn’t see that one coming, did you?
Slipped in near the bottom of this Press Release was also the announcement that Tim Barnes, until today VP of Sales and Marketing at Central City, will be taking over as President of VIB.
I think this has the potential to be a very positive move for VIB. Read on for why.
As an islander, I know how fiercely loyal to Island-based brands us backwards, woods-dwelling, cousin-marrying, yokels can be. Heck, Lucky Lager still sells by the gallon-lot on the island because people still think it’s produced there. We all know it tastes like slightly-worse Molson, but it’s an island beer (in reality, it was bought by Labatt and production moved to the mainland in 1982—they have contemplated axing it several times, but keep it around because islanders have been reluctant to switch to Labatt other properties).
For islanders demanding something slightly better than Lucky, there was always Vancouver Island Brewing. And boy howdy did we drink it. 12 packs of Piper’s were a staple growing up, and still are the main tenant of any island fridge.
However, that’s slowly been changing. Despite an initial reluctance to accept craft brewing north of Victoria, lonely Tofino Brewing has in recent years been joined by a sudden rash of small scale craft breweries. In particular, the area around Courtenay has seen a huge boom in decent beer, but Nanaimo and Duncan have also seen openings.
This trend indicates islanders are slowly, reluctantly, releasing their iron grip on VIB’s brews in favour of tastier, upscale products that also happen to be produced on the the island. VIB’s sales have suffered hugely in consequence: down 11% year-over-year from 2014 to 2015 (latest numbers available from the LDB).
Tim Barnes is a marketing and sales guy first, and a beer enthusiast second. Even so, he’s very familiar with how the market reacts to a superior product: he witnessed Central City’s explosive growth firsthand, and that cannot but had an impact on how he views beer markets.
The number one job in front of the new ownership and new management at VIB will be to reverse that downwards trend in sales, and given their market I think that can only spell good things for the future of Vancouver Island Brewing.
Time will tell, though.
A long time ago, I decided to start a blog to talk about beer in BC. My goal was to keep track of local breweries and imports, then provide recommendations and rants to the public and/or anyone who engaged me in conversation for longer than 30 seconds.
It became very evident that this task would either not be possible, or lead to a liver transplant by the age of 35. So, I focused. Instead of all good beer in BC, I decided to limit my watchful commentary to just beer brewed in BC.
Okay, fine, that was too hard. Lower Mainland? Crap. Metro Van? Shit. How about Vancouver? Phew.
And that’s where we stand. The brewery scene has exploded to the point that I need to keep my judgemental eyes focused North of the Fraser and West of Boundary. I should be happy that there are over 1,000 distinct craft beers brewed in BC but, alas, happy ain’t my thang. Instead I’m mostly bitter that I can’t actually try it all anymore.
So, let’s talk about breweries with a Vancouver physical address, and see if I can’t insult someone with the same Mayor as me. Enjoy it while you can, because next year I’ll be focusing on fermentoriums under the same MLA.
Even with such a tight focus as this, I can’t help but think “Holy crap has this ever changed since I was at UBC.” There are currently TWENTY SIX breweries in Vancouver proper. Fully 20 of these have only opened in the past few years, and there are at last five more being built. What a time to be a beer drinker!
Before we get going, though, let’s narrow our focus even more. Yes, there are 26 Brewery Licenses on record with the LCLB who list Vancouver as their physical production location. However, some of these are breweries without tasting rooms, or are virtual breweries, and still others are Molson.
So I’ll take that list of 26, and remove not just the obvious, but also Brewpubs, since this article is on Tasting Rooms, not Brewpubs. When we’re done whittling away, we wind up with a much more manageable task: 16 breweries. Even some of these are not traditional brewery tasting rooms. Some have restaurant licenses (Big Rock and Red Truck) allowing broader alcohol and food service. Some have no official tasting room at all, just a blonde brewmaster giving you samples while repeatedly asking you if you’re the cops (Storm). Still, 16 is a fine number.
Next up is how am I evaluating them? I like to focus on the beer, but a tasting room is a whole package experience, not just the product in your glass. To reflect this, I will give each brewery 4 to 12 points. 1-3 points for each of:
Beer: This is not just how good the beer is, but also the variety available. A tasting room with only one excellent beer available is just not as great as one with 8 good ales. While beer is just one of four things being evaluated, it is the most important and will serve as the tie breaker.
Ambience: Is the tasting room an enjoyable place? Is it special in some way, or just yet another wood-heavy square room?
Food: Everything from the ubiquitous cheese sticks and pepperoni, through a good food truck program, up to a whole kitchen. Also, are there drinks options for the non-beer guzzler in your group?
Brewery Feel: Part of a brewery tasting room is feeling like you’re visiting a brewery. Is the brewery on display? Has Graham With snuck up behind you to say hi? Or could you be in just any pub?
When you loosen the blinders enough to talk about more than just beer, some interesting results happen. Enough prelude and suspense, though, already. Let’s DO THIS THING.
16th Place: Dogwood – 8284 Sherbrooke St – @DogwoodBrew
4 pts – Beer: 1 – Ambience: 1 – Food: 1 – Brewery Feel: 1
Location. Location. Location. It’s the three most important rules in real estate, and it’s three key misses for Dogwood Brewing. Their location at the very bottom of Knight Street makes their lease cheap but also makes going there a royal PITA. Throw in a fairly normal tasting room, limited beer selection of variable quality, non-existent food program, and really the only reason to stop by is if you already live in the area.
14th Place (tie): Bomber – 1488 Adanac St – @BomberBrewing
6 pts – Beer: 1 – Ambience: 2 – Food: 1 – Brewery Feel: 2
Bomber started off okay and has been getting… okay-er, I guess? Their ESB is decent, and usually one or two of the balance are not bad at all, but by and large this is the type of beer meant to be consumed 18-at-a-time, out of a cooler full of ice during a softball game, and not by folks seriously into good beer. The cosy, warm tasting room and viewing portal onto the brewery makes a visit worthwhile, though.
14th Place (tie): Off the Rail – 1351 Adanac St – @OffTheRailBeer
6 pts – Beer: 1 – Ambience: 2 – Food: 1 – Brewery Feel: 2
Despite being just down the street from the uninspired Bomber, Off the Rail still manages to be the worst brewery in the area. If you’re a glutton for punishment, there are usually one or or two okay beers hiding in the long IPA-heavy off-flavours clinic what passes for a draught lineup, so keep looking. Once you find that okay beer, though, a pleasant and sunny elevated outlook over the Adanac bike path awaits you.
12th Place (tie): Powell Street – 1357 Powell St – @PowellBeer
6 pts – Beer: 2 – Ambience: 1 – Food: 1 – Brewery Feel: 2
It took a bit to work out the kinks of their new giant location, but PSCB’s finally hitting their stride. The regular lineup is a well brewed, well reviewed list of hop-heavy styles. As well, you can usually count on something sour and/or special to sneak into the line-up. The great beer, though, is held back by a bog standard wood-heavy tasting room, complete with a few jars of pepperoni on the counter.
12th Place (tie): Doan’s – 1830 Powell St – @DoansCBC
6 pts – Beer: 2 – Ambience: 2 – Food: 1 – Brewery Feel: 1
Occupying the tiny space that gave birth to Powell Street, Doan’s has upgraded Powell’s old minuscule tasting room to be positively tiny. Still, the cramped quarters impart an intimate feel that pairs well with the well brewed Rye-heavy beers on tap, and the old arcade machine. Too bad all the interesting brewing-action is locked away behind closed doors.
11th Place: Parallel 49 – 1950 Triumph St – @Parallel49Beer
7 pts – Beer: 2 – Ambience: 1 – Food: 2 – Brewery Feel: 2
P49’s tasting room is arguably the oldest craft tasting room in the city, and the age is reflected in the style. It feels and looks like a bar, and not even a particularly good one at that. Belying that impression, though, is a broad and ever-changing array of quality-brewed beers, and sporadic appearances by a food truck to offset that thirst. The sole indication that you’re in an actual brewery is the brewery-cam, but regularly scheduled tours do provide an alternate way to see what’s going on in back.
10th Place: Callister – 1338 Franklin St – @CallisterBeer
7 pts – Beer: 3 – Ambience: 1 – Food: 1 – Brewery Feel: 2
Callister is technically four breweries in one. While it sounds a bit scattered, the result is that there is always a wide variety of beer available over a incredibly diverse set of styles. Everything from the low-ABV cask conditioned pub sippers of Real Cask through the hop bombs of Machine, and all stops in between. Unfortunately, the impressive delivery ends with the full-sized pint glass. The room is plain, and food/not-beer options are almost non-existent.
9th Place: Big Rock – 310 W 4th Ave – @BigRockUrbanYVR
8 pts – Beer: 1 – Ambience: 2 – Food: 3 – Brewery Feel: 2
With almost-macro money comes almost-fancy finishings. Big Rock cheated the system by opening an attached restaurant instead of a tasting lounge but somehow elected to not also open a patio. Decent food and beverage options are rounded out by live music, and a out-of-the-way view of their brewhouse. Shame about the beer, though.
8th Place: Storm – 310 Commercial Drive – @StormBrewingVan
8 pts – Beer: 2 – Ambience: 2 – Food: 1 – Brewery Feel: 3
Storm doesn’t technically have a tasting room, but that doesn’t mean you can’t taste their beer… in a room. Okay, that room is also filled with brewing equipment, and the floor is frequently wet, but it still is a room. Storm’s regular offerings are offset by a constant rotation of Brain Storms, which can vary wildly in quality but are never boring. Food? Sure hope you brought some. The brewery feel is pegged here as you are literally standing on the floor of an operational brewery. Please don’t touch that knob.
7th Place: Granville Island – 1441 Cartwright St – @GranvilleBeer
9 Pts – Beer: 1 – Ambience: 2 – Food: 3 – Brewery Feel: 3
If you like elbowing tourists out of the way to try five terrible beers, then this is the place for you! Their one-offs are occasionally okay, but for whatever reason GIB keeps those to one tap at a time. However, there is a full kitchen in the back, and the entirety of the 10hl brewery is available for your inspection through the glass walls.
6th Place: Strange Fellows – 1345 Clark Dr – @Strange_Fellows
9 Pts – Beer: 3 – Ambience: 2 – Food: 1 – Brewery Feel: 3
A strong standard lineup is offset by a few interesting seasonals on the tap-board, but the real highlight of Strange Fellows’ new and expansive tasting room is the giant pile of beer-filled barrels that loom over the long tables. The fact that local art adorns the walls of an attached gallery doesn’t hurt, but the lack of any serious food offerings or a regular food truck does.
5th Place: Postmark – 55 Dunlevy Ave – @PostmarkBrewing
10 Pts – Beer: 1 – Ambience: 3 – Food: 3 – Brewery Feel: 3
The amazing space, good food, and wide array of alternate beverages belies the boring beer on tap. Postmark was built to service an imaginary flavour niche between the macro-drinking public and craft beer aficionados, so that insipid ale in your hand is insipid on purpose. However, when you consider everything BUT the beer, it’s a pretty swell place to hang out. A full kitchen serving excellent food, dozens of local wines on tap and even the odd cider on tap make for a happy group of people.
4th Place: Red Truck – 295 E 1st Ave – @RedTruckBeer
10 Pts – Beer: 2 – Ambience: 3 – Food: 3 – Brewery Feel: 2
Like Big Rock, Red Truck is straight up cheating. They don’t have a tasting room, but rather went and got themselves a full blown food-primary license. That little piece of paper puts much higher requirements on the establishment but let’s them have a patio. A freaking PATIO. The beer is nothing special, but even the most jaded beer geek will find something to not complain too loudly about while enjoying the rays, or listening to the sounds of their summer concert series.
3rd Place: 33 Acres – 15 W 8th Ave – @33Acres
10 Pts – Beer: 3 – Ambience: 3 – Food: 3 – Brewery Feel: 1
A lot of people don’t realize this, but keeping things clean is Rule Number One of brewing. 33 Acres’ stark white tasting room is a testimony to that rule. An expansive, diverse list of very-competently brewed beers is offset by an espresso bar, selection of baked goods, and a full blown kitchen serving a rotating list of tasty treats. Unfortunately, the brewery that makes all the magic is hidden behind two doors with small windows.
2nd Place: Main Street – 261 E 7th Ave – @MainStreetBeer
11 Pts – Beer: 2 – Ambience: 3 – Food: 3 – Brewery Feel: 3
What to do with a 100 year-old garage? Why, you clearly need to build a brewery in it, of course! Main Street is that brewery. Soaring ceilings, in-door trees, wooden beams, and a direct view over the legal-minimum-height 4 foot wall onto the brewing floor give you a sense of being there. A full kitchen compliments the beer with an array of hunger-neutralizing (if not amazing) food options.
1st Place: Brassneck – 2148 Main St – @BrassneckBrew
11 Pts – Beer: 3 – Ambience: 3 – Food: 2 – Brewery Feel: 3
The idea behind Brassneck’s tasting room is to deliver an experience in the heart of a brewery. The wooden walls that frame the open bench seating only go 1/2 way to the ceiling, and are filled with tiny cracks to give you an impression of the activity just on the other side. As well, the position of the tasting room between the brewhouse and the cellar occasionally requires rubber boot wearing brewers to cart kegs directly through the room. The long, varied list of top-notch brews only makes things better, and regularly scheduled food carts provide something to mop up all that delicious alcohol in your stomach.
It’s been a while since I blogged about my cellar. Despite plenty of historical precedent this was not actually due to my extreme laziness. Rather, the schedule villain in this scenario was contractor availability and racking orders.
When planning out your cozy booze cave, it’s important to be very certain about how much room you have to build shelves and bottle racks. So much so that instead of taking a rough estimate of the finished interior space I had to work with, I elected to wait until I had the real thing to measure. When your wiggle room is less than half an inch, you bloody well want to be sure that your measurements are accurate.
So you do math, lots of math. It turns out that this step is pretty common when planning out a cellar, so all the shelving units come with reasonably accurate dimensions, which allows you to model out how awkward it’ll be to take that third imperial stout of the evening off the shelf. For reference, I elected to go with VK Redwood racking from WineCellarDepot.com.
In addition to lots of measurements, most popular wine racking systems are available in the Google SketchUp 3D model warehouse. That means I could model this stuff in 3D to see how it looks. Sure, it took me a few hours and was somewhat niggly, but it allowed me to procure that all-important spousal approval prior to commencing construction.
In additional to the dedicated wine (and corked beer) racks, I also went out and ordered a whole bunch of Ikea Ivar modular shelving. These will be home to my upright beer bottles, pickles, and earthquake supplies (because hey, if that 9.0 strikes, what better place to camp out than a small, cramped room in my garage with a floor absolutely covered in broken bottles and stale beer?). These things are cheap and come in a variety of sizes/configurations. Pro tip: check to make sure each piece has the prerequisite pins before buying or, since they give out the pins for free in the customer service area and the pins are a bitch to pry out of the packaging, just grab a handful or two on your way out while you’re eating those terrible-yet-strangely-compelling 75 cent hot dogs.
The beer half of the cellar had a bit more wiggle room, and cost a tiny fraction of the price, so I didn’t bother modelling it out as carefully as the wine half. This was a decision that in no way came back to haunt me later, when I discovered that the Ivar legs were two inches too tall for the ceiling moulding I had installed, or that one of the Ivar legs perfectly covered up an electrical outlet. No siree, that didn’t suck at all.
So, uh, yeah, measure everything, you fools. Access to electrical is critically important, as your cellar is cool and dark to start with, and only gets more so as you add in bottle after bottle of delicious barley sauce.
Last pro tip: check the weight limits of your Ikea Ivar shelving and compare that to your beer which, shocker, is surprisingly heavy. No, I didn’t suffer a massive calamity, but let’s just say that those corner shelves will need a bit of reinforcing prior to being completely filled up with wobbly pops.
That’s about it, folks. The cellar is now up and running: my cheap space heater is heating, and the cooling unit eagerly awaits its chance to take part come spring. As a parting gift, here is a panoramic shot of my lovely, with most of the Ikea shelves installed.