FEATURE // Island Time

British Columbia’s Vancouver Island combines rich history, sprawling coastal landscapes, and some of the tastiest craft beer in Canada

Story by Joe Wiebe

If you think Vancouver, British Columbia is on Vancouver Island, you’re not the first to think so, and you won’t be the last. Vancouver is actually on the mainland, and even though it is B.C.’s largest city by far, with 2.3 million residents in its metropolitan reach, the provincial capital is actually Victoria, one-sixth Vancouver’s size and located down on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, well below the 49th parallel north that marks the Canada/Washington State border.

The 43rd largest island in the world, Vancouver Island is bigger than many countries. It stretches 290 miles (about one-third of the length of the entire province) and is 50 miles across at its widest point. Rugged and rocky, it is carpeted with temperate rainforests (although most of them have been logged). The northern half is dotted with mountains, including some formidably rugged, snow-covered peaks. Most of its 750,000 residents live in the bottom third of the island.

Brewing history on Vancouver Island dates back to 1858, the same year B.C. became a province, when William Steinberger opened Victoria Brewing on the shores of Swan Lake, just north of Victoria. Originally, the German immigrant had come to North America in search of gold but changed his mind when he realized the burgeoning new capital of B.C. had no breweries of its own. Within a few years, several others followed this prospector-turned-brewer’s lead.

Over the past 30 years, modern-day craft breweries have blossomed all over the island. As Driftwood Brewery’s self-described “Wizard of Wort,” Jason Meyer, puts it, “There is a broader culture here defined by a fierce desire among Islanders to support one another. The large number of tourists that visit here, particularly Victoria, are looking for local beers, and many bring a fairly sophisticated knowledge of craft beer in from the U.S. This means local pubs and eateries tend to focus on serving local brews, and those beers have to be up to muster.”

A Vancouver Island brewery tour offers the best of all possible worlds: the urban and sophisticated vibe in Victoria; the artisanal, artistic community of the Cowichan Valley; the hippie-to-yuppie spectrum on Salt Spring Island; Nanaimo’s working-class history, and Tofino’s laid-back surfer style. One thing is consistent throughout the island, though, there’s great beer every step of the way.

Victoria’s Ale Trail

Thirty years ago, when architect Paul Hadfield and two of his friends decided to build a brewpub in Victoria, it was against the law in Canada. At that time, beer could not be brewed, sold, and consumed in the same building. They went ahead with their plans anyway, lobbying the government at the same time, and were ready to open Spinnakers just two months after the laws were finally changed in the spring of 1984.

Located on the rocky shore of the picturesque Inner Harbour, Spinnakers has only improved with age. It has expanded into a gastro brewpub with a nine-room guesthouse and a gourmet restaurant on the main floor to go along with the traditional pub upstairs. The chefs bottle their own malt vinegar and mineral water from an aquifer below the building, make their own chocolate truffles by hand, and bake artisanal breads and desserts on-site.

Spinnakers is known for its exceptional cask-conditioned ales, such as Doc Hadfield’s Pale Ale and Mitchell’s ESB. But the beer selection is not limited to traditional English-style ales. Spinnaker brewers are also well aware of craft beer giants to the south, and they’ve experimented with beers like Lion’s Head Cascadia Dark Ale, Northwest Ale (competing with many West Coast IPAs at 6.2 percent ABV and 85 IBUs), and Über Blonde, a potent and refreshing Belgian blonde ale coming in at 8.2 percent ABV.

Also in 1984, Vancouver Island Brewery opened in Victoria, and since then, several other breweries have arrived on the scene. With five craft breweries and four brewpubs all located in the downtown area, Victoria is arguably B.C.’s craft beer capital. By comparison, the much larger city of Vancouver has just six brewpubs and five craft breweries—and half of those are located in suburban areas, not in the heart of the city.

Located in the largely British-influenced downtown area of Victoria, Swans Brewpub and Hotel opened in 1989 in a restored building that was once a farm supply warehouse. The gorgeous restoration of this historic building shows off the lofted ceiling supported by chunky wood pillars and much of the original brickwork. Original owner Michael Williams emigrated from England and became a real estate developer and art collector. Much of his extensive collection resides in the pub and hotel rooms upstairs, including some fine examples of West Coast native art.

The brewpub features English-style ales drawn by draft engines from a basement cellar, including Appleton Brown Ale, Buckerfield’s Bitter, and Pandora Pale Ale. But, like Spinnakers, Swans doesn’t shy away from West Coast hops—the Extra IPA is one of the tastiest IPAs in B.C. The original brewers, brothers Sean and Paul Hoyne, have since opened three other craft brewing operations: the Canoe Brewpub (Sean), Lighthouse Brewing Company (Paul), and Hoyne Brewing Company, which Sean opened in early 2012.

A block away from Swans down the hill beside the waters of the Gorge Inlet, the Canoe Brewpub also showcases another great restoration: the heritage City Lights building, built in 1894 to house the coal-fired electric generators that powered Victoria’s original streetlights. The six-million dollar renovation features the original bricks and fir beams and make this one of the best rooms in B.C. to drink a beer. The Canoe’s west-facing waterfront patio, next to the brewpub’s marina, is ideal for summer sunsets.

Not far away in what is otherwise a mostly industrial neighborhood, you can find Victoria’s newest brewpub, Moon Under Water. The unusual name comes from a famous George Orwell essay describing his ideal English pub, so it’s no surprise that British influence is strong here, too. In fact, most of the beers fall in the 4 percent ABV range, with the Blue Moon Bitter even lower at 3.8 percent. Moon Under Water serves true 20-ounce pints—unusual in B.C.—and roast beef dinner with Yorkshire pudding on Sunday evenings.

Victoria also boasts one of B.C.’s original breweries sans pub, Vancouver Island Brewery, along with three more operations that have started within the past 15 years. Lighthouse Brewing Company opened in 1998, followed soon after by Phillips Brewing Company in 2001. Matt Phillips started the operation on a whim and a prayer, funding his enterprise with credit cards and living in the brewery for the first two years. His perseverance paid off when it was named Brewery of the Year at the 2006 B.C. Beer Awards, and now it’s Vancouver Island’s most popular craft brewery. Phillips’ product line includes a barley wine, barrel-aged brews, various Belgian styles, an authentic sarsaparilla, and other beers brewed with unusual ingredients including maple syrup and hazelnuts.

Recent upstart Driftwood Brewery has probably supplanted Phillips in terms of quality if not quantity: Driftwood’s potent Fat Tug IPA was named Best IPA in the 2011 Northwest Brewing News Readers’ Choice Awards. Their annual fresh-hopped masterpiece, Sartori Harvest IPA, which is only available for a few weeks each fall, is definitely the most highly anticipated seasonal release in the province. Each of Driftwood’s regular series is true to style, including the peppery Farmhand Ale, White Bark Wit, and Blackstone Porter. While Phillips Brewing and the Vancouver Island Brewery both have tasting rooms and shops where you can purchase bottles or growlers, you’ll have to look for Driftwood, Lighthouse, and Hoyne Brewing’s releases in liquor stores or on tap at local pubs and restaurants.

With so many great options, you may want to start and finish your Vancouver Island brewery tour in Victoria, staying at Spinnakers on one leg and Swans the next.

If you make it out of Victoria, the next stop on the Vancouver Island beer tour is Duncan, a small city of about 5,000 in the Cowichan Valley, an hour up-island of Victoria and halfway to Nanaimo, which makes it the perfect place to stop for lunch. Craig Street Brew Pub, founded in 2006, is the area’s first and only brewpub. They offer pale ale, lager, porter and Irish ale on tap, along with diverse specialty brews like märzen, bock, hibiscus ale, and rye ale. Duncan is famous for its many totem poles, so, after lunch, be sure to join one of the free hourly guided totem tours during the summer to learn about the local First Nations’ heritage and culture.
The Cowichan Valley is known for its small-scale farms, potters, and artisans. Agri-tourism is big business here: many farms have guesthouses or farmhouse dinners featuring locally grown and raised food. The Mediterranean climate also suits vineyards, so there are several wineries in the area, as well as Merridale Ciderworks in Cobble Hill, located just south of Duncan.

The region also has a variety of options for overnight visits. A working fishing village with a charming historic waterfront, Cowichan Bay offers ample opportunity to wander through a jumble of shops, restaurants, galleries, ocean sports outfitters, and cafés, including a large marina behind the main strip of businesses. Most mornings you can expect to see dozens of sea lions lounging the outer docks.

About an hour north of Duncan is Nanaimo, the Island’s second largest city after Victoria and home to a whopping 80,000 residents. The working class, waterfront city feels like it was carved out of the forest, and outdoor activities such as hiking, camping, and mountain biking are easily accessible from town.

Nanaimo’s craft beer history began very recently when, in 1999, Longwood Brew Pub opened in the north end of the city. Publican Barry Ladell, head brewer at Spinnakers in the ’90s, was asked to design Longwood. He invested as a partner and never looked back. He is justifiably proud of his pub—it is a welcoming, comfortable place with big, warm fireplaces, comfort food, and a solid beer menu. Similar to Victoria’s brewpubs, Longwood’s draft selections are mainly English in style. When asked if they serve any hoppier beers, Ladell replies with a wry smile, “I don’t like Homeland Security and I don’t like American IPA.”

Longwood offers a pitch-perfect ESB and a malty Scotch Ale, at cellar temperatures, as well as several other slightly colder options, including an authentic Czech Pilsner and German Dunkelweizen. Drop in on Friday afternoon around 3:30 p.m. when they feature specialty cask ales—you may even get a rare taste of hops.

Just north of Nanaimo in Parksville is the Black Goose Inn, another authentic British-style country pub inside an ornate old mansion in a park-like setting. Though you won’t find any B.C. craft beer, there are several hard-to-find English beers on tap, so it’s definitely worth a stop on the way to Tofino.

Tofino Time

Admittedly, Tofino isn’t that easy to get to—it’s the end of the road in terms of the remote west coast of Vancouver Island, a three-hour drive from Nanaimo—but beer lovers will be glad they made the effort. Flying to Tofino is the best option, if you can afford it, but if you don’t mind driving, the snaking highway offers a challenging, though scenic, ride. If driving, try to plan your trip in the off-season as to not get stuck behind slow moving RVs and camper trailers. There is also daily bus service from Victoria or Nanaimo to Tofino.

Tofino became a popular destination for hippies and surfers in the ’60s and ’70s, and was also the flashpoint in the Clayoquot Sound protest clashes between environmentalists and loggers in the early ’90s. While the pungent hippie vibe still hangs around, so does the smell of fish guts and fresh-cut timber—as well as roasted coffee and now, freshly brewed craft beer.
In the summer, the village swells with tourists, cottagers, and campers all seeking perhaps the best beaches in Canada. Long Beach, the centerpiece of Pacific Rim National Park, offers acres of soft white sand that extends hundreds of yards from the forest to the water’s edge. Take surfing lessons, go on a whale-watching tour, or spend an afternoon shopping and then indulge in one of the many eclectic restaurants in town.

One of Tofino’s best restaurants, Shelter, is a popular local spot that features a sophisticated menu in a converted old house that was originally constructed with posts and beams salvaged from WWII hangers at the Long Beach Airport. The focus is seafood, all locally sourced from the waters of Clayoquot Sound just a few hundred feet away. Along with a well-curated wine list, Shelter serves Tofino Brewing’s Tuff Session Ale along with whatever seasonal brew is available, and they also host several cask beer events.

One of the lastest additions to Tofino’s culinary scene, Tofino Brewing Company, began distributing beer last summer and the brewery tasting room has quickly become a popular spot for local residents to fill growlers. Brewery owners Dave McConnell, Chris Neufeld, and Bryan O’Malley, thought their first batch of 300 growlers would last them a month, but they sold out in their first week. An emergency order of 600 more sold out in another week. They quickly ordered another thousand.

“We had a growler for every man, woman, and child in Tofino,” quips brewer Dave Woodward, who the trio enticed to join them from Vancouver last spring. It’s true, considering the town’s year-round population is only about 1,650. Neufeld adds that they had to change their business plan, capping keg sales to allow for the unexpected growler sales, which now account for more than half of their business.

Every few minutes someone arrives by car, bike, or foot, empty growler in hand and a warm greeting at the ready. Everyone’s a regular, it seems; the brewery’s partners—locals themselves—know almost every customer by name. No one’s in a rush, but that’s not surprising considering the local philosophy of “living on Tofino time.”

A taste of the slow life and a myriad of small batch beers awaits on B.C.’s Vancouver Island. So sit back, take in the scenery, and relax into the groove of island time.