BC Craft Beer Odyssey
Last month, I mentioned that I was heading out on the road to visit several breweries and craft beer-related spots around BC in support of my upcoming guidebook, Craft Beer Revolution (to be published next spring by Douglas & McIntyre). I’ve been back for a few days now and my head is still spinning with great memories of the places I visited and the people I met along the way.
Generally speaking, I found even more evidence of the strong growth of the craft beer industry in BC than I was hoping for—many of the places I visited are smaller, somewhat isolated communities, so I wasn’t sure if the burgeoning success the industry is enjoying in Greater Vancouver, the central Okanagan and Vancouver Island would be reflected in those places as well. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. Whether it was Kamloops, Revelstoke, Fernie or Nelson, the story was the same: local consumers are embracing craft beer like never before and the breweries are doing all they could just to keep up with demand.
I drove 2,364 km in a clockwise loop from Vancouver up through Squamish to Lillooet, then across through Kamloops, Sorrento, Salmon Arm and Revelstoke, down to Invermere, Fairmont Hot Springs and Fernie, and then back east to Nelson, Robson and Osoyoos before returning home to Victoria. I spent eight days on the road, visited six breweries and three brewpubs, one winery, one hop farm, one craft beer-focused pub, went for one horseback ride (my first ever), relaxed in one hot spring, swam in one lake, and even took a ferry ride—the longest free ferry in North America, actually, which crosses Kootenay Lake just east of Nelson. And along the way, I enjoyed some great BC craft beer wherever I stopped.
Some of the most interesting places I visited weren’t even breweries. On my first day, after interviewing the Grandfather of craft beer in BC, John Mitchell, at Howe Sound Brewing in Squamish, I drove up through Whistler and Pemberton to rough and rugged Lillooet to check out Bitterbine, a certified organic hops farm, now in its third year of production. The operation is run by two Vancouverites who make the five-hour trek there and back every weekend and then take two weeks of holidays from their day jobs at harvest time. With one acre already fully producing more than a dozen different varieties, their hops have been used by Plan B Brewing in Smithers, Big Ridge brewpub in Surrey, Crannóg Ales in Sorrento, and Yaletown Brewing and Coal Harbour Brewing in Vancouver. Next year, they hope to expand to 4.5 acres, so many more of the province’s breweries should be able to use their excellent products.
I also visited the Fort Berens Estate Winery, the only winery in Lillooet, which is starting to get a lot of attention in wine circles. Founders Rolf de Bruin and Heleen Pannekoek moved to Lillooet from the Netherlands in 2008 to set up and operate the winery. I really enjoyed hearing Rolf’s story and I’m sure his enthusiasm and determination will pay off. Plus, their wine is delicious. Fort Berens and Bitterbine Hops have also teamed up to host a Beer & Wine Festival in Lillooet, which will take place on September 15. Last year, 800 people attended the event, mostly locals, so clearly there is a lot of interest in these trailblazing companies.
The other non-brewery stop I made was at the Lion’s Head Smoke & Brew Pub in Robson, just across the Columbia River from Castlegar, about 45 minutes west of Nelson. This craft beer-focused pub is managed by Troy Pyett and Carly Hadfield (daughter of Paul Hadfield, one of the founders and current Publican of Spinnakers Brewpub in Victoria). They bought the Lion’s Head in 2009 and changed its focus to craft beer immediately, even though Robson is in the heart of “Bud country.” They have 12 craft taps, which usually feature six Spinnakers brews along with rotating taps from “local” breweries such as Tree Brewing, Nelson Brewing, Fernie Brewing, Mt. Begbie Brewing, Crannóg Ales, and Cannery Brewing. It was great to get a “taste of home,” in my case a Spinnakers Northwest Ale, which has become my summertime go-to beer since my recent move to Victoria.
Carly and Troy say that they have a solid customer base now, but that’s a big difference from the day they opened in June 2009 when they sold out of their small stock of Budweiser bottles in the first hour without selling any of the craft beer they had on draft, and then faced a boycott from the local community who wanted them to drop the craft beer entirely. But they stuck to their cheeky motto: “Converting Bud drinkers and vegetarians since 2009,” and it has paid off. Ms. Hadfield told me that the sold-out cask festival they held in June, three years to the day they took possession of the pub, was her proudest moment.
Most definitely, the biggest surprise of my Craft Beer Odyssey was the Noble Pig Brewhouse in Kamloops. I wasn’t sure what to expect, having heard that Kamloops isn’t much of a craft beer town, but in my opinion, the Pig is easily one of the best brewpubs in BC, maybe the best.
The Noble Pig opened in 2010. Brewer David Beardsall had trained in Germany and the UK in the 1980s and then learned his trade at Okanagan Spring Brewery in the early ‘90s (back when it was arguably the best microbrewery in BC) before opening his own operation, Bear Brewing, in Kamloops in 1995. He eventually sold Bear to Alberta’s Big Rock Brewing in 2003, and then took his family on the road in an old bus for two-and-a-half years. He thought he’d retired from brewing, but then the old itch returned.
Beardsall says a brewpub is “the most rewarding way to make beer” compared to his experiences at big breweries. He loves the variety available to him—he brewed 26 different beers in the past year alone. When he first opened the place, Beardsall thought he’d have to sell his beer in kegs to other restaurants and pubs, but instead, he has had to work hard just to keep up with demand at the Pig. Based on how busy the pub was on the Sunday evening I was there, and the restaurant manager’s anecdotes about beer geeks lining up with growlers outside the door when special beers are scheduled to go on tap, Kamloops is clearly more interested in craft beer than anyone knew. Most of the beer I tasted was excellent, as was the meal I enjoyed sitting outside on the sun-dappled patio under a spreading canopy of hops—which they will pick to use in a special batch of beer in a few weeks’ time. If I lived in Kamloops, the Pig would be my second home for sure.
I was also pleasantly surprised with the quality of beer on tap at the Barley Station Brew Pub in Salmon Arm. Brewer Damon Robson is building on a solid foundation established by Don Moore, and the pub’s management clearly respects craft beer and wants it to be the focus. They can their beer for off-sales and also fill growlers. Given the pub’s prime location right on the Trans-Canada Highway through town, it definitely seems like the future is bright for craft beer in the Shuswap/North Okanagan region.
The same praise does not apply for the south end of the Okanagan, unfortunately—down in Osoyoos, the Ridge Brewpub offers a poor selection of beer. The bar fridges are all full of Corona, Bud and Kokanee, and the staff seems to know little about the products brewed in the tanks visible behind the bar—not that there’s much to differentiate them from the bland macrobrews most people are quaffing. If you find yourself thirsty for beer in Osoyoos, I suggest you look for some Tin Whistle, Cannery or Tree beer in the local liquor store.
In Invermere, I visited one of BC’s newest breweries, Arrowhead Brewing. It was so new, in fact, that they didn’t even have any beer to taste yet. Owners Shawn and Leanne Tegart said they are about a month away from having beer ready to put on the market. Based on their location and marketing already in place, I’m confident they will have no trouble finding customers.
Nearby, the Fairmont Hot Springs Resort is a great place to spend the night. The odourless hot pool is very relaxing. The resort also sold out its first annual East Kootenay Beer Festival in June, an event that is sure to return next summer.
Fernie Brewing is looking forward to celebrating its 10th anniversary in January with a special brew (no specifics yet other than “dark and heavy” and 10% ABV). The all-organic Nelson Brewing company, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, has some big plans ahead as well: a new series of specialty beers in 650-ml bombers (first a Triple Chocolate Stout called Bliss Tank, which will be available November 15, and then Full Nelson, an Imperial IPA, early next year). Next March, the brewery plans to launch a new brew called Hopgood Organic “NSB” (which will feature the unique Nelson Sauvin hop variety) in 473-ml cans and will also move its Blackheart Oatmeal Stout to 650-ml bottles.
All in all, my Craft Beer Odyssey was an incredible trip and I highly recommend you plan your own similar adventure—with 50 craft breweries, BC has plenty of destinations worth checking out on a beer-focused vacation.