Arriving from England to study at the University of Victoria in 1991, I found a local beer scene dominated by the kind of insipid factory brews that could turn a hardened lush into an instant teetotaller. Not that I was a lush. Oh, no. But I certainly enjoyed a piquant ale or three. Just not, apparently, in my new taste-deficient student town.
Fast-forward to now and everything has changed. Victoria has become a craft-beer capital, crammed with innovative microbreweries and tasty tap houses. Across Vancouver Island and on the nearby Gulf Islands, in fact, little breweries have popped up to serve those locals (and thirsty visitors) who have permanently turned their backs on generic suds.
Victoria-based brewer Sean Hoyne has been at the centre of this regional craft-beer reformation. Honing his beer-making skills over two decades at such stalwart city brewpubs as Swans and Canoe, he took the plunge and opened Hoyne Brewing in 2011. Offering growler refills and intriguing seasonals, his top sellers include Dark Matter, a chocolate-hued porteresque ale.
"I wanted my own brewery for 20 years, but we ended up starting a family instead," says Hoyne, taking a rare break between mashing and wort-cooling duties. The enforced delay may have been fortuitous, as it's taken a few years for enough locals to move beyond Blue and Canadian. "There's such a love of craft beer now and so many beer geeks around – you couldn't be in this business at a better time."
And the biggest geeks of the bunch? The brewers themselves. Ask the region's beer makers about their alchemical potions and they're giddier than a happy drunk at an open bar. "We're way more interested in making great beer than producing clever marketing campaigns," says Jason Meyer, co-owner of Victoria's Driftwood Brewery. "We sell the steak, not the sizzle," he adds.
For Driftwood – a runaway success story with taps throughout B.C. – that means a Belgian-style roster including the highly quaffable Farmhand Saison and the sharp-but-balanced Fat Tug, regarded by many as the province's best IPA. But Meyer isn't resting on his hops. He has concocted a challenging sour beer program that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. These tart tipples are the definition of acquired taste.
"I tell people sours are a bridge between wine and beer – Napoleon called them the Champagne of the north," he says, adding that Driftwood's upcoming five-year anniversary will be marked with a special sour and the brewery is also mulling a craft-distilling sideline. The key to growth, though, will always be access. "The most important change in B.C. was that bars began embracing craft beer. Give people the opportunity to taste it and they never go back."
But while larger microbreweries can ship around the province to eager beer nuts, smaller producers in farther-flung communities need a laser-like focus on the locals: They're the ones who'll turn up at the brewery door for takeout and lobby area restaurants to carry their favourite ales.
This brew-it-and-they-will-come approach underpins diminutive producers such as Tofino Brewing. Founded on Vancouver Island's Pacific-whipped west coast in 2011, the owners knew they would have to aim beyond the summer tourist trade. Luckily, according to head brewer Dave Woodward, Tofitians were thirsty long before the first batch of Tuff Session Ale was ready.
"There was a demand for a brewery here for years," says Woodward. "From the start, we've developed a rapport with the locals to make the kind of beers they want – it keeps us going through the winter when they turn up with their empty growlers."
Tucked into an inauspicious light-industrial unit, the brewery makes three main beers, but is planning an increasing number of small-batch seasonals. "We did a spruce ale this year that was very popular. And I like the idea of using more local ingredients like seaweed," Woodward says.
There's a similar approach at even tinier Salt Spring Island Ales, a 35-minute ferry hop from Vancouver Island. Operating out of a barn-like woodland brewery that serves a community of several thousand, co-owner Becky Julseth says that islanders have been very supportive. "We try to fit in with the Salt Spring ethos. We use as many local ingredients as we can, including planting our own all-organic GMO-free hops."
Opening a tasting room for the first time this year, the cottage producer also introduced handsome glass growlers for takeouts. The first batch sold out almost immediately.
English ales and session beers dominate, with the subtle Heather Ale a flagship and the Dry Porter recently emerging as an island favourite. "Because we're small, we can experiment a bit more – we've already done a couple of really interesting gruit ales," says Julseth, who also mentions plans to supply bars in Vancouver, the region's biggest craft-beer market.
Managing expansion is ever on the radar of producers here, says Harley Smith, brewmaster at Longwood Brewery in Nanaimo, Vancouver Island's second city. After opening a swanky, gable-roofed brewpub in 2000, Longwood didn't launch its offsite brewery – specializing in tall-can versions of its bestselling beers – until this year.
"We're really into steady growth. We're not trying to go too far out on a limb with crazy beers. But at the same time, we don't want to be too easy on the palate," says Smith, adding that the most popular beer on a roster including IPAs and a rich imperial stout is his Berried Alive raspberry ale.
"We've discovered that drinkers are more experimental than ever and are willing to try new flavours. When we started, you couldn't sell wit beer to anyone. Now people ask for it as soon as the sun comes out."
It's this increasingly adventurous palate that veteran Victoria brewer Matt Phillips, founder of Phillips Brewing, thinks is the main reason for the region's craft-beer golden age.
"When I started in the mid-1990s, it was a crazy boom time and everyone wanted to open a brewery. But there just weren't enough consumers to sustain the market and several closed, which meant that I was able to buy a bunch of equipment cheaply and get started," he says. His most popular beers, he goes on, include crisp Blue Buck Ale, the aptly named Amnesiac Double IPA and many seasonals.
"Because I'm a brewer without any common sense, we're always excited about new beers – sometimes we do several a month," says Phillips, who believes that the enthusiasm of local brewers is now being matched sip-for-sip by drinkers, which can only fuel the scene to even tastier heights.
"It's exciting to see more diverse breweries emerging. In the coming years, I think we'll see more of a commitment to local hops and other ingredients grown here. But really, it's going to be driven more and more by drinkers pushing us all the time for something new."
This sentiment is echoed by Sean Hoyne, who adds that the region's beer makers all know each other and often hang out. "There's friendly competition," he says. "But there's also a strong feeling that we're really lucky to be around at this time and that we're all in this together.
"I think, eventually, we'll get to where Portland and Seattle are, with a much larger portion of local sales coming from craft beer," he adds. And whatever happens to the Vancouver Island scene, he's convinced Victoria will be leading the way. "We're already the best beer city in Canada. And there's a lot more still to come."