When my wife and I checked into our Victoria, B.C. hotel a few weeks ago, the receptionist asked us where we were from and I told him Bellingham. “Well, welcome up to Canada!” he said.
“Thanks! But technically it’s down because Victoria is actually southwest of Bellingham,” I said.
After thinking about it for a second, he said, “Oh, I guess you’re right!” We both laughed, then he asked, “Are you here for business or pleasure?”
“Beer,” I replied. This threw him off again, but it gave us both another good laugh. (I think he thought I was joking, but I was being completely serious.)
My first impression of British Columbia’s provincial capital was a good one, and I came to discover a city full of friendly and welcoming people and lots of beautiful architecture. It’s also a city that features a walkable downtown, a dozen craft breweries and a number of great beer bars, plus it’s home to the Great Canadian Beer Festival in September and Victoria Beer Week in March.
Over three days, we visited a half dozen breweries and a few beer bars in the touristy city of Victoria.
High on my list was a stop at Spinnakers Gastro Brewpub, Canada’s first modern-day brewpub (circa 1984). Among the beers I tried, my favorites were the Dragonfly Rye Saison, which was effervescent, dry and snappy, and the easy-drinking Mitchell’s ESB, which paired well with the waterside setting in this British-infused city.
It wasn’t on my radar, but after walking byThe Churchill, it looked like a mighty fine beer bar. And it was, with great service, decent food and a healthy selection of 50 beers on tap, mainly from Canada and the U.S. (plus whiskey and wine). Later on in the evening, however, the narrow bar with limited seating became a bit too crowded and loud. But we still managed to try many local and regional beers, including a slew of IPAs. Some were good; some were just OK. Curiously, many Canadian IPAs seem to have a British slant (i.e., they tend to be malt forward with reserved, herbal hop profiles along with notes of British yeast esters). This is not necessarily a bad thing, I’m just not a huge fan of English-style IPAs. Most were well executed, they just seemed restrained in the hop department — including the ones that claimed to be “boldly hopped” / “aggressive” / “West Coast-style” IPAs.
The Drake Eatery
The relaxed vibe and comfortable atmosphere at The Drake Eatery was much more my style, and it featured a thoughtfully curated tap list with a range of styles. Here we met up with Joe Wiebe, one of Canada’s best-known beer writers and one of the nicest “beer people” you will ever meet. He is also the author of the best-selling book, “Craft Beer Revolution: The insider’s guide to B.C. breweries.”
During our conversation, he recommended I pick up a bottle of Driftwood Brewing’s Raised by Wolves, which is a limited-release IPA fermented with wild yeast. Conveniently, I found a bottle right across the street at Swans Liquor Store, which is next to the Swans Hotel & Brewpub. The beer’s malt flavors were on the doughy side and its bitterness level was a bit subdued, but I relished the beer’s bright and citrusy notes of tangerine and lemon, along with its pleasant, brett-like esters of herbs, flowers and white pepper. Overall, it was a fine beer, and the die-cut label art that wrapped around the bottle was particularly amazing.
For dinner one night, we hit the Yates Street Taphouse & Grill, which was only a few blocks from The Drake. It had a decent selection of beer, though nothing too exotic. The atmosphere felt like a busy chain restaurant, and they seemed to pour more pitchers than pints – including some nifty ones with taps at the bottom – but it was still a good stop.
The Moon Under Water Brewpub was a good hike from downtown, but still within walking distance. It offered a humble yet comfortable atmosphere with friendly service. I would recommend the lagers over the ales.
On one rainy afternoon, we walked to Vancouver Island Brewing (VIB), which was founded in 1984 as Island Pacific Brewing. I don’t fully understand B.C.’s strange alcohol laws, but as I learned, VIB’s current license only allows for them to sell one flight of tasters per person, per day, in their standing-room-only tasting room. So we both ordered a flight so that we could taste their whole lineup. All of the beers were unflawed and well made, but they weren’t overly exciting, either. VIB reminded me of some 1980s-era Washington and Oregon breweries (which I won’t mention) that were progressive at the time, but then they played it safe and rested on their laurels with the same, tired lineups of beer. Some have finally begun to catch up with the times by producing more exciting seasonals and specialties … but I digress because I think I’m getting off topic here.
I thought two VIB beers stood out from the rest: Sabotage India Session Ale was pleasantly crisp and dry, and it had some nice and tropical hop aromas. Hermann’s Dark Lager seemed a bit sweeter and roastier than your average dunkel, even pushing into schwarzbier territory, but I enjoyed its nuanced flavors of toast, chocolate, wheatgerm and multigrain bread nonetheless. Earlier this year, Hermann’s won a gold medal at the 2015 Canadian Brewing Awards.
Not far from VIB, Phillips Brewing was another brewery with just a tasting room (plus packaged beer for sale). It brews lots of different styles, including many hop-forward beers that are a bit more inline with the West Coast style.
I also swung into a few beer stores to pick up some bottles to bring home. In the heart of downtown, The Strath seemed to have the best selection.
GETTING TO VICTORIA
From Bellingham, the quickest and easiest way to get to Victoria is via the BC ferry from Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay. Not including the border crossing, it’s an easy 1-hour drive from Bellingham to Tsawwassen. Then, the scenic, 1.5-hour ferry ride weaves through the Gulf Islands, making the trip go by fast. And then it’s just a 30-minute drive from Swartz Bay to Victoria.
There is also a WA ferry from Anacortes, but the ferry ride is about an hour longer each way. Plus the on-board food options are not nearly as good as the BC ferry.
If you travel to Victoria (or anywhere else in B.C.), be sure to bring a copy of Wiebe’s book, “Craft Beer Revolution: The insider’s guide to B.C. breweries” (2nd edition). Part guidebook and part story book, CBR features information on the current beer scene, historical accounts and stories on the people and places that led the craft beer charge. The second edition contains up-to-date information about breweries, taprooms, bottle shops and more, with addresses, phone numbers, websites, beers to try, recommended beer tours, entertaining trivia and lists of the best brews that B.C. has to offer.
Once you get to Victoria, be on the lookout for a copy of The Growler, which is a free craft beer handbook to B.C.’s breweries, brewpubs and taphouses, and it includes some short and entertaining articles.
On the BC ferry, pick up a Victoria Craft Beer Map brochure, which shows all the local breweries and taphouses on an easy-to-read map.