Vancouver Islanders have become increasingly able to pour a pint crafted right here on the Island thanks to an explosion in the craft brewing industry.

Tapping Vancouver Island’s Ale Trail

Explosion of craft breweries turning beer into a tourism attraction

Sure Vancouver Island is already well-known for its spectacular collection of trails.

But this, this is something else altogether

Instead of trudging from one muddy brown puddle to the next while drinking in the spectacular views, the Vancouver Island Ale Trail will let you skip from one smooth amber oasis to the next while drinking in the spectacular brews.

The ale trail isn’t even an official entity yet — although that’s coming — but the footprint is here, powered by a recent explosion in the number of craft breweries north of the Malahat.

“There are more and more people who have really gotten excited about craft beer. We have world-class brewers here,” Joe Wiebe said.

Wiebe, the Victoria-based author of Craft Beer Revolution: The Insider’s Guide to B.C. Breweries, said the way the market has expanded in a relatively short period of time is in line with a boom happening across B.C.

When the Tofino Brewing company opened its doors just six years ago it entered a north Island fraternity occupied by a pair of brew pubs — Nanaimo’s Longwood and the Craig Street in Duncan — and not much else.

Today, in addition to Tofino, there are two craft breweries in Duncan, three in Nanaimo, two in Courtenay and one in Cumberland, with others expected to open later this year in Chemainus, Port Alberni and Campbell River.

Combine that with Greater Victoria’s well-established craft scene being poised to add its 13th brew maker — not including a pair of operations pending in Sooke — and you may have a brand-new Island tourist attraction.

“Beer tourism is really picking up. It’s becoming quite an attraction in certain areas,” Tourism Vancouver Island media specialist Heather McEachen said. “B.C. is making a a name for itself.”

“I just think it’s something different, the whole food culture thing is a big part of tourism. I can definitely start to see it as an attraction outside of B.C.”

Because of growing demand, Leif Bogwald, who operates Vancouver Island Expeditions out of Nanaimo, has added craft beer tours to a roster of expeditions that includes food, wine and wilderness adventures.

“It really started with people asking. It’s sort of grown organically,” he said. “This summer I have a fair amount (booked).”

Wiebe sees a natural partnership between the breweries and the cyclists, kayakers and hikers already trekking to the Island — a West Coast culture offering something unique for all your senses.

But it’s not just about the visitors. In fact, part of what makes the Island’s craft brew community attractive is its fiercely local, independent character, reflected both in the brews themselves and in the way they are served. You’ll find everything from full-fledged food-serving brew pubs, to sparse, high-character hole-in-the-wall tasting rooms — each one doing what they love, their own way.

“It’s pretty typical of Vancouver Islanders: we’re a fairly independent (bunch); we’re not going to beg you to come over,” Wiebe said.

At the same time, if you do come knocking, expect a laid-back atmosphere full of people happy to share in a wide variety of creations without much judgement on the sophistication — or lack thereof — of your palate.

“It’s approachable. There’s not much of a beer snob culture,” Bogwald said. “Beer is more laid back, more of a group atmosphere. Beer culture is very social.”

The beer scene is mostly fed by 25- to 40-year-old males, but Bogwald thinks Vancouver Island’s craft breweries also do a good job of crafting brews that can convert their dads and grandfathers, even those exclusively weaned on 30 years of Lucky lager. It’s not all about adding the most exotic flavours and thickest consistencies imaginable. It’s about good beer and finding which ones appeal to you.

“They sort of pigeonhole themselves. This will get you out of your comfort zone and try to stretch your boundaries. I’ve had a lot of people say ‘oh, that’s a different take’ I actually like that.”

“There’s a large wave of creativity going on. You definitely would cover a wide range of beer styles,” Wiebe agreed.

For Wiebe, the ideal craft brewery is like an independent artist that captures and reflects the culture of the community he or she serves. The Vancouver Island scene is building that and the Cumberland Brewing Company is a poster child, as unique as Cumberland itself, and one of his favourite stops.

“Cumberland is the ideal. They have been completely embraced by the community. They brew to capacity and don’t bottle a drop. Places like that really appeal to me and make perfect sense.”

That way of doing things has inspired Matthew Fox, one of three partners working to have Campbell River’s first brewery, Beach Fire Brewing, open by September.

He’s not surprised to find craft breweries popping up like weeds. The love of beer, the love of friends and the desire to have something unique and real, as opposed to pre-packaged off an assembly line, is strong. The locavore movement is important to a lot of people and the art of a good brew has widespread attraction.

“I really like beer and I really like the culture around it. It’s a lot more than drinking and hanging out at the pub,” he said. “That phrase has really been echoed back to us on almost a daily basis: Campbell River really needs something like this.”

Fox said liquor law changes by the B.C. government has helped spark the boom by making it easier to get proper licensing and approvals. Wiebe said  the number of craft breweries in B.C. has gone from about 50 to more than 100 in three years. The Vancouver Province reports 140 are expected to be opening by the end of this year.

Bringing the industry together is a new initiative funded by Destination B.C. Launching province-wide in October, will detail and market a series of ale trail routes throughout the province — including Vancouver Island — suitable for driving, cycling and walking, as well as maintain a list of all B.C. craft breweries.

Fox believes like anything else, the craft brewery trend will peak, then fall off, but it still has room to grow — particularly in places outside the largest urban areas. And once an equilibrium is found, he expects the industry to be here for the long haul.

“When I go into a town, it’s something I look for,” he said. “Beer is not going out of style. Right now, business-wise it does make a lot of sense.”


On Tap

Beach Fire Brewery (Campbell River)*

Canoe Brewpub (Victoria)

Category 12 Brewing (Central Saanich)

Craig Street Brew Pub (Duncan)

Cumberland Brewing Co. (Cumberland)

Driftwood Brewing Co. (Victoria)

Forbidden Brewing Co. (Courtenay)

4 Mile Brewpub (View Royal)

Gladstone Brewing (Courtenay)

Hoyne Brewing Co. (Victoria)

Lighthouse Brewing (Esquimalt)

Longwood Brewery (Nanaimo)

Moon Under Water (Victoria)

Phillips Brewing Co. (Victoria)

Red Arrow Brewing (Duncan)

Riot Brewing Co. (Chemainus)*

Sooke Brewing Co. (Sooke)*

Sooke Oceanside Brewery (Sooke)*

Spinnakers Brewpub (Victoria)

Swan’s Hotel and Brewpub (Victoria)

Tofino Brewing Co. (Tofino)

Twin City Brewing (Port Alberni)*

Vancouver Island Brewing Co. (Victoria)

Victoria Caledonian Brewery (Saanich)*

White Sails Brewing (Nanaimo)

Wolf Brewing Company (Nanaimo)

* Opening soon


Follow me on Twitter @JohnMcKinleyBP

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