Journey to the Source: Beer in British Columbia
This Pacific city is producing some of Canada's best craft beers, says John Lee
There are two anniversaries in British Columbia's capital this summer. But only one is the subject of official celebration. August 2012 marks 150 years since Victoria officially became a city – a quarter-century before mainland big sister Vancouver – and it's also exactly two decades since I arrived at the university, a wide-eyed student from England. For a thirsty fresher, Victoria had only one downside: good beer was harder to find than imported Curly Wurlys. Victorians quaffed pallid brews by Labatt or Molson and the only tipple worth drinking was Hermann's Dark Lager from Vancouver Island Brewery.
Fast-forward and all change. Dozens more microbreweries have popped up, making BC arguably Canada's top craft beer region. And while Vancouver has more bars, waterfront Victoria is where many of the best ales are made, in a generous round of breweries and brewpubs.
The city isn't just about beer, of course. Everything from the landmark Empress Hotel to its domed 19th-century Parliament Buildings has been luring history-loving visitors from Vancouver, where heritage buildings are few and far between. They come for the old-town aesthetic, streets of independent shops and such attractions as the giant Royal BC Museum, with its pioneer displays and First Nations galleries.
Back in the city to raise a glass to that other anniversary, I launched a giddy mid-afternoon crawl through Victoria's home-grown brews. But first, I met a local beer writer, Adem Tepedelen, in the Irish Times pub on Government Street. Sipping a nostalgic Hermann's, I tapped him for recommendations. "Once Phillips and Driftwood [breweries] started here, everyone upped their game," said Tepedelen, who sank into contemplative silence when asked to name Victoria's best beer. "Phillips Blue Buck and Hoyne's Dark Matter are popular, but I'd go for Driftwood's Fat Tug IPA – it was best beer in Canada at last year's Canadian Brewing Awards."
Appetite whetted, I hit the nearby Bard & Banker – its darkwood tables and gilded fixtures recalling an upmarket Wetherspoons – for the Two Mile Beer Diet, a four-glass flight of local brews. There's own-brand Service 1904, a slightly fruity Phillips ale; mild and smooth Sea Dog Amber Ale from Vancouver Island Brewery; Lighthouse Brewing Lager, a light summer quaff; and the winning Driftwood Ale, its spiky hops rounded by malty notes.
Ten minutes later, I was on a creaky stool at Swans, a flower-decked former grain warehouse that's been a chatty, wood-beamed brewpub for years. Its top beers include Arctic Ale – an easy-to-drink bitter – and Swans Extra IPA, with its hugely hoppy kick.
Turning my back on Swans' remaining nine beers, I peeled myself away to Canoe Brewpub on the edge of nearby Chinatown. Colonising an old electricity substation, its brick interior is perfect for rainy-day hunkering, while its marina-front patio is a great summer hangout. As I perched at the bar under mezzanine-mounted beer tanks, my tasting flight included light Honey Wheat Ale and crisp Red Canoe Lager. But it was Beaver Brown Ale, with its nutty java flavour, that won.
Victoria's waterfront is dotted with Harbour Ferry water taxis, and I took one to one of Canada's oldest brewpubs, Spinnakers, a wood-gabled gastropub with 10 beers brewed onsite and a freshly tapped cask variety every weekday. Pairing my bargain C$5 (£3) four-flight taster with a smoked tuna sandwich, I sampled an excellent pilsner-style Kölsch, mild Nut Brown Ale, a Hoptoria – brewed for Victoria's birthday – and a heady, 7.75 per cent Tsarist Stout that threatened to put hairs on every chest within five miles.
Back at downtown's Inner Harbour, I weaved towards the day's final spot. The Beagle in Cook Street Village is an unpretentious local that, when I was a student, served boring brews with burger specials. Now it epitomises the sea change in Victoria's beer scene. I perused a 15-draught chalkboard of craft beers, and selected a pair to toast 2012's twin anniversaries.
Victoria's beer list has grown beyond recognition, so much so that I realise I might not have finished my degree at all if there had been this much choice back then.
Virgin Atlantic (virgin-atlantic.com), Air Canada (aircanada.com), BA (ba.com) and Air Transat (canad ianaffair.com), fly to Vancouver from Heathrow. Air Transat also flies from Gatwick, Manchester and Glasgow. BC Ferries (bcferries .com) is C$14.85 (£9.50) single to Victoria from Vancouver.
Inn at Laurel Point at 680 Montreal St (001 250 386 8721; laurelpoint .com) has doubles from C$99 (£63) per night, room only
Irish Times, 1200 Government Street (irish timespub.ca). Bard & Banker, 1022 Government Street (bardandbanker .com). Swans, 506 Pandora Avenue (swanshotel.com). Canoe Brewpub, 450 Swift Street (canoebrewpub.com). Spinnakers, 308 Catherine Street (spinnakers .com). The Beagle, 301 Cook Street (beaglepub.com).
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