It didn’t take me long to fall in love with Portland. It’s laid-back locals and love for great coffee and even better beer had me convinced it was pretty much the greatest place on earth. After my first trip there 9 years ago I became an ambassador of sorts and began pushing people to Portland any chance I could. This, understandably, always left me a bit conflicted. My hometown of Vancouver is nothing to scoff at, however, at the time, it’s bizarre liquor laws certainly were. Vancouver’s reputation as a no-fun city didn’t help. Sure, there were a few breweries slugging it out, but the culture around them just wasn’t there. Fast forward to present day and Vancouver has come a long way. Along with relaxed restrictions on tasting rooms came a flurry of craft breweries. The city and surrounding area now boast over 40 breweries with more seemingly popping up every other month.
Suddenly Vancouver became the beer city to me. Apparently, I’m not alone. Vogue Magazine recently took notice of Vancouver’s booming beer culture calling it North America’s best beer Capital.
Still, when I tried to explain Vancouver’s love for craft beer to a visiting non-beer drinking friend, I drew a blank. What was really behind this incredible rise? What makes Vancouver a beer drinkers utopia? To get a clear picture of this seemingly sudden change, I enlisted the help of the local beer experts at Vancouver Brewery Tours.
Straight to the Source
When asked what’s behind the surge in local craft breweries, Ryan Mackey, owner of Vancouver Brewery Tours, points to a combination of factors. “Relaxed import laws saw really interesting beers from Oregon and beyond start to flow into Vancouver for the first time, which created an opportunity for new breweries to open up and cater to this demand.” Mackey continued “thanks to liquor laws being reviewed and updated, brewery tasting rooms also started popping up.”
Good to know I was on the right path. My hometown was starting to offer everything I fell for in Portland without the six-hour drive. Well played, Vancouver.
Ryan also points to local consumers waking to the idea of supporting locally made craft beer. Their palates were challenged and along with that came a willingness to experiment and try new beers. The result of this appetite for better beer and a refreshed take on liquor laws created a new type of drinking experience that was very different from the usual pubs and restaurants. This is the culture I love about Portland, but found lacking from the early breweries in Vancouver. This is not lost on Ryan.
“Before our scene exploded in popularity, many small independent and local breweries slogged it out for many years and in a sense paved the way for the success of so many new breweries. Breweries like Storm Brewing, Steamworks Brewing, R&B Brewing and many more deserve a lot of credit in fostering this new environment.”
Cheers to that.
With a better understanding of what was behind Vancouver’s beer popularity, it was time to put it to a taste test. Being local and biased, I took my visiting non-beer drinking friend with me. Secretly, I was putting Vancouver Brewery Tours to the test. Could they convert this optically deceiving non-beer drinker? Let’s find out.
On the outside, Mike looks good with a beer in his hand. With his tattoo sleeves and hipster haircut, this burly dude is a fit for working at any of Vancouver’s breweries. Yet the last time in Vancouver, he got high-school drunk on cranberry juice and vodka.
Mike does not like beer. Why? “The Flavour is usually too wheat-y, even for the light beers.”
Perfect. Vancouver Brewery Tours – make him a believer.
Getting Schooled in Beer
While we waited for the other guests to arrive, beer enthusiast and tour guide Leigh questioned the group on what everyone’s favorite beers are. “Coors Banquet” was the quick reply of my friend. “Raspberry beer” added a girl from Saskatchewan. “Anything in a clear bottle” Mike followed up. God bless the staff at Vancouver Brewery Tours for not rolling their eyes. Instead, they simply said that everyone was in for a treat, basically a nice way of saying ‘what you normally drink is not real beer’. I remember taking a beer tour in Munich and the host, rightfully so, had a laugh at an American for saying Budweiser was his beverage of choice.
Leigh didn’t even flinch. Instead, she gathered the group and rolled out to our first stop, Strathcona Brewing Company.
At Strathcona Leigh took us behind the scenes, explaining the brewing process along the way. Education, after all, is key to really appreciating great beer and why Vancouver is tops at making it – you have to understand what goes into it.
“Hops. Water. Barley.” proclaimed Leigh. “That’s it.”
But What is Craft Beer?
She went on to describe that the term Craft Beer itself, is a loose definition. Small batches, independent, and an emphasis on great ingredients pretty much covers it. This idea, of course, is nothing new. Germany has been brewing this way for centuries and even instituted a purity law called Reinheitsgebot in 1516. So why has it taken North America so long to catch on? You can blame big business for that. The drive for higher profit margins meant altering passed down Bavarian recipes to improve shelf life. Marketing is also a factor and the clear beer bottle is a great example of this. Sunlight is death to beer so you have to wonder what goes into beers like Corona and Miller Genuine Draft.
Suffice to say you certainly won’t find a clear beer bottle at a German brewery and now this group understands why you won’t find one at a Vancouver brewery either.
When it came time to sampling, the group of non-beer drinkers gravitated towards Strathcona’s Radler. To me, it tasted like a poor man’s mimosa. That certainly is not a bad thing as I love a good Radler in the summer sun. The other brews at Strathcona are great too.
Clearly, this group needed a little more convincing. Thankfully this Vancouver Brewery Tour had a couple more stops to win them over.
Power in Numbers
When I asked Ryan what else makes Vancouver such a great beer city he highlighted the growing community surrounding the scene. “The breweries are very supportive of each other and get together to produce a number of collaboration beers each month. We enjoy a seemingly endless beer selection from the breweries and new experimental beer styles, a growing variety of craft beer festivals, events, and cask nights. The real winner here is the consumer – there has never been a better time to enjoy a pint of craft beer in Vancouver.”
Indeed. This year marked the 8th annual Vancouver Craft Beer Week Festival and was the largest to date. I remember one of the first festivals where there was only a handful of breweries and food trucks. Today it has grown to include over 100 craft breweries serving up 300+ beer and ciders. On top of that you will find musical acts, games, and even a barbershop.
Yes, it is a great time to be a beer lover in Vancouver.
Coming Around on Craft Beer
As we pulled up to our second stop, Off the Rails, Mike started to get a sense of what this beer community means to the city. Kitty corner you will find Bomber Brewing, the second brewery we passed on the way to Off the Rails. When questioned how the competition affects business Leigh echoed what Ryan stated. The competition is welcome and the sense of community between breweries creates a wonderfully social environment for Vancouverites. The close quarters have made pockets of breweries accessible by foot or bicycle. It has also made companies like Vancouver Brewery Tours possible.
Sampling everything from pales to pils while watching patrons fill their growlers or put down their bike helmet for a quick pint, the group could see that there is so much more to Vancouver’s craft breweries than the beer itself.
Local or Not
By the time we arrived at Strange Fellows, the group was well lubricated. Mike, all of a sudden, loved every beer put in front of him. To be fair, by that point they all blended together, even for this local beer lover. It’s a shame as Strange Fellows Talisman is one of my favourites in the city.
Although there are plenty of options in Vancouver, the beer remains at the heart of it all. Vancouver Brewery Tours recognizes this and partners with some of the best breweries in the city. Ryan and company do an amazing job and the tour is worthwhile for visitors and locals alike. Tour guide Leigh helped me understand the rapid rise of Vancouver onto the international beer scene and converted a couple nonbeer drinkers in the process. With a different tour each day, Vancouver Brewery Tours offers something for everyone.
So put down that Crantini and give them a shout if you are lucky enough to find yourself in this amazing beer drinking utopia that I am proud to call home.
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Although I was provided a complimentary day of drinking with Vancouver Brewery Tours,
the experience, opinions, and beer education are my own.