Beer. People like beer. It is, unsurprisingly, the most popular alcoholic beverage in the world. In fact, beer is so popular that the only things we drink more of are water and tea (water's cousin). Made by monks and enjoyed by kings, it's a drink with a history as rich as a winter ale and as deep as the New Year's hangover.
There are as many varieties and flavours of beer as there are things to do while drinking it. We drink it from boots and steins, glasses, pints, and sleeves. We drink it in bars where we're supposed to, and on beaches where we aren't. Everyone's got their preference. And yet, despite the rich legacy and cultural significance of our (nearly) favourite drink, so much of what you'll find on the shelves on the liquor store is bland, boring, and uninspired.
Luckily, there is an under-appreciated force of dedicated people who refuse to see beer washed away in the sea of commercial mediocrity. All across the city and the province, you'll find independent microbreweries carrying on the ancient tradition of indulging imbibers with befuddling beverages. These beers are often available unfiltered on tap or in growlers, meaning you get to enjoy the flavours in all their complexity. There's a a few established breweries across the city and newcomers always rearing their heads. If you haven't tried them, now's the time. So here's to the underdogs who overachieve: Vancouver's best craft beers.
Storm in Rain City
A long-time favourite among Vancouver beer snobs, Storm Brewing has been cranking out the good stuff since 1995. Like all great brewers, owner and brewmaster James Walton takes inspiration from the great beer makers of yesterday's Europe. Like any worthy microbrewery, Storm produces unfiltered, additive-free beer in small batches, available on tap in bars across Vancouver — beer the way it's meant to be drunk.
Storm is particularly popular in the East Side. It can be found on offer up and down Commercial Drive. This, of course, is quite fitting, as Storm Brewing itself is found in the characteristically East-Van neighbourhood. And it's a characteristically East-Van brewery, with beers like the famous Hurricane IPA or the Black Plague Stout. Dark in name and dark in flavour, the Black Plague Stout is named for "pioneering plague fighters" who apparently survived the catastrophic pandemic by drinking beer instead of water. (As an interesting side note, fear of drinking water is why American folk hero Johnny Appleseed planted so many apple trees: so settlers could make hard cider.)
Many of the brews are inspired by Belgian and German styles. Maybe their most interesting brew is their Imperial Flanders Red Ale. This is truly not a beer for the uninitiated, and not only because of the 11% alcohol per volume. Brewmaster James Walton is famous for his sour beers, and this boutique beverage is, as they say, not for the faint of heart. Aged for at least a year in oak barrels before finding its way to your glass, this intense ale is for the true connoisseur with an appreciation for complexity and disdain for light beers (you know the ones).
I spoke with James Walton, who built his brewery out of parts he took from the scrapyard, about what it's like to be the little guy. In operation for nearly 20 years and with only two employees, Storm is not about growth. Storm has seen the rise and fall of many microbreweries over the years, as new brewers appear on the scene only to fade away.
It's a cycle" he says. "Around 1999–2000, there were quite a lot around who went under were bought out. It could happen again.
The secret to Storm's success probably has as much to do with the quality of their brews as with the attitude of the brewmaster.
I get to be the brewer. I get to be the driver. I like doing it. The business is secondary. It's like cooking, he adds as an afterthought, for a thousand people.
Speaking of cooking, as a true testament to the quality of Storm's beer, Vij's, one of Vancouver's most renowned restaurants, has selected the Hurricane IPA for its exclusive menu. If you aren't in the mood for a fancy feast, you can get your growler filled at Storm, or find it on tap at the Alibi Room and St. Augustine's.
Acres of Style: 33 Acres
It should probably go without saying that the sorts of people who would get into the craft brewing game would have an appreciation for taste. Well, the people at 33 Acres Brewing Company on 8th and Ontario Street have taken this truism to another level entirely. Upon visiting their website, you would be mistaken for thinking you had found the gallery of some photographer, or maybe an art space's blog. That they host social yoga every now and then would likely contribute to the sense that you were on the wrong website, if not for the high-def image of the mirror-polished stainless steel brew barrels.
This concern for the aesthetic is built into the heart of the young brewery, which opened its doors in the spring of 2013. Josh Michnick designed everything and built 33 Acres with the help of his friends and family. And the design was taken seriously. I asked what it is that set 33 Acres apart from the crowd. The answer:
Like our beer, the design concept is clean, but has depth. We're constantly adding details and elements that keep people interested, but not overwhelmed. The tasting room was designed to reflect something of a blank canvas: a place where people could come to collaborate or work while still feeling like a home away from home.
You can see this emphasis on design proudly on display on each of 33 Acres' creatively named and beautifully designed bottles. With a roster that includes 33 Acres of Life and 33 Acres of Ocean, it's clear that these brewmakers have a different approach to their craft. Rather than drawing overtly from older continental brewing traditions, 33 Acres beers seem to be inspired more by their own immediate context: the hip and relaxed atmosphere of the Pacific Northwest.
Of course, we're talking about beer here, and having the prettiest labels and the best design in town can only take you so far. It's not just what's on the bottle, but what's in it. And if you need a testament to the quality of what's in their bottles, just take a look at the long list of bars and beer stores carrying 33 Acres brews.
Forget PBR: All Hail PSCB
If 33 Acres represents the left brain, then maybe this next brewery represents the right. The Powell Street Craft Brewery has made a name for itself with creative brews that brilliantly combine spices and flavours to make a beer that is truly different. From its award-winning twist on English pale ale (Old Jalopy) to its Ginger Cardamom Witbier(!), and even boasting a Sour Saison, Powell Street focuses on one thing: making wicked craft beers. No beer aficionado will have a complete picture of the Vancouver beer scene without trying the work of master brewer and PSCB founder David Bowkett.
The Powell Street Craft Brewery has made a name for itself with creative brews that combine spices and flavours
There aren't really a whole lot of breweries out there making sours or packing cardamom into their brews, so I was curious where the inspiration comes from. Bowkett explained,
Unfortunately I haven't had one of those dream moments were I wake up from a deep sleep with the perfect idea for a beer (maybe one day). Inspiration for the beers come to me from a multitude of places. It ranges from the food I eat to the beers I drink. Most times it will start with a certain styles of beer I'm drinking at the time which I like a lot. From there I'll get an idea for flavour combinations and I'll think about how well they'll work together.
Whereas for me, the notion of combining ginger and cardamom and throwing into a Belgian beer seems like exactly the sort of thing that would come from a dream, for Bowkett it's more science than inspiration.
As an example, at the time I came up with the Ginger Cardamom Witbier I was really into Witbiers. I thought, "How can I make a witbier even more refreshing?" And that's when I thought about the ginger. The addition of cardamom came because I thought it would play well with the coriander that is already present in Witbiers. Those two spices are combined frequently in other styles of cooking. In the end it worked very well in my opinion.
It's exactly this kind of culinary alchemy that is turning beer drinkers away from the big, nationally marketed brands to the craft brewers like Powell Street. Craft beer is a growth market, with new breweries popping up like mushrooms after a rain. This is good news, according to Bowkett, not just for him but for everyone. Well, almost everyone.
Each brewery is trying to make great beer and this propels their comrades to make even better beer. From the onset of our brewery we strived to make the best beer possible, this worked well for us and seems to have worked for others. Looking at the stats you can see craft beer is on the raise in Vancouver, BC, and Canada. This bodes well for us craft breweries, but as you can predict it's hurting the bigger guys. You've probably heard complaints from the bigger guys saying that they've had to cut jobs because of their lose of market share, but I say, because of the growth in the craft beer we've more than made up for the lose of those jobs. The craft beer industry in Vancouver employs hundreds of people in the breweries and hundreds more in related industries. Our growth has not only been good for beer drinkers, it's also been great for the local economy.
R & B Brewing: Through the Seasons
Calling itself "Vancouver's local microbrewery", R & B is another bright star in the local constellation of craft beers. This stellar brewery boasts some of the most highly celebrated concoctions, with a list of awards as long as midwinter night. And those winter nights might seem even longer if you're craving R & B's most lauded brew of all; its Sun God Wheat Ale has won ten national and international awards. It's available all year long in kegs throughout the year, and on rotation at their growler station.
Yes, exaggerating the severity of Vancouver's wet winters is somewhat of a local hobby. While it's hard to deny the sense of relief that comes with the return of sunny days (and the Sun God Wheat Ale), this place wouldn't be the same without the days of grey. And it wouldn't be the same without the plethora of winter ales that flood the city ever year, and disappear in the spring like ice on the lakes of less forgiving climates. And our friends at R & B have long added their voice in the choir with their Auld Nick Winter Ale. Great for anyone who lacks a taste for the typically sweet or spicy flavours of most winter ales, this strong English-style brew keeps it traditional with an old-school blend of malt and hops.
Like Storm Brewing, R & B has been around to see the rise and fall of many a microbrewery and has weathered the ebbs and flows. And like Storm, R & B is a characteristically East Vancouver brewery, valuing the independence, individuality, and little bit edginess that are characteristic of East Van. Rejecting the the corporate beer world of marketing and mergers, Rick Dellow and Barry Benson (R & B, respectively) set out nearly 20 years ago to create a brewery where integrity and quality trump market share. They've been holding court ever since, helping pave the way for other rising stars in the Vancouver craft beer community.
Of course, R & B has year-round offerings as well as seasonal. Among its more popular beers is its award-winning cream ale, a great choice for those who appreciate a complex beer a little on the sweet side. For those with refined palates, or with a penchant for hosting fancy parties, the R&B website includes recommendations not only for food and wine pairings for each of their beers but also suggests the ideal type of glass to drink them from. It's a great resource if you're looking to impress people with your refined tastes, real or faked.
Bridge Brewing: Beer with a Conscience
Across the inlet in North Vancouver, the folks at Bridge Brewing have brought new meaning to the expression "drink your troubles away." Not content only to produce additive-free, unfiltered craft beer that tastes good, they've made it their goal to produce a beverage that is good for the community. Like other independent microbreweries, Bridge is more concerned with producing a high-quality product than it is with pleasing stakeholders. But it's going in a direction few businesses dare: towards sustainability.
Begun in 2012 as Vancouver's first nano-brewery, Bridge is now expanding to keep up with their increased demands. This expansion, though, hasn't sidetracked the company from its lofty aspirations. The people at bridge take corporate and personal responsibility seriously, and they've made it their goal to be a zero-waste facility. They might not be there yet, but hey they're at 99%, and that's definitely a pass.
I spoke to director of consumption Leigh Stratton about the challenges of running a business without producing any garbage, and how the company balances its goal of producing zero waste while meeting ever-increasing demand. I was surprised by her response. "We actually save money, being waste free," she tells me. "I mean, to have a bin out back costs probably $300–400 a month. We sort all our recycling and take it in ourselves and it costs us $6 every two weeks."
For a small business, that's a lot of money saved. So why doesn't everyone do it? Leigh has an answer to that, too.
"Being waste-free isn't about the money. It takes effort. It's like shopping. It's not expensive to bring your own bags and buy in bulk. You just have to remember to do it."
For the Strattons, who produce no waste at home either, the barrier on the path to sustainability is a mental one more than a financial one.
Their inspiration to tread lightly came from the award-winning documentary The Clean Bin Project, about a Vancouver couple competing against each other to produce as little waste as possible. And, in turn, they are now inspiring others. Bridge Brewing was at the forefront of introducing growlers to the Vancouver craft beer scene. A common sight in other cities, when Bridge opened its doors in 2012, only one other microbrewery offered the refillable 2 litre jugs. Customers return week after week to refill their growlers, saving countless wasted bottles, and most microbreweries are following suit.
The founders of the Bridge Brewing have brought new meaning to the expression "drink your troubles away"
But what about the waste from the brewing process itself? Well, this is where Bridge really stands alone. While other breweries will often use their spent grains to feed livestock or use as compost, Bridge goes even further by working with Vancouver-based company Enterra. Enterra makes use of the peculiarities of the black soldier fly to produce nutrient rich livestock feed and organic fertilizer out of pre-consumer waste. The fly larvae digest the spent grains, and can then be used to feed fish and poultry, while their waste can be used as a soil conditioner.
This highly efficient closed-loop system means we need to pull less fish from the sea and pour fewer chemical fertilizers on our fields, and the only input started off as waste. Not only are they reducing their waste, but they're turning waste into a positive. Now that's forward thinking. We can all drink to that.
Parallel 49 Brewing: Off the Beaten Path
Not to be confused with the local coffee roasters, Parallel 49 Brewing is a trend-setting young microbrewery in East Vancouver known for its stylish labels, eccentric flavours, and 55-seat tasting room. Not many beers leap off the shelf at you quite like Parallel 49. With names like Seedspitter, Old Boy, and Hoparazzi, you can tell this brewery has character right from the first glance. And characters are exactly what you'll find looking back at you from the face of each label, with each beer having its own iconic cartoon mascot. But image will only take you so far. In the land of craft beer, it's what's behind the label that counts.
Behind the label on Parallel 49 Brewing, you'll find beers with as much character as the cartoons. I spoke with brewmaster Graham With about the inspiration behind the non-traditional approach. "When most breweries open" he says, "they have the standard lineup: IPA, pale ale, pilsner. We wanted to launch with beers no one was doing, to set us apart."
Of course, that doesn't mean reinventing the wheel. For those with a taste for hops, instead of your IPA you'll find the citrusy Hoparazzi — an India Pale Lager. And in place of the standard pale ale, you'll find the politically incorrect Gypsy Tears Ruby Red Ale. And, of course, for those summer days, there's Seedspitter, an unfiltered wheat beer with the refreshing savour of watermelon.
The recipe for Seedspitter, like some of its other progressive recipes, comes from Graham's extended experience as a home brewer. He and his friends weren't interested in making the same beers you could buy from all the bars. Luckily for those of us lacking in initiative, the guys behind Parallel 49 started their own brewery.
So now the beer that was invented because it wasn't in stores is in stores. But probably the best way to familiarize yourself with this eclectic brewery is to visit their tasting room, which has become somewhat of a tourist attraction in the Vancouver beer scene. Open daily from noon to 11 pm, the 55-seat tasting room serves ten beers. You'll be sure to find something new.
Incoming: Bomber Brewing
Another newcomer to the Vancouver beer scene, Bomber has recently set up shop right along the Adanac bike route. Beer and bikes: a combination as charming as it is risky. Owned and operated by some of the same minds behind the Biercraft chain of bar/restaurants, it's not terribly surprising that the emergence of yet another East Van brewery was preluded by much hype and marketing. Unlike the other breweries on this list, Bomber has a bit of a theme going, around which orbits a branding machine not often witnessed in the world of microbreweries. While it might be a turn-off for some, it will surely gain them the loyalty of others.
As if taking cues from the playbook of Canadian stereotypes, the folks at Bomber have combined their love of beer with their love of hockey. Not afraid to toss around sporting metaphors, the Bomber founders met on the bench of the Bombers Hockey Club and decided to test their team off the ice. While hockey references abound on their website, and their swoop logo bears a mysterious resemblance to the much-adored Cannucks jersey of old, Bomber has proven that there's more to them than just image.
Open 7 days a week, the Bomber tasting room has become a favourite hangout spot for beer aficionados and thirsty commuters. Like most breweries, Bomber offers a range of styles, though the focus is more on the bitter and hoppy end of the spectrum. The ESB (Extra Special Bitter) is one of their specialties and of their more interesting brews. Also on the menu is an IPA, a pislner, and a draught-only blonde. There are also occasional darker offerings, but they're availability is seasonal.
Of course, Bomber offers growlers and does refills. It does set itself apart from the other breweries on this list, though, in that most of its beers are sold in cans. If you do decide to ride your bike, wear a helmet.
Meet The Photographer: Kevin Eng
Kevin's passion for photography has encouraged others to see the splendor and beauty of nature right at their doorstep, as he captures the sights of the day, and colors and mystery of world while it sleeps. Many of the subjects of his work are based locally in his hometown in Vancouver, B.C., where he first discovered his fascination with night photography. Kevin is currently working as a music teacher, music director for his church, and landscape photographer.