Inside British Columbia's Craft Beer Revolution Following the ale trail

Words by Katie Ellen Wilkins

By Katie Ellen Wilkins, 18/5/2017

With more than 650 breweries and more than 7000 brands nationwide, the Canadian craft beer industry is booming, especially in the province of British Columbia. More popular than any other alcoholic drink, it’s safe to say that Canadians love beer – especially if it’s locally made. But it hasn’t always been an easy ride for microbreweries in Canada.

Prohibition and the Great Depression forced many smaller breweries to close, and it wasn’t until the 1980s that they began to make a comeback. Nowadays, most small breweries in British Columbia are struggling to keep up with the demand from their loyal supporters and beer enthusiasts.

I ventured to Vancouver Island on the British Columbia Ale Trail through Nanaimo and the Comox Valley to talk with entrepreneurs about the brewing process, the challenges of opening your own business and how craft beer is bringing the people together.

Riot Brewing Co.

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Image: Katie Wilkins

Originally a logging town, the little seaside community of Chemainus was faced with the potential of economic collapse when the sawmill closed down in 1983. Soon after, the town was transformed into a world-renowned outdoor art gallery as a result of a community driven mural project, which continues to bring thousands of tourists to the area.

Now there’s another reason to visit Chemainus in British Columbia – the team at Riot Brewing Co. have opened a community space appealing to every demographic. They’re family friendly, dog friendly and they serve beer (and generous banter) with a story.

The Life Partners Pale Ale speaks to the long-time friendship between co-founders Ralf Rosenke and Aly Tomlin, who said they feel they hadn’t quite found their place. Their solution was to create their own, but it didn’t happen overnight; in fact, the Working Class Hero Dark Mild pays homage to the seven long years of working odd jobs to fund the brewery. The Sorry We Took So Long Saison is a shout-out to their family and friends who, at the time, believed the plan to open a brewery was all talk.

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The key to their success came in the form of a young French skater, Morgan Moreira. With Morgan’s help and a space in Chemainus ready to host their venture, the team finally opened their doors. Now, they say their biggest problem is skyrocketing sales.

“I think our brewery has really increased tourism from the surrounding areas like Victoria and Nanaimo as well. A lot of people born on the island who have never been to Chemainus now feel like they have a reason to come here and explore what we and the rest of the town has to offer,” says Riot team member, Nathan Kleine Deters.

The Riot crew have charisma and funny anecdotes that make you want to stick around all day long just for the good conversation. I could have chatted for hours with Head Brewer, Fabian Specht, who’s currently experimenting with some musical vibrations.

The Classical Sasion gets its name not because it’s a traditional recipe, but because he’s play classical music to the brew while it ferments. Much like the rest of the staff at Riot, he’s just trying out something new, albeit unconventional.

Cumberland Brewing Company

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Image: Katie Wilkins

Cumberland Brewing Company is small but mighty. Located in the Comox Valley, Cumberland was a coal-mining city but is now British Columbia’s outdoor adventure playground, known for its incredible hiking and mountain biking trails, fishing spots and snow sports.

It also offers a cosy little brewery where locals and tourists alike can share a knock off after a day in the wilderness. For years, the hardworking community has been contributing to the development of the town, but Cumberland Brewing Company filled a gap – the need for a gathering place to connect, debate and celebrate life.

“I believe this is just a return to the natural state of things before prohibition. Before that time, there were local breweries in all communities. It took arguably 100 years to return to this state. We feel that community based brewing is the key. Community is where it’s at,” says co-founder Darren Adams.

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If community is what the company is after, they’re certainly succeeding with Beer It Forward, the unique project inspires good deeds and gives the gift of beer. Customers can anonymously pre-purchase a beer for a friend, who will go on a public list of names. If a surprise free beer from a loved one doesn’t bring about a sense of community, I’m not sure what will.

Townsite Brewing Inc

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Townsite Brewing Inc is what happens when you bring together a Canadian chemist, a Belgian engineer and a little town on the shores of the Salish Sea. Cédric Dauchot, the only Belgian brew master west of Quebec, and his wife Chloe Byrana Smith, a chemistry graduate and “professional hoseroller”, opened Townsite Brewery in Powell River on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast just over five years ago. Since then, several small businesses have opened in their wake, and the community continues to thrive.

“When we opened our doors in 2012, we showed a mill town in decline that small business can change the face of the game. We injected life and pride of ownership into our town… we have created sixteen, well-paid jobs. In a town of 20,000 people, that is a big deal,” says Chloe.

Cédric and his team brew the kind of classic tastes you’ll find at most Canadian craft breweries – pale ales, IPAs, porters – but they also delve into the world of barrel ageing. On a technical note, it’s unique in that it doesn’t inoculate barrel-aged beer with any variety of yeast. Instead, wild yeasts and bacteria in the air ferment barrel-aged beers such as lambics. This process helps to develop unique flavours, often sour and cidery.

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Between 1939 and 1984, the old brick building on the corner looking over the water was the local post office, but before the Townsite crew moved in, it was just an empty space with a lot of potential. Now, it’s home to a bustling bar, the best Oatmeal Stout in Canada (2016 Canadian Brewing Awards) and kombucha on tap.

Townsite isn’t exactly on the beaten track (or anywhere near it). From Vancouver, you’ll need to take two ferries to get there, but this doesn’t deter visitors from pouring in. When we visited, they’d just expanded their tasting room to meet the increasing demand.

If you find yourself in Powell River, you would be truly missing out if you skipped The Old Courthouse Inn, home to the town’s courthouse, jail and police station until 1997. Partners Kelly Belanger and JP Brosseau have given the place a facelift, but you’ll still feel like you’ve entered a time machine. Just a stones throw from Townsite, the inn is as attractive for its bountiful collection of antiques and vintage knick-knacks, as it is for its warm and generous company.

JP and Kelly gladly open their arms to visitors willing to have a chat and hear their story. There are eight unique rooms on offer, each decked out with vintage furniture, art and ornaments. Downstairs is Edie Rae’s, a cosy café opened in honour of JP’s mother – a Powell River local icon and party girl.

Persephone Brewing Co.

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Persephone Brewing Co. (after the Greek goddess of spring) certainly lives up to its name. Located in the Sunshine Coast town of Gibsons, the Persephone team have been passionately supporting local agriculture since 2013.

On their 11-acre farm and craft microbrewery, they have a healthy posse of chickens, an onsite hops farm, and a sustainable system that ensures all by-products (grain, hops and yeast) from the brewing process are composted and put back into the soil. If it weren’t for an inconsiderate bear, they’d still have a beehive too.

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Our friendly host, David Schneider, says the Persephone folk run on the principles of community ownership. Every now and again, they invite locals to come over, drink some beer, eat pizza and help on the farm. They also partner with community groups such as Farm to Feast, who run an old airstream trailer and food truck at the venue, and host long-table dinner events that showcase locally grown food and beer.

Their sustainable model sets them apart from the rest, but that’s not all that raises the bar; the folk at Persephone know what they’re doing when it comes to making a good brew. They expertly balance hops and malt to hit flavour notes that aren’t actually ingredients, and if you want a taste/sound combo, the Persephone brewers can suggest the perfect Frank Zappa album to pair with your beers.

The British Columbia Ale Trail

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The BC Ale Trail shares self-guided tours of over 100 breweries dotted throughout British Columbia, and the incredible natural wilderness waiting to greet you before and after a tasting. On route to the town of Cumberland, we took a little subterranean detour to Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park, home to approximately 1,600 caves, antibiotic superbugs and the odd Townsend big-eared bat.

We put on our hard hats and gumboots, climbed among the large crystal formations and ascended an underground waterfall. If you’ve never to experienced absolute darkness – only possible in a cave or at the bottom of the ocean – here’s your chance.

Between beers, we met with wildlife expert, Alison Roberts, from RLC Park Services, who wandered with us through towering Douglas firs and Red Alder trees at Moorecroft Regional Park. Alison had an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the flora and fauna of the area. We learned about edible native plants, how to make natural cures for a variety of ailments, and even snacked on a homemade Nettlekopita made from wild nettle. If you get the chance to swing by, keep an ear out for the local songstress, the Pacific wren.

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Interested in following an ale trail of your own? HelloBC has more info.

The writer travelled to British Columbia courtesy of Destination British Colombia.

(All images unless otherwise credited: Rick Graham)