– Story by Jane Zatlyny Photography by Don Denton
I like beer — sometimes. When it comes to beverages, it’s hard to beat the refreshing taste of an ice-cold ale alongside a dozen fresh-shucked oysters, or a dark, chocolate-brown stout with grilled baby back ribs. Still, my natural inclination when dining out has always been to reach for the wine list.
But lately, as I walk by the banks of fridges devoted to craft beer at my local liquor store, I can’t help but wonder: am I missing something? For answers, I asked Joe Wiebe, author of Craft Beer Revolution: The Insider’s Guide to BC Breweries and all-round BC beer enthusiast, to lead me through a beer tasting.
As we settle in at a back table at Victoria’s Refuge Tap Room, Joe orders a flight of beer for us to sample. We talk about how Victoria, with its long-established brewpubs like Spinnakers and Swans, has always been at the epicentre of the Canadian craft beer movement.
“I like to say Victoria is the cradle of the revolution,” Joe says, noting that changes to liquor legislation in 2013 allowed breweries in BC to operate tasting rooms, much like wineries, further propelling the popularity of craft beer here.
Like alchemists, craft brewers today experiment with herbs, spices and fruits. They express themselves through the hops they use and through new interpretations of traditional brewing techniques.
“They’re producing some incredibly exciting flavours,” says Joe. “Beer has really evolved in the last decade or so. It’s a tasting culture now.”
It’s these more eclectic brews that I’m most interested in tasting, beginning with our first beer, Strawberry Hibiscus Milkshake IPA from Vancouver’s Russell Brewing (6 per cent alcohol). The name is intriguing, but how good can a strawberry-flavoured, milky beer taste?
Surprisingly good, it turns out: this is no ordinary milkshake. “Milkshake” actually refers to the use of lactose by the brewer, an unfermentable sugar that retains sweetness in the beer. It’s the perfect complement to the star ingredient: ripe strawberries. The first taste reminds me of spring’s first strawberry, greedily plucked in the field, while Joe likens it to strawberry ice cream.
Next up? A Beets by Sinden sour beer from Electric Bicycle Brewing (5.5 per cent). Deep pink in colour, this beer is unusual for two reasons, says Joe. One, it’s made with beets, and two, it’s part of a category of beers known as sours.
“They’ve erupted in the last few years as their own category of beer,” he explains. Traditional sour beers have a three-year aging process, but modern craft brewers figured out how to accelerate the aging process by heating the beer in the brewing kettle. Sour beers then became more practical to produce and more affordable for consumers.
Sour beers are often the “gateway” beer for people who don’t think they like beer, says Joe: “They’re very sour, and there’s a certain type of person who just loves them. They’ll taste one and say, ‘Oh! I didn’t know beer could taste like that!’”
Raising the glass of peony-coloured beer to my nose, I really can smell the beets, or at least a very earthy suggestion of beets. The beer is sour, but pleasantly so and very refreshing. If I didn’t know better, I would have said this was a cider.
“This beer is proof of how far the craft beer industry has come,” laughs Joe as he drains his tiny glass. “Here I am, a big bearded guy in a flannel shirt, drinking a pink beer.”
The third beer in our flight was another sour — the Corvus Lingonberry Lime Gose from Ravens Brewery in Abbotsford. Joe says that this salty sour beer won Gold at the World Beer Cup — quite an honour for a fledgling BC brewery.
As I peer into the cloudy, pinkish glass of wheat beer, I can’t really distinguish the smell of red lingonberries. But I can taste the tartness of lime and the salinity of the Himalayan salt in my first sip.
“This beer would taste great with seafood or a big bowl of mussels,” I mention to Joe.
“Beer works really well with food in general,” he says. “It’s much more versatile than wine, and the carbonation is great for cleaning the palate between courses.”
Interesting point. I’d never thought of that.
Leaving sours behind for now, Joe introduces me to another sub-category of beer — the very popular hazy IPA. The Humans IPA from Parkside Brewing in Port Moody (6.3 per cent) is like lemon meringue pie in a glass: it’s golden-coloured with a pleasant froth and a sweet, lemon-drop scent.
“Brewers have started to experiment with adding hops later in the process, so you get more of the fruity sweet characteristics of the hops and less of the bitterness,” Joe explains. “That’s what gives us that huge burst of lemon aroma.” The beer’s flavour is just as fruity but not sugary. It reminds me of tropical mango, pineapple and peach.
It’s time for our second flight (I should mention at this juncture that neither of us are driving and we’re sharing six-ounce glasses). This time, we’re turning to nut brown, dark and stout beers, beginning with the Silk Road Chai Nut Brown Ale (5.2 per cent) from Spinnakers Brewpub in Victoria. You’d have to like the scent and flavour of chai tea spices to enjoy this amber-coloured brew, a classic nut brown ale made with loose tea from Victoria’s Silk Road Tea. Fortunately, I do.
“Here you have something with definite spices,” says Joe. “It reminds me of some sort of baked Christmas treat.”
I agree: “There’s a molasses flavour coming through, like the sticky goodness of a fruit cake on the bottom of the pan.” Again, I can imagine a great food pairing, perhaps a crème brûlée.
Coriander, cloves, orange zest, Belgian candi sugar and local plums flavour our next beer, Saison Noel (6 per cent) from Howl Brewing in North Saanich.
“This small brewery produces some incredible craft beers,” says Joe. “They make the candi sugar themselves in the brew kettle.”
The Belgian-style dark beer tastes well-rounded, sweet, but not cloyingly so, with a slight tannin aftertaste. Don’t tell Joe, but for this wine lover, Saison Noel is reminiscent of a rich Cabernet Sauvignon.
Our last beer is a stout, and it does not disappoint. The Mole Stout (6 per cent) from Deep Cove Brewing in North Vancouver is crafted in the style of the famous Oaxacan dish, and brewed with poblano and jalapeno spices. Like a true mole, its flavour profile is complex. “Some beers with peppers are incredibly hot,” says Joe. This stout is not. The peppers add depth without the searing heat; cocoa nibs, chocolate malt and fresh Mexican spices balance the full, rich flavour of this delicious stout.
As we finished our last drops of beer, I admit to Joe that I was truly surprised at what I’d just experienced — so much so that I may no longer automatically reach for the wine list. Joe nods. He’s heard all of this before.
“Whether you’re a high-level beer geek or someone who doesn’t know a lot about beer, order a flight of beers, and you’re sure to find something there you like,” he says.
7th Annual Victoria Beer Week, March 6-14
Learn more about BC craft beers at the 7th annual Victoria Beer Week.
Check out these events to try some new and unique brews:
• Lift Off! The opening night event will feature all-new beers from a variety of BC breweries
• Pucker Up Sample all of the sour beers on tap at the Garrick’s Head & Churchill Pubs
• Saturday Night Casks More than 20 cask-conditioned beers showcase brewmakers’ creativity, often using highly unusual ingredients
Make craft breweries a highlight of your next B.C. staycation by checking out this province-wide ale trail. bcaletrail.ca
Craft Beer Revolution: The Insider’s Guide to BC Breweries