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Return to the Trails (Pt. 4): Go (North)west, Young Craft Beer Seeker

Earlier posts from this current "Return to the Ale Trails" series:
Part 1: Jumping Onboard The Trail Train - Newcomers to the Scene
Part 2: Ales for what Ails You - A Closer Look at Fresno, California's Ale Trail promotion
Part 3: The Columbus Ale Trail (Year 3) - Bigger and Better Than Ever

Part 1 of my original 4-part Ale Trails series (written in November 2016) can be found here.

This final part of my current Ale Trail series proved to be one that piqued my curiosity the most, as it delved into a scene that I knew existed but did not have many real details about.

While it doesn't make up the entire equation of what gets an area's craft beer scene noticed on a larger scale, overall exposure plays a huge role. In some ways, that's what Fresno (Part 2 of this series) and Columbus (Part 3 of this series) are seeking, albeit at different stages of the process.

In recent months, my spouse and I have noticed the appearance of Canadian craft beer on the shelves of our local stores, and the few bottles that we tried were a far cry from anything produced by a couple of big time north-of-the-border beer producers that happen to rhyme with Cabatt and Polson.

This is why a couple of Canadian newcomers to this compendium of ale trails particularly intrigued me. We had mentioned the Niagara Ale Trail in the first part of this series, and it is nice to know it's not that hard to grab a craft beer after coming up close and personal with one of the most spectacular natural wonders in North America.

However, it was the existence of the British Columbia Ale Trail, an area that I had known mainly for other things (the best Chinese food outside of China, numerous natural wonders, and one of the most popular movie filming substitute locations for various other world cities) that inspired me to dig deeper into the world of craft beer both in our neighbor to the north and British Columbia.

A lovely view of the Sunshine Coast off the town of Powell River,
the home of Townsite Brewing
While it has been shown that the economic boon of hosting an Olympics Games is a mixed bag at best, perhaps the most important thing the 2010 Winter Olympics did for Vancouver and the British Columbia as a whole was that it put the region into a higher international consciousness. Over the past decade or so, the area's tourism industry has been steadily growing: as noted in Tourism Industry of British Columbia statistics, the industry in 2015 generated $15.7 billion in revenue, a 5.3% increase over 2014, and a 37.3% increase from 2005. In addition, 2016 saw over 5.5 million international visitors to the area, including over 3.6 million visitors from the United States.

With "beer tourism" growing into a much larger segment of the tourism revenue world, I wanted to know how that played in with the creation of the British Columbia Ale Trail. Launched in October 2016 by a team of individuals intimately involved with the local craft beer scene, the ale trail was seen as a way "to showcase BC’s delicious craft beer, inspiring geography and potential for adventure with beer enthusiasts across our province, region and the rest of the globe."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ale trail has already seen its share of success, with eight new routes due to be added this summer to the original seven mapped out during the original launch.

Growlers from Longwood and White Sails Brewing, two breweries you can
find on the Nanaimo-Comox Valley section of the BC Ale Trail
To get a sense of the history of craft beer in Canada and the current scene in British Columbia, I was pleased to have corresponded with Joe Wiebe, Content Director for the BC Ale Trail. Known as the “Thirsty Writer,” Wiebe has authored of two editions of "Craft Beer Revolution: The Insider’s Guide to B.C. Breweries", the definitive guidebook to the province’s craft beer industry.

Wiebe's involvement with area craft beer events has been substantial over the years, including but not limited to the co-founding of Victoria Beer Week, producer of the Victoria Beer Map, as well as beer columnist for CBC Radio’s All Points West and BC Almanac programs.

Q: Here in Ohio, we've noticed a pretty big influx of Canadian craft beer (mostly from the Ontario area) and I've had an enjoyed a few pints myself from various brewers. Was there a particular year or two when the Canadian craft beer movement started taking off as a whole, and when did it start getting notice in your region of British Columbia?

Wiebe: Canadian Craft Brewing dates back to the early 1980s, much in line with the movement in the US. Out here in BC, it kicked off in 1982 with the opening of the Horseshoe Bay Brewing in West Vancouver, which was the first modern-day microbrewery to open in Canada. In 1984 a trio of breweries opened: Spinnakers Brewpub, which was Canada’s first brewpub, and Vancouver Island Brewing, both in Victoria; and Granville Island Brewing in Vancouver. (For more info, see these two blog posts regarding the history of the British Columbia Craft Beer, Part 1 and Part 2) 

Growth was steady throughout the first three decades and by 2012 there were about 50 craft breweries in BC. Everything exploded beginning in 2013, partially because of an announcement by the provincial government that allowed breweries to open on-site tasting lounges (previously, they could only serve up to 12 oz. of samples per person per day so most didn’t bother setting up tasting rooms before that). Since 2013, more than 80 new craft breweries have opened :n BC, most of which are doing well. Most are small operations with tasting rooms as their focus, rather than large production breweries focused on the province-wide wholesale draft market. They mainly sell beer to their locals and in many cases you have to visit the brewery to taste their products because many of them don’t package or distribute very much if at all.

So, in a nutshell, I’d say the big turning point was 2013. Ever since then the scene has expanded considerably and it is very dynamic, diverse and exciting now.

A craft beer is especially refreshing after hiking through the
Kootenays to spy some of the numerous waterfalls
Q: What inspired the brewers of British Columbia to create an ale trail? Did you design your model on any specific ale trail promotions already in existence, or was it more of a coming of minds in terms of what would work best in your province? 

Wiebe: We have an amazing craft beer scene here coupled with BC’s natural beauty and diversity of tourist activities so we knew it was something beer-focused tourists would be interested in, but we also knew that we needed to spread the word so people could discover this for themselves. That was the inspiration, and what enabled the project was an announcement from Destination BC (the province’s overall tourism body) that it would match funds for province-wide tourism initiatives. We put together a multi-year proposal starting seven initial regions on board and were successful. So we launched with those 7 regions last October (October is officially BC Craft Beer Month) and will be adding several more regions this year, and then hopefully will fill out the map in 2018.

Q: In our travels, we've been to many breweries on the outskirts of major cities or out in rural areas where the staff acknowledge there's a learning curve in introducing craft beer to the surrounding community. Have you found a similar phenomenon there in British Columbia, or are there more craft beer savvy folks than one might suspect?

Wiebe: You know, it’s interesting — I’ve been visiting breweries throughout BC for several years now, so I’ve seen this up close and personal. Back in 2012, I went on a big trip researching for my book, Craft Beer Revolution: The Insider’s Guide to BC Breweries, which came out in 2013, and I definitely found that many of the breweries in more remote places initially found it challenging and had to educate their locals about different beer styles and so on. 

But in the past few years, that has changed considerably. Brewery tasting rooms are a huge part of that because people get to sit inside the brewery and meet the brewers/owners themselves and chat with them. That makes a huge difference because it helps people make a personal connection with the product. Folks who have been loyal to a brand from one of the big multi-national breweries, whether it is Bud or a local brand like Lucky or Kokanee (both brewed by Labatt, which is part of AB-InBev), quickly change their allegiance to their local brewery because of that personal connection.

The other factor that has contributed to improving people’s awareness and understanding of craft beer is the tap house model where bars/restaurants expand their tap lists to 15 or 20 taps or more and then rotate lots of different beers through them. They also offer tasting flights just as the breweries do (along with pints) and this has helped create a really exciting and fresh tasting culture here. It really feels like the beer scene has shifted from one that was focused on quantity (i.e pints and pitchers) to quality (tasting flights and smaller glass sizes for specialty beers).

While Coast Mountain Brewing may not lie on the Pacific coast, one of
BC's most famous attractions in Whistler Mountain is firmly in sight
Q: Currently, your ale trails are self-guided affairs.  Is there a way that you're measuring how well your ale trail project is going, or is the ale trail more of an informational guide to help the craft-beer seeker find their way to the best brews near them?

Wiebe: First and foremost, we see the BC Ale Trail as a way to introduce our amazing craft beer scene to people who haven’t heard of it before. We are setting up some ways that the breweries themselves can work with visitors who show up and mention they are “on the ale trail” — contests, surveys, etc. That still isn’t fully formed yet, but we are also working with a digital media partner on tracking people that way.

Our itineraries are meant to be starting points for visitors to plan their own adventures here. Simply put, there are so many options for people here, and when you add in all the natural beauty and outdoor experiences one can enjoy here, we figure the best way to tell that story is through the videos and photography on our site, along with the stories we tell about the featured regions and breweries. Our goal is to get folks to add BC to their beer tourism bucket lists.

There's no need to feel moody after having a flight of brews from Moody Ales
in Port Moody, located approximately a half-hour east of Vancouver

Q: I know you probably don't like choosing favorites, but are there any particular highlights that those south of the border who decide to do a little brew-seeking on a trip to B.C. can look forward to when exploring your various ale trails?

Wiebe: I’ll give you three that exemplify the diversity of the craft beer scene here:

1) Brewers Row in Port Moody - This is our “Micro Ale Trail” where 4 breweries can be found on one street in this small city just outside Vancouver. Brewers Row is easily walkable — just a few blocks from end to end — and a newly opened SkyTrail (light rail transit) line allows visitors to get to Port Moody easily from Vancouver, making this an ideal trip for someone interested in a more urban experience. 

2) Sunshine Coast - Although technically part of the BC mainland, and only a short distance from Vancouver, the Sunshine Coast feels like an island all to itself because it is only accessible by ferry. There are three breweries there, including two in the lower southern half and one in the upper half, each of which is unique and special. 

Up in Powell River is Townsite Brewing, which just celebrated its 5th anniversary by opening an expanded tasting room. Its brewer, C├ędric Dauchot, is Belgian by birth, and its shows in many of his beers, including a recently initiated barrel-aged wild ale program. Persephone Brewing in Gibsons at the south end of the Sunshine Coast is based on a farm where they grow hops along with fruits and vegetables for local restaurants, and Gibsons Tapworks recently opened, adding another unique experience to that itinerary. The Sunshine Coast itself is a beautiful place with amazing outdoor activities options, including kayaking, hiking, trail riding, canoeing and more.

3) Kootenay Rockies East & West (OK, I’m cheating because this is actually two separate ale trails) If Port Moody is a micro-trail, then the Kootenay Rockies are the opposite end of the spectrum, featuring: majestic mountains, panoramic valleys, waterfalls, hot springs, and intimate contact with wilderness. This is for someone who wants to explore and experience BC’s spectacular natural beauty paired with delicious craft beer.

I could keep going... 

After visiting Whistler's Audain Museum, which features works from First
Peoples up to contemporary artists, you can pull up a craft beer from the
nearby The Brewhouse at Whistler or The Beacon Pub & Eatery
Q: On a personal level, what kinds of beer do you enjoy drinking?

Wiebe: Well, that changes often, but currently I am really grooving on Saisons/Farmhouse ales, especially ones brewed with mixed cultures or wild yeasts. I also love barrel-aged versions of these beers. I helped produce a new event called All About the Wood during Victoria Beer Week earlier this year, which featured barrel-aged beers exclusively, and it was a great success.

Recently, the wave of hazy IPAs reached us so that’s been fun to explore as well. I still reach for a big, hoppy IPA quite often, too. Oh, and gose. I really like gose, but what’s interesting is I noticed when I visited Washington. DC and Brooklyn last summer that all the goses I tried were super sour, much more than I’m used to from the handful of breweries who brew them here in BC. I prefer them less sour, personally. When they are just lightly tart and slightly salty they can be incredibly delicious and refreshing, especially in the summer. Don’t get me wrong, I do like sour beers, but I don’t think that high level of acidity is appropriate to that style. 

Q: Finally, have you had the chance to drink craft beer south of the border here and, if so, what breweries have you come to like? 

Wiebe: I have been to Portland, Oregon, and really like a lot of the beer I’ve tasted there. I was especially impressed with Upright Brewing. I loved Logsdon Farmhouse Ales and Pfriem from Oregon, as well. Recently I got to visit Bellingham, Washington, and was really impressed with a couple of the breweries there, including Aslan Brewing and Wander Brewing

I’ve enjoyed the occasional bottle of Pliny the Elder from Russian River, as well as some amazing IPAs from Fort George Brewing (Astoria OR), Bale Breaker Brewing (Yakima, WA), and some of the breweries from San Diego like Green Flash, Modern Times and Ballast Point.

All photos, save for the screenshot of the BC Ale Trail webpage, were provided courtesy of the BCAleTrail.ca

For more information on the BC Ale Trail, please consult the following media links:
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For general tourism information on Vancouver and British Columbia, please consult the following media links for Destination BC
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