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A Great Canadian Long Weekend on the Victoria Ale Trail

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Poster for The Great Canadian Beer Festival 2017.

Most of the 3.6 million annual overnight visitors to Victoria – city of my birth and capital of the province of British Columbia – are drawn to its charming island setting, British colonial character, mild climate, and outdoor activities. Each time I visit Suzhou’s sister city, however, I rarely find time to stroll the lush grounds of Butchart Gardens, explore the hidden alleys of Canada’s oldest Chinatown, or join a waterborne whale watching adventure. It’s the craft beer I come for.

One of my favourite times to enjoy Victoria’s fermented delights is in the second week of September when the Royal Athletic Park plays host to the Great Canadian Beer Festival (GCBF). More than 60 breweries participate, attracting approximately 8,000 people. With so many brewers and craft beer enthusiasts gathered in a city of only 86,000 residents, you can feel the excitement.

This year was special. It was July 11, 1992, when the forerunner to Canada’s longest-running beer festival was held at George Pearkes Arena with eight participating breweries. Twenty-five years later, the GCBF has grown substantially from its humble origins and survived many challenges. Its founding organizers continue to serve as directors of the festival society. Needless to say, there was no way that I would miss the opportunity to celebrate this remarkable achievement.

Victoria’s Second Brewpub

Swans - Victoria's second brewpub.

Although the GCBF is held on a Friday and Saturday, I like to turn it into a three-day trip to avoid the rush to the ferry after the festival ends. Enjoying a Great Canadian long weekend means I can visit more stops on the Victoria Ale Trail on Saturday evening, then enjoy a traditional leisurely Sunday brunch with friends at Spinnakers – Canada’s first brewpub. Afterwards, there’s the option of taking an indirect route back to Vancouver via the city of Nanaimo with more craft beer stops along the way, or heading straight to the Swartz Bay ferry terminal.

I checked into my hotel on Friday at 11:00am. The festival media tour didn’t start until 3:00pm – an hour before the gates opened to the public – which gave me time to choose a suitable place for lunch. I usually find myself heading to Swans for pre-GCBF pints, since it’s only a short walk from the brewpub to the venue. This year, they also changed brewers after 14 years, so I was interested to see if Swans was maintaining its beer lineup or taking a different direction.

Opening in 1989 in a converted 1913 warehouse next to Chinatown, Swans was Victoria’s second brewpub. Like the Troller Pub in Horseshoe Bay, the brewery was built by BC craft beer pioneer, Frank Appleton, who hired and trained Swans’ first brewer, Sean Hoyne. Hoyne moved down the street to Canoe Brewpub in 1996 to become its first brewer. He stayed there until opening his eponymous brewery just a little further away on Victoria’s Beer Mile in 2011.

The spacious pub is warm and welcoming with high wooden ceilings, exposed beams, and mottled red brick. The room is lavishly decorated with artwork from the original owner’s private collection, featuring mostly local aboriginal pieces, but also a portrait of former Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau.

I always enjoyed going to Swans to enjoy pints of their cask ales, such as Appleton Brown Ale and Buckerfield’s Bitter. This time, however, they didn’t have any, as they had discontinued offering casks on an ongoing basis. This is unfortunate because few places, even in Victoria, offer true cask ale in the British tradition. It is a distinct pleasure when you have a Real Ale that’s been properly cellared and served.

Swans brewer, Chris Lukie, was kind enough to come out from the brewery to introduce himself. He joined me for a chat at the bar while I did a survey of his beers. As with many of British Columbia’s craft brewers, Swans offers a wide range of styles to suit many different beer drinking palates. This is good business sense, especially for a hotel brewpub. The lineup also varies according to season. As it was the tail end of summer, most of the beers were on the lighter side, such as a Kölsch and a Wit. I particularly enjoyed Chris’s Red Pilsner which was clean and crisp, but also had a nice rush of malt character to chew into, with notes of honey and caramel.

Not having had anything to eat, and starting to feel the tingle of alcohol in my body, I ordered some Risotto Bites to snack on. These were made with smoked bacon, tomato, and risotto that were rolled into balls, breaded, and fried to create a thin, crisp outer layer. They were served with chipotle mayonnaise, which pleasantly accentuated the smokiness of the bacon.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to sample other items from the eclectic brewpub menu. Their Duck Burger with beer-braised onions and Brie cheese would certainly have been a tempting choice for me. The time for the GCBF media tour was nearing, so I had to bid Chris a farewell, then headed over to the Royal Athletic Park.

A Great Beer Festival: Round 1

The 25th Annual Great Canadian Beer Festival on opening day.

After 24 years, the Great Canadian Beer Festival is a well-oiled machine. As the setup crew completes preparations with deliveries of beer, ice, and water to the individual booths, a determined stream of brewery exhibitors flows in through the service gate with their banners, props, merchandise, and beer dispensing equipment. I venture into this frenzy to register, then gather with the other media attendees around John Rowling, one of the GCBF founders. He then proceeds to take us on a tour of select booths, giving us a background to the festival and British Columbia craft beer, while we sample some choice brews.

In the meantime, a long line of festival ticket holders had formed outside the stadium entrance, eager to receive their tasting glass and beer tokens. The gate actually opens before the 4:00pm start time to allow those at the head of the line to already get their glasses and tokens. They then wait in a staging area for the official opening. Once John has finished the media tour, it is tradition for him to ring the starting bell to officially open the festival. This year, he was a little too engrossed in our tour, which made him a bit late in ringing the bell. By that time, the rope had dropped and eager punters were already striding with determination towards the chosen booth of their first beer. But tradition is tradition. John rang his bell, anyway.

Friday is the quieter of GCBF’s two days. The attendees are a bit older, overall, and more measured in the pace of their beer sampling, which encourages the brewers to attend their booths and strike up conversations for those interested to learn more about their brewery and beer. Some brewers bring special cask ales that can be an additional attraction for beer geeks. For example, Driftwood Brewing usually brings a pin each of the highly-acclaimed Singularity Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout and Old Cellar Dweller Barleywine. Unsurprisingly, they are quickly drained.

Unlike indoor beer festivals that are often held in the rather bland surroundings of arenas or convention centres, the outdoor setting of the Royal Athletic Park helps to create a more cheerful atmosphere. The weather in Victoria during the second weekend of September is, with very few exceptions, consistently warm and sunny. It’s also more pleasant to walk on soft, manicured grass than polished concrete. To round out the festive mood, there are roving and static entertainers playing upbeat music, performing magic tricks, or creating funny hats from balloons.

To ensure hungry festivalgoers can enjoy something to eat without having to leave the park, six food trucks offer a variety of cuisines on-site. It was my tradition to start off the festival with a glass of Merridale cider and a pulled pork sandwich. This was a great pairing, and eating early helps prevent you from getting drunk too quickly. Unfortunately, the regular barbecue vendor wasn’t there this year. I may have to change my tradition if they don’t return next year. Ali Baba Pizza seems to be a staple, because beer and pizza are like lips and teeth, right?

After Friday’s session ends at 9:00pm, the craft beer establishments of Victoria’s Ale Trail beckon from nearby to continue the revelry. This is also the night that the craft brewers’ party is held at one of the local breweries. So, while my non-media, non-brewer colleagues set out for their chosen watering holes, I had the privilege of joining the gathering in the parking lot between Driftwood and Hoyne for free-flow beer, a grilled chicken dinner, and energetic live music. How I got back to my hotel was a little hazy, but I did wake up in the correct place.

A Great Beer Festival: Round 2

Roving entertainers play upbeat music at The Great Canadian Beer Festival.

Saturday’s GCBF session attracts more people and a younger crowd. There is more of a party atmosphere with people who even dress up in costumes. Lineups in front of popular breweries can get long. If word gets around that there is a particularly good beer at a given booth, expect a long wait. In that case, you stop by a booth with a short line to pick up a beer to taste while you’re waiting in the long line, so as not to waste too much time.

With more than 60 breweries participating, time is precious. It helps to have a plan ahead of time to ensure you get to taste the special beers and are able to visit all the breweries of your choice. For a successful day, it’s important to regularly drink water, eat some food, and make sure you have some protection against the sun. Keep in mind that as the day progresses, lineups for the portable toilets can get long.

Half an hour before the end of the festival, the bell sounds for last call, warning people that taps will be turned off soon. There’s a last-minute rush for people to find their final beer. The popular ones, especially from the out-of-town breweries, may already be gone. Visiting breweries will start packing up, as some will try to catch the 7:00pm ferry. When the mournful call of the final bell signals the end of the festival, attendees reluctantly exit the park in varied states of inebriation. The breweries rush to quickly break down their booths, a stream of people carry equipment to expectant vehicles stationed in the neighbouring parking lot.

Victoria’s Oldest Pub

The Garrick's Head in Bastion Square is Victoria's oldest pub.

My routine is to go back to my hotel to freshen up, then venture out to meet friends at the evening’s chosen drinking establishment. This year, it was Garrick’s Head in historic Bastion Square. Dating back to 1867, it is one of the oldest English pubs in Canada. Unlike the typical pub, however, Garrick’s Head offers Victoria’s largest selection of local and imported craft beer on tap. That means that once you find yourself a seat, it’s easy to settle down for the rest of the evening, which is exactly what happened.

I joined a group of friends at one of the communal tables in the front room of the pub. This is a good place to situate yourself since it’s close to the bar, so your drink order will be quickly fulfilled. You will also be able to strike up conversations with strangers who choose to sit at the empty seats at your table, perhaps developing new, close friendships.

By this time I was hungry, so was eager to look at a food menu. Garrick’s Head say they offer traditional English pub fare, but that isn’t really true. Mussels & frites, Thai curry, perogies, poutine, hummus… Not quite. Thankfully so, because the menu is well-designed with an eclectic selection of food choices to satisfy a range of palates, even vegetarians.

I opted to start my meal with their Pacific Seafood Chowder – a thick, cream-based soup loaded with clams, shrimp, cod, halibut, and bacon. Next, for a healthy option, I chose their Big Nut Salad. Roasted butternut squash, arugula, caramelized onions, and pine nuts were evenly tossed in a light vinaigrette and topped with fresh goat cheese. Still with an appetite, the idea of dessert was appealing. In this case, I decided to go for a traditional English dish of Warm Sticky Date Pudding served with toffee sauce and vanilla ice cream.

My cravings satisfied, I spent the rest of the evening enjoying Garrick’s Head’s pleasant atmosphere in the company of congenial friends, new and old.

Canada’s First Brewpub

Spinnakers is Canada's first brewpub.

It had rained on Saturday, putting a little damper on the mood at the beer festival. This was the first time that had happened in all the years that I have been going to the Great Canadian Beer Festival. By Sunday, however, the weather had cleared and the sun was bathing Victoria again in its glorious, golden warmth. This meant it was still possible to enjoy my traditional leisurely brunch on the deck at Spinnakers.

A small contingent of us craft beer visitors from Vancouver trickled into the pub beginning at 11:00am. A number of people were already seated downstairs in the dining room and on the patio. We always head upstairs where long-time members of the festival’s takedown crew also gather at a long table for a post-festival meal hosted by its organizers, Gerry Hieter and John Rowling. Sitting near them, just outside on the deck, gives us an opportunity to also casually socialize with them.

Now the hard work begins with having to choose from the wide variety of food and drink on offer at Spinnakers. Since my last visit, they have started a barrel-aging and sour beer program, and make their own ciders, compounding the challenge. Needless to say, I would have to order at least one tasting flight. However, I never miss out on the opportunity to enjoy at least one pint of their hand-pulled English-style cask ales. It was these beer styles that John Mitchell began brewing when he and Paul Hadfield opened Spinnakers in 1984, launching the craft beer revolution in British Columbia. Spinnakers, in my mind, remains the best place to enjoy Real Ale in the province.

Spinnakers is fortunate to have a very talented chef in the person of Ali Ryan. She and her hard-working kitchen team consistently turn out high quality food sourced from the fields and waters as close to the pub as possible. They even do much of their own food processing in-house, from smoking salmon to baking bread, even making their own malt vinegar. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that even non-beer drinkers are enticed to dine at Spinnakers.

Given that we had just celebrated 25 years of the GCBF, I was in the mood to go for a more classic English pub experience, unlike the previous night. So rather than order the excellent Wild Pacific Salmon Hash Benny with a West Coast Pale Ale that I have savoured on previous brunches, I was enticed by the Ale Battered Wild Pacific Halibut & Chips with tartar sauce and cabbage-caraway coleslaw. Fish and chips calls for a Bitter, so I chose a pint of Mitchell’s ESB in homage to the grandfather of B.C. craft beer. It was a fitting close to a Great Canadian long weekend that always seems to end too soon.

For background on the Great Canadian Beer Festival, read Dave Smith’s “GCBF 25: Untold stories of Beerfest“. More details on the Victoria Ale Trail and a suggested three-day itinerary can be found on The BC Ale Trail website.

Getting There

BC Ferries
bcferries.com
A 95-minute sea voyage between Vancouver and Victoria that is especially scenic through Active Pass and the Southern Gulf Islands. Reservations are recommended on weekends and during the summer.

Harbour Air
harbourair.com
No need to bother with driving and parking. Fly directly from downtown Vancouver to downtown Victoria in just 35 minutes by seaplane. Highlights are the dramatic harbour takeoff and landing, and the bird’s-eye passage over the picturesque Gulf Islands.

Where to Stay

Spinnakers Gastro Brewpub & Guesthouses
308 Catherine Street, Victoria, BC
spinnakers.com
Tel: +1 (250) 386-2739
For a Victorian-style bed and breakfast experience after enjoying an evening of craft beer and local food pairing in the brewpub, book a room in Spinnakers’ luxuriously-restored 1884 Heritage Guesthouse.

Swans Hotel
506 Pandora Avenue, Victoria, BC
swanshotel.com
Tel: +1 (250) 361-3310
An all-suite hotel featuring accommodations with full kitchens and separate bedrooms. Some suites are two-storey lofts sleeping up to six guests. The spectacular 280-square-metre penthouse spans three levels, including a rooftop terrace. You may want to avoid rooms directly above the brewpub, as they can be noisy from the nightly live music.

Recommended Activities

Great Canadian Beer Festival
gcbf.com
Since 1993, a very popular two-day celebration of Canadian craft beer held in September featuring more than 200 beers mostly brewed in BC. Tickets go on sale in July and sell out very quickly.

Hoppy Hour Ride
thepedaler.ca
Tel: +1 (778) 265-7433
Enjoy a three-hour pub crawl by bicycle with craft beer tastings at three locations, including a chocolate truffle and beer pairing.

Pickle Pub Crawl
victoriaharbourferry.com/tours-services/pickle-pub-crawls
Tel: +1 (250) 708-0201, extension 100
A unique pub crawl via quaint water taxis offered by Victoria Harbour Ferry from February to October.

Victoria Beer Week
victoriabeerweek.com
Looking for more than a day trip or weekend visit to the Garden City? VBW offers a beer-filled week of activities at numerous venues around town in March.

West Coast Brewery Tours
westcoastbrewerytours.ca
Tel: +1 (250) 516-4402
Guided public or customized private brewery tours let your group focus on experiencing Victoria’s top craft breweries without having to worry about how to travel to each.

This article was first published in Chinese in the Winter 2017 edition of The Beer Link Magazine.

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