Contrary to popular belief, B.C. beer industry’s greatest asset is not the beer itself. No, it’s the actual space between the breweries, which make for some excellent road tripping if you’re so inclined.
We’re talking some staggering beauty here, folks: The hilly, Old West-y stretch between Kamloops and Kelowna; the rugged mountainous views between Nelson and Fernie; the epic coast between Powell River and Gibsons.
The latter makes up a quarter of the Circle Route Ale Trail, the first phase of an inter-agency tourism program designed to boost the profile of North Vancouver Island and Sunshine Coast that includes Nanaimo, the Comox Valley, Powell River and Gibsons.
The tourism angle is a no-brainer. The region’s natural beauty is as raw and exciting as anywhere else in the world, while offering a refreshingly relaxed cultural perspective. Beer, naturally, is the obvious hook for a few reasons: a) It’s internationally trendy; b) tourists enjoy boozing whilst on vacation; and c) it’s the most visible and celebrated cultural industry that the four cities along this route most have in common.
The Growler took time out of its busy schedule to provide for you 1000 words on why you should take the trip and what exactly you’ll see while you’re there* (thought we mostly ignored the beer here, since we discuss that in length elsewhere in this issue).
DAY 1: NANAIMO
It’s easy to write Nanaimo off as one sprawling urban dive – what with the dearth of refined cultural spaces and confounding layout. But what we all take for granted just how beautiful the city is. Nanaimo’s worth the visit, if just for the day, and if just for these breweries.
Located across from Nanaimo’s Sutton Park, Nanaimo’s newest brewery is an effective billboard for craft beer for the Lucky-lovin’ locals. The tasting room is spacious, bright and hip while avoiding pretension. The beers are all sessionable, approachable and tasty without overdoing the flavour. By summer, White Sails will have the introductory craft beer segment nailed.
Longwood is one of the most underappreciated breweries in the province, which is a shame. Several of its beers are interstellar, including (fittingly) the Stoutnik Russian Imperial Stout. The tasting room is modest, and located in an industrial area that takes a bit of effort to get to if you’re prone to laziness, but it’s worth the trek.
WHERE TO EAT
Longwood Brewpub: The original Longwood exists under the same umbrella as the brewery. Good pub fare here.
WHERE TO STAY
Coast Bastion Inn: Modest, comfortable and within stumbling distance to White Sails.
DAY 2: COMOX VALLEY
There’s a renaissance happening in the Valley, as young families and professionals flee larger urban areas for a calmer lifestyle and more affordable real estate. The area’s small enough that locals with enough savvy and ambition can mold the area into something sophisticated and funky, but large enough that these concepts will be embraced – which is how three craft breweries are now operating in an area with less than 45,000 people.
Cumberland’s a former mining town turned mountain biking haven and mid-Island hipster paradise, peppered with little character homes sold at reasonable prices. The brewery captures and expands on the eclectic, down-home vibes. A dependable, ever-rotating tap list and some of the friendliest people you’re likely to come across.
The tasting room has a distinct auto garage theme, and is made up of two wooden long tables, enhancing the community feel. Today, a hippie Millennial is working the bar. A pair of 30-something mothers are sitting next to a foursome of seniors, one of whom is holding Gladstone’s stout up to the light and saying, “It truly is a revolution,” to which The Growler assumes is referring to the craft beer revolution. But who really knows.
A small, extremely laid back brewery located in ground floor of the Best Western, which makes it easy to miss. The beers are largely West Coast in style, but again, without any of the fuss or muss that tends to dominate tasting rooms in bigger cities. It’s the sort of place that, according to head brewer Nicholas Williams, closes when “people stop coming.”
WHERE TO EAT
Guerilla Pizza: Attached to Gladstone, but separately owned, Guerilla has all the style of Vancouver pizzeria. All the ingredients are locally sourced, and almost everything on the menu is made in house.
White Whale Restaurant: A craft beer-focused pub located in a converted home along the slough. The menu offers a range of meals, from pizza to ramen to fresh sushi.
WHERE TO STAY:
Holiday Inn Express: It’s no Fairmont Newport Beach, but the rooms are cheap, cozy and come with complimentary access to a waterslide.
DAY 3: POWELL RIVER
There’s a Gilmore Girls-y quality to this town, where one gets the sense there’s a single degree of separation between everyone, and everyone’s extraordinarily friendly (and a little peppy), and they’re all apparently aware of your business.
The town’s divided in two parts: Westview, which is more populated and offers mind-blowing views of the Salish Sea; and the historic Townsite – or “the armpit” as one local described it. If it’s an armpit, it’s certainly a charming armpit, and something of a time warp. If you ignore the 2013 model Ford pickups and the marquee outside the Patricia Theatre that reads “Star Wars 3D,” you’ll get a good look of how the area looked in the’50s.
Thanks to a real-life Belgian brewer, Cedric Dauchot (who opened the brewery with his wife Chloe Smith in 2012), Townsite offers the most authentically Belgian brews in the province. They’ve also shaped the town’s entire attitude, not just about beer – though they have turned an entire town of blue-collar, Blue-swilling locals on to craft – but about what a small business can be in Powell River, helping to kick of a time of renewal in the area. A must-see.
WHERE TO EAT
Coastal Cookery: A West Coast-inspired menu with salmon burgers and quinoa salads and Asian-inspired dishes and the best damn pretzel The Growler has ever eaten.
WHERE TO STAY
Old Courthouse Inn: Visit Powell River just for this place alone. It takes the Townsite time warp element and doubles down. The hotel – converted from the actual old courthouse – is a tribute to the city’s past, with antiques and displays that provides a glimpse into mid-century West Coast attitudes and fashion. It’s the sort of place you’d expect benevolent ghosts to dwell (but don’t).
DAY 4: GIBSONS
Let’s take a little time to talk about the ferry. You need to take four on this trip, which means a total cost of $251.85 for two people. People complain constantly about BC Ferry fees, but as The Growler was reminded constantly – mainly by Islander and Coasters who are evidently obligated to address the issue whenever it comes up – B.C. actually has some of the lowest ferry rates in the world.
Which, OK, whatever. The real treat, when viewed objectively, is that these four ferry rides are more like miniature cruises – smooth, comfortable passages through some of the most spectacular coastal views on the planet. Tourists pay thousands of dollars for actual cruises for a glimpse of this stuff, and locals certainly take it for granted.
The piece de resistance of the trip. Am I using that correctly? It’s certainly a highlight of B.C. breweries. The tasting room itself has all comforts of a family cabin – plus lots of great beer, and crowds of locals who embrace Persephone as if it is, indeed, their very own cabin. It’s a family place with a picnic license, where folks can fill growlers and drink them on site. There’s live music regularly. There’s a down-home vibe to the space, inspired in part by the living farm surrounding it.
WHERE TO EAT
Farm to Feast Food Truck: A food truck located onsite at Persephone that serves pizza, tacos and more.. Like all the pizza on this trip, it’s locally sourced ingredients and Napoli style, and all around impressive
WHERE TO STAY
Arcturus Bed & Breakfast: Gibsons is flocked with B&Bs, and any of them will do. Arcturus is a spacious two-floor home, hosted by Stan and Celia Robben. They make excellent crepes.
*This trip was organized and paid for by Tourism Nanaimo, Sunshine Coast Tourism, and Comox Valley Economic Development and Tourism. All ferry travel was complimentary by BC Ferries.