Has Victoria's beer scene lost its edge?

Photo by Jonny Healy
Photo by Jonny Healy

It’s the city of newlyweds, nearly deads and die-hard hopheads. Victoria has laid claim to B.C.’s craft beer throne ever since Spinnakers opened as Canada’s first brewpub in 1984 and it’s given the city a cutting edge to slice through those musty stereotypes.

But a kind of malaise now seems to be creeping over its beer scene as well. At least, that’s the impression when compared to what’s happening on the other side of the Salish Sea, where breweries are sprouting like crazy across the Lower Mainland.

Fuelled by the B.C. government’s introduction of the brewery lounge endorsement in 2013, Vancouver and its suburbs all the way east to Abbotsford have seen upwards of 30 new openings. The City of Vancouver alone has doubled its number of breweries to two-dozen over the past three years. That’s twice the number currently operating in Greater Victoria, which, over the same period, saw just two breweries open.

What’s particularly conspicuous is that Greater Victoria doesn’t yet have a single brewery lounge, which has been such a principal cause of growth in breweries across the province.

So, has B.C.’s grand old dame had her fill of beer?

Well, the fact is that the provincial capital still aces Vancouver when it comes to number of breweries per capita: there’s roughly 1 per 9,800 people compared to Vancouver’s 1 per 26,000 (in Greater Victoria it’s around 1 per 29,000; in Metro Vancouver 1 per 48,100; all using 2011 census figures).

So Vancouver has actually been catching up over the past three years. If anything, the numbers suggest there’s still plenty of scope for more breweries in the Lower Mainland.

Conversely, there’s likely less appetite for start-ups in brewery-dense Victoria.

“I wouldn’t say we’re saturated, but there’s probably a little more hesitation to come into the market,” says Matt Phillips, owner of Phillips Brewing Company on Victoria’s Government Street.

Victoria’s more sustainable pace of growth since the mid-1980s has seen it become home to many of the province’s veteran craft breweries, several of whom – led by Phillips – have consequently become among B.C.’s biggest.

This partly explains why they don’t have lounges: Firstly, because the floor plans of the likes of Phillips, , Driftwood Brewery, Lighthouse Brewing Co. and the recently sold Vancouver Island Brewery were drawn up well before the lounge concept was introduced; and secondly, having kept pace with demand by continuously expanding, these breweries have simply run out of space in which to set up a dedicated lounge.

“We’re all shoehorned into these spaces that made sense to us in terms of production under the regulatory model at the time,” Phillips says. “None of us took space we didn’t need and so, as a result, none of us have space to use.”

Yes, you can fill your growler at these breweries, but their tasting rooms are functional nooks that would be challenging and expensive to transform into cost-effective service areas. For Phillips to create a viable tasting lounge, “I’d have to move. We’re all shoehorned into these spaces that made sense to us in terms of production under the regulatory model at the time… None of us took space we didn’t need and so as a result none of us have space to use.”

Yes, you can fill your growler at these breweries, but their tasting rooms are functional nooks that would be challenging and expensive to transform into cost-effective service areas. For Phillips to create a viable tasting lounge, “I’d have to move my brewhouse and a bunch of fermenters,” says Phillips. “It’s pretty daunting. I guess it’s whether we make beer or seats for people to drink it.”

There’s also not as much of a financial incentive for the bigger craft players to open a lounge, says Victoria brewing legend Sean Hoyne, who opened Hoyne Brewing Co. in 2011. Lounges are hugely beneficial for smaller breweries as it gives them a vital revenue stream, but the benefit fades as the operation gets larger, Hoyne believes.

“If we were to throw in a tap room it might be a nice thing to do, but it’s not going to change our overall financial picture because the main thrust of our business is relatively larger production,” he says.

Bear in mind, too, that Victoria has a considerable ratio of brewpubs compared to production breweries. The central locations of veterans Spinnakers, Swans and Canoe have undoubtedly been part of their success over the years – but the fact they’ve recently been joined by brewpubs in outlying areas (Rock Bay’s Moon Under Water in 2011, View Royal’s Four Mile in 2014 and Langford’s Axe & Barrel in April) indicates that there’s something more appealing about the brewpub model in Victoria.

This, in turn, highlights a distinct difference between the drinking cultures of Victoria and Vancouver.  Brewpubs are alternative forms of Victoria’s many well-established neighbourhood pubs, which have long served as meeting places for their surrounding communities, in the tradition of the British local. Victoria-based brewing historian Greg Evans can reel off a list of storied pub names, including Christie’s Carriage House, the Fernwood Inn, the Beagle, the Penny Farthing and the Bent Mast.

“These places are neighbourhood hubs,” Evans says. “If you want to know what’s going on in Fairfield you go to the Penny Farthing or Christie’s Carriage House. … They’ve got quiz nights, they’ve got darts leagues, they’ve got it all, and they’ve been around for a long, long time.”

Vancouver and its suburbs, on the other hand, have lacked the same concentration of these kinds of establishments, says Evans, who once lived in Richmond for five years and frequented the Flying Beaver, but found little in the way of other good local pub options.

Brewery tasting lounges are now arguably filling this niche with their casual atmosphere and welcoming community feel. Again, it can be argued that Vancouver is playing catch-up – and that there’s simply less need for brewery lounges in pub-rich Victoria.

That’s certainly reflected in the simple fact that City of Victoria staff have yet to handle a single lounge endorsement application, according to spokeswoman Katie Hamilton. (VIB is a slight exception, having recently been granted a special event area endorsement – like a lounge endorsement for events only – for its hospitality room.)

It’s not as if the process is any more onerous than other bureaucratic procedures facing breweries in B.C. On the city’s end, staff would simply take into account “noise and community impacts” such as zoning and parking, Hamilton says, before providing any comments to the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch, which has the final say on the application.

City councillor Ben Isitt, for one, sees no problem giving the go-ahead for a lounge endorsement.

“There aren’t really issues about public order or excessive drinking with those kinds of establishments as far as I know, so I think they would be supportable,” Isitt says.

It looks like it’ll be up to new breweries to launch lounge culture in Greater Victoria. Category 12 Brewing near Saanichton has applied for an endorsement, while Victoria Caledonian distillery and brewery aims to operate a lounge when it opens in Saanich later this year.

But let’s take a step back. Instead of aiming to replicate Vancouver’s brewery model in Victoria, perhaps we should just celebrate the difference between the cities’ respective beer scenes: Vancouver’s vibrant, modern brewery lounges and Victoria’s cosier, more traditional brewpubs and neighbourhood pubs. Variety is a cornerstone of craft beer, after all.

In any case, the tasting room, brewery lounge and brewpub are just slightly different points on the same spectrum, according to Phillips. “I always argue that we have tasting rooms, they’re just called brewpubs here,” he says.

And if none of those options satisfy your thirst in Victoria, just head to your local.

“It seems logical [to have tasting lounges] in the city, with the beer culture we have,” Evans says. “But maybe we’ve got another beer culture, which is these neighbourhood pubs that have been around for 15, 20, 25 years now. They’re very strong, they’re very busy, they’re very buoyant and they’re hard to get into on a Saturday night.”

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