The concept of paradise is different for everyone. Maybe it’s a happy place where you’re surrounded by friends and loved ones. Maybe it’s a magical land where all your wants and desires are catered. For me, though, paradise is anywhere with good beer, good food, good music and good people. And if I don’t have drive anywhere once I’m there, even better.
It dawned on me when I visited Nelson, B.C., earlier this autumn to check out the booming craft beer scene and the always awesome Massif Music Festival, that maybe I’d found my paradise. Given how many Vancouverites have moved to the city in recent years, I’d wager I’m not alone in this discovery.
Nestled in the West Kootenays overlooking Kootenay Lake, Nelson was founded 120 years ago as a silver mining boomtown, the architectural evidence of which is still very apparent in the adorable downtown area. The ‘60s and ‘70s saw American draft dodgers political asylum seekers flood north, and bring with them their hippie ideals, university educations and characteristic entrepreneurialism.
Aside from famously being the location of the 1987 Steve Martin comedy, Roxanne, and the birthplace of former Vancouver Canuck left winger Greg Adams, for the past 30 years, Nelson’s biggest claim to fame has been as “Pot Capital of Canada.” The downturn in the forestry industry hit the area hard in ‘80s, but industrious Nelsonites (Nelsonians?) saw an opportunity, focusing on a much more lucrative agricultural product. The money generated from clandestine grow-ops helped prop up the local economy at a time when many nearby communities were suffering high unemployment.
Today, Nelson is a shockingly sophisticated city considering its size. With a population of just 10,000, “The Queen City” is home to four craft breweries, as well as dozens of top-notch restaurants, cocktail bars and live music venues. It might have the highest rate of cool-shit-per-capita of any city in the country.
“The physical isolation of Nelson means you have to make your own entertainment,” says Mike Kelly of Backroads Brewing. “It’s a progressive town. A lot of artists and creative people live here so they’re very open to new ideas.”
Naturally, this commitment to hedonistic pursuits makes Nelson an ideal tourist destination. Honestly, I kind of want to move there.
Nelson Brewing Co.
Any walking beer tour of Nelson has to start at NBC. Not only is it one of the original B.C. craft breweries—having opened way back in 1991—but it’s also at the top of the hill, and Nelson is basically one massive hill. You’re going to want to start here and work your way down.
NBC has been ahead of curve for so long that it kind of gets taken for granted. It’s been putting out hop-forward IPAs like Paddywhack for more than 15 years, it went all-organic more than 10 years ago, and the beers still win tons of medals—three golds, three silvers and one bronze in the last two years at the B.C. Beer Awards, in fact. Last year, former NHLer Matt Walker and his wife Kate—a native Nelsonian (Nelsonite?)—bought the brewery and opened a new tasting room this past summer.
The brewery itself is housed in a crazy looking 120-year-old wooden structure, the construction of which clearly predated building codes. As it turns out, the building was the original home of the Columbia Brewing Company, makers of Kokanee (or so I am told by the bartender working this particular autumn afternoon).
The tasting room is super cozy and despite being just a few months old, it feels like it’s always been here. The room retains the historical vibe of the building it’s housed in, bringing to mind a miniature English pub.
There’s certainly an English influence to the beers Nelson brews, too, particularly the After Dark Organic Brown Ale (5.0% ABV), which won gold at the 2016 B.C. Beer Awards in the British Brown Ale category. Dark roasted and chocolate malts give this light-bodied and highly sessionable ale its lovely character.
- 512 Latimer St., NelsonBrewing.com
Backroads Brewing Co.
A short trundle down the hill to the main drag of Baker Street brings us to Backroads Brewing Co., Nelson’s newest craft brewery, having opened back in March.
Backroads’ storefront tasting room is just the right mix of “rustic cabin in the woods” and “modern beer hall.” The brewery is bumping on the Saturday we visit, with the wooden picnic tables filled with happy Goretex-clad locals. In the corner, two beflannelled fellows try to work out the rules to a game of Hammerschlagen, laughing as they furiously hammer oversized nails into a pockmarked Douglas fir stump that looks like it barely survived the Battle of the Somme.
Former NBC brewer and craft beer journeyman Mike Kelly is the driving force behind Backroads. Originally from Ontario, Kelly had been brewing professionally since 1994 for the likes of Whistler Brewing, Howe Sound and BrewHouse, before moving to Nelson in 2005. After more than 20 years of working for someone else, he’s relishing the opportunity to finally call the shots.
“I have a lot of freedom,” he says. “As a brewer, every drop is your reputation. Now I can focus on just making the beer I want to.”
His Big Smokin’ Joe Porter (8.5%ABV 32 IBU) is named for a regular customer at the brewery, and much like the name suggests, the beer is big on alcohol, smoke and coffee notes. Despite the big flavours at work here, the beer is quite well balanced: the smoked malt complements the coffee and chocolate notes without overpowering the beer, and some healthy hop bitterness ensures a clean finish.
Backroads has already received accolades for its beer despite only being open for nine months, picking up a gold and bronze at the B.C. Beer Awards. Given Kelly’s pedigree, this should surprise no one.
“I believe in producing high quality, traditional styles, with a twist sometimes,” he says. “I’m not worried about what other breweries are doing, I’m focused on my own beer.”
- 460 Baker St., BackroadsBrewing.com
Savoy Hotel and Brewery
A few blocks west on Baker Street, past the hacky sack circle and the street corner djembe jam session, and we land at the Savoy Hotel and Brewery. Owned by the producers of the Shamabala Music Festival, the Savoy is a restaurant, live music venue, boutique hotel, cocktail lounge and brewpub all under one roof.
The Savoy’s tiny 5 hL brewery sits adjacent to the dining room, in a space no bigger than a walk-in closet. To save space, the bright tank is rather ingeniously mounted to the ceiling.
When I first visited the Savoy last year, not long after it opened, I must admit I was not impressed with the beer—but every brewery has its struggles in the early days. On my most recent visit, I was pleasantly surprised to see things have improved immeasurably under new brewmaster and California transplant Jaq Taforo.
“The brewing vibe here is incredible,” says Taforo of Nelson. “It’s not competitive—there’s lots of camaraderie.”
Despite Savoy’s obvious size limitations, Taforo manages to keep anywhere form seven to 10 beers on tap at any time, ranging from blonde ales, kolschs and pilsners to an oatmeal cookie stout and rotating fruit-flavoured witbiers. I can’t think of another brewery or brewpub in B.C. that manages to put out such varied offerings from just 80 square feet of space.
The dry-hopped English Mild (4.8% ABV 33 IBU) was an interesting take on the malt forward classic, with some assertive hopping adding some new world flavour.
- 189 Baker St., SavoyHotel.ca
Torchlight Brewing Co.
When Torchlight first opened its doors three years ago, Nelsoners (Nelswegians?) were quick to welcome the new kid in town and it wasn’t long before Torchlight realized it needed to upgrade its tiny space. This past May, Torchlight moved into a much bigger home, located at the bottom of the hill, just a block away from Kootenay Lake and a short walk from Baker Street. Torchlight 2.0 is huge and airy, with vaulted ceilings and seemingly room for hundreds.
If you want variety, then Torchlight is definitely the brewery for you. With 20 taps, including two nitro taps and rotating guest taps, there’s always something new and different being poured.
The Noctis Dark Kettle Sour (6.0% ABV 8 IBU) was the standout of the beers I sampled. Flavoured with lavender and hibiscus, the subdued acidity was well supported by its malt backbone.
- 125 Hall St., TorchlightBrewing.com
Other cool stuff to do
Of course, there are other things to do in Nelson then drink delicious craft beer. Between the historic architecture, lakeside setting and soaring mountains in every direction, Nelson is pretty spectacular any time of year. The winter, though, is when things
Located 25 minutes south of Nelson, Whitewater Ski Resort is a powderhound’s wet dream, thanks to obscene amounts of dry Selkirk snow. The resort touts itself as “Canada’s Best Powder Mountain” and this year sees the unveiling of the resort’s newest highspeed quad chairlift. Even if skiing and snowboarding isn’t your thing, there’s some great snowshoe trails to keep yourself busy while your way cooler friends have fun on the slopes.
Head in the other direction and you’ll find Ainsworth Hot Springs, 45 minutes north of Nelson, overlooking Kootenay Lake. Soak up the 42 C healing waters in the main pool while the snow falls gently overhead, wade through the underground Horseshoe Caverns, or, if you’re braver than I am, take a dip in the cold plunge pool. (I only got as far as my ankle. No joke, it is insanely cold.)
Where to stay
When it comes to close access to Baker Street and craft beer, there are really two options: the aforementioned Savoy Hotel and the historic Hume Hotel (422 Vernon St., HumeHotel.com), which serves as a focal point for downtown Nelson. The Hume is also home to the legendary Mike’s Place Pub—one of the coziest, friendliest English-style pubs this province has to offer—as well as the Spiritbar live music venue and nightclub.