If you have a liver and pulse, you’ve probably noticed that there’s a lot more fantastic beer being brewed and consumed in Vancouver these days. In little more than five years, our city has transformed itself from a puritanical craft beer wasteland (not unlike the town from Footloose, but with more rain and less Kevin Bacon) into an international beer destination. We’re so spoiled for choice these days that perhaps we don’t appreciate just how lucky we are. But why should we accept anything less then perfection? Life’s too short for bad beer, after all.
The readers of the Vancouver Courier had their say in this year’s Stars of Vancouver poll, and I have to admit, y’all know your beer. Here are my thoughts on the winners.
Best Eastside Brewery: Strange Fellows Brewing
There are very few breweries I consider to be “God Tier”—that is, breweries so consistently awesome, that I’ve never had a beer of theirs that I haven’t liked. Breweries that constantly surprise me and can basically do no wrong. Strange Fellows is one of those rare breweries.
Since opening in 2014, brewer Iain Hill has been producing truly sublime beers inspired by the brewing traditions of the Low Countries, many of them barrel-aged or fermented in oak foeders.
Hill has been brewing for close to 30 years, and if you get him talking about beer (which isn’t hard), he’ll respond with infectious enthusiasm and earnestness. There’s so much love and respect for the craft of brewing and its traditions, it’s not surprising how uncompromising his beers are. Some of his sours take years to produce, for example, and if they aren’t ready by the time they’re scheduled to hit shelves, that’s too bad, everybody is just going to have to wait. Which I am more than happy to do—you can’t rush perfection.
This past year has seen the release of lambic-style beers like Kriek and blended barrel-aged sours like Mélange à Trois through the brewery’s Fellowship program, which provides members with exclusive bottle releases and discounts. As Hill’s barrel-aging program matures, expect to see more lambic-style beers and blends. I’m holding out hope that he’ll produce an oude gueuze someday—also known as “Brussels Champagne”, it’s made from blended lambic, like kriek, and can take more than three years to make. To my knowledge, no B.C. brewery has ever produced one. A boy can dream, anyways.
Try This: Reynard (6.5% ABV)
Oud bruin is a somewhat obscure Flemish style that’s essentially a sour brown ale (literally “old brown”). Strange Fellows’ take is tart and complex, with flavours of cherry, leather, vanilla and oak. Winner of Best European Sour Ale at the 2016 B.C. Beer Awards.
Best Westside Brewery: 33 Acres Brewing Co.
It seems that I’m always writing about 33 Acres, because they are always winning—and for good reason. Brewmaster Dave Varga knows the most important characteristic of sessionable beers is balance. No single element is ever allowed to overpower a 33 Acres beer; they all work in harmony with each other, complementing or contrasting as needed.
Naturally, 33’s quality and consistency, as well as its über cool aesthetic, have earned it a loyal following.
“Everything at 33 Acres is very purpose driven and the stories we typically write for our beers are what we’re actually feeling or going through at the time,” owner Josh Michnik told me back in December. “We don’t brew beer we wouldn’t drink ourselves and we’re not just doing things because we think it would sell or get attention. We do things because this is us and this translates into everything we do. Events, our front room, our food, our social media, our name and, of course, our beer.”
Try This: 33 Acres of Sunshine (5.0% ABV)
You know it, you love it: 33 Acres of Sunshine has become ubiquitous on the beer lists of beer savvy restaurants in Vancouver because it’s perfect any time of year, alongside any kind of dish. Flavours of candied orange, coriander, licorice and wheat enliven this refreshing bière blanche—the French version of the Belgian witbier.
Best Downtown Brewery: Steamworks Brewpub
When Steamworks opened at the corner of Cordova and Water streets in 1995, it was one of just a handful of craft breweries in the province at the time,
The original name for the brewery was going to be Quarterdeck, according to Craft Beer Revolution author Joe Wiebe, but that changed when it was discovered that the building the brewpub calls home contained an archaic steam heating system. The network of steam pipes running through the building is the same system that powers our fair city’s most perplexingly popular tourist trap, the Gastown Steam Clock. The pipes presented an opportunity and a steam-powered brewhouse was designed to take advantage of this unique feature—the first of its kind in Canada. And so, Steamworks was born.
The brewery was an instant hit, and it’s easy to see why: amazing location, quality beer, great food, all in a super cool space. What’s not to love?
That still holds true today.
Over the years, there have been plenty of changes. The original 60-seat brewpub was renovated and expanded, now seating several hundred. Steamworks rebranded in 2012 and began selling packaged beer. And there have been the many gold medals, including Best of Show and Best IPA at the 2016 B.C. Beer Awards for its Flagship IPA.
Steamworks has also become an incubator for some of the top brewing talent in B.C.—and the world—with the likes of Conrad Gmoser (Brassneck Brewery), Tak Guenette (Gladstone Brewing) and Caolan Vaughan (Stone and Wood Brewing Co.) all having brewed here.
These days, brewer Tony Gratl is at the helm at the brewpub, and judging by the beers he’s putting out, this Vancouver institution is in good hands.
Try This: Tart IPA (6.3% ABV / 25 IBU)
I’m not sure how a “tart IPA” differs from a “dry-hopped sour”, but in the end it doesn’t matter, because this beer is like eight different kinds of delicious. Floral and citrusy with bright acidity and hop aroma, this is the perfect IPA for people who say they don’t like IPAs, and the perfect sour for people who say they don’t like sours.