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Monday, October 13, 2014

A Beery Overview of Victoria, BC

A couple weeks back, the fine folks at Tourism Victoria invited me to visit their fine city to see what I thought about their fine beer scene.  (Full disclosure: they paid for the trip, but I selected the breweries to visit and was left to follow my bliss while I was there.)  I wish I could do this for every major city in North America: it is so interesting.  Every town has different rhythms, different interests, and the vibe of the beer scene always has a particular local flavor.  Some towns are better than others beerwise, though, and Victoria, after a couple decades of inaction, has really started to blossom.  In today's post, I'll give you an overview of the city and the state of beer, and then I'll follow up with some in-depth posts later this week.

Bend by the Sea?
There are some ways in which Victoria reminds me of Portland: it's a small, insular town that has a bigger, more famous city nearby; it simultaneously knows it's one of the prettiest, coolest towns there is, but also a little anxious because the rest of the world may not realize it.  But even more, it reminds me of a different Oregon town--Bend.  The metro area is 350,000 people, but Victoria proper--the place where all the breweries are--is just 80,000 people.  No city can touch the density of breweries Bend has;  Victoria, with ten breweries, ain't too shabby, though.  Like Bend, the downtown area is compact and walkable, and you can stroll pretty easily from brewery to brewery.  And like Bend, the quality is high across the board (with one exception--Canoe--but I'll get to that in a later post).

Unlike high-desert Bend, though Victoria is all about water.  Locals are keenly aware that they live on an island (one of the Canadian-subtle ways of digging Vancouver is by referring to it as " the mainland").  The town is built around a harbor with geometry like interlocking triangles; because of he way the harbor zigs and zags, you have the sense of water all around you.  Sea planes from Seattle and Vancouver glide in and let travelers off downtown; sea taxis shuttle people from one side of town to the other.  Smaller boats glide across the inner harbor, and giants loom on the horizon.

In terms of the physical city, Victoria definitely feels like a West Coast city--I recognized Astoria in some places, Seattle in others--but also has a strong European quality.  The Parliament buildings have a distinctly British flavor, as does the famous Empress Hotel.  The scale of the streets, the ease of walking around, the ready availability of pubs--these elements reminded me of some of the small English towns I've visited. (It doesn't hurt that there's a giant gothic statue of the namesake queen overlooking the inner harbor.)

Beer Styles and Trends
Victoria was one of the first places in North America to get a brewery when Spinnaker's opened in 1984.  They created the palate for the first generation of Victorians: English-style ales, served on cask.  Five years later, Swan's opened up and followed suit.  (Vancouver Island Brewing, older than Swan's, didn't move into Victoria proper until 1995.)  Call this the first layer of sediment in the Victorian soil. Another batch of breweries opened up about fifteen years later--Lighthouse, Canoe, Phillips--and they moved the city into what you might call "standard craft."  The pales, browns, wheats, and IPAs that persisted until the aughts, when breweries started to branch out and find their individual voices. 

The final group came up in the latest wave of breweries in the last five years.  Second- or third-gen breweries (how long is a brewery generation?), they make the kind of beers we associate with 2014--experimental and hoppy beers.  They are also the breweries that make the most noise in the geek media, led by Driftwood (2008), Moon Under Water (2010, relaunched 2012), and Hoyne (2011). 

I think it's worth knowing about these different layers of sediment, because as you're wandering in and out of pubs, you encounter each one, preserved as if in amber.  This is different from cities south of the border, where the breweries tend to all be pulled together in certain directions.  If you visit breweries, you may find older styles of beer still in production, but walk into a pub, and you'll get a sense of the trends of the moment.  In Victoria, though, you might find a classic English-style bitter or a saison or a super-hopped IPA.  And unlike the US, it seems that when it says "English-style," a brewery means it.  You will find a balanced ale with rich malt character and only modest hopping--not a hoppy fireball that may have been made with Maris Otter.

I wouldn't want to predict which styles will be popular in five years--things are volatile and evolving--right now there are three types of beers I kept finding over and over again: super bitter IPAs (a stable variety), light, Saaz-hopped lagers (a growing style), and balanced cask ales (declining).  There are distinctive features to these styles, too.

The IPAs taste like American versions did in about 1999.  They are cuttingly bitter and buttressed very little by late-addition flavor and aroma hops.  The first two or three places I went, I thought this might be exceptional, but it turned out not to be.  These beers are not considered especially bitter and are brewed the way people expect.  As I smacked and choked after sips of these IPAs, Victorians looked on placidly, as if their tongues weren't dissolving.

A (successful) beggar at Fisherman's Wharf

The second trend, which contrasts quite a bit from the first, are these lovely little 5% lagers everyone seems to make.  They're a hybrid between German and Czech brewing, with the soft, grainy malts of German pilsners, but the deeply saturated, tangy flavor of Saaz hops.  Unlike the IPAs, these aren't bitter--they have loads of Saaz flavor, but run around 30 BUs or less.

The English/cask ales round out the regular offerings, though they are confined more to the breweries that make them.  They are brewed classically and taste almost wholly English: light esters, aromatic, rounded malts, gentle herbal-to-fruity hops.  The one thing I found at both Swan's and Spinnaker's  was a subtle flavor I've never encountered in a beer.  I wrote down "whisky" for lack of a better word--intense maltiness and a hint of peat (not smoke, peat).  I have no idea where it comes from, but it's quite a treat.

You can, of course, get a range of other beers there (we encountered two or three Earl Gray IPAs).  As in the US, the breweries are experimenting with style, ingredient, and method.  Barrel-aging is less common, but coming on.  Saisons are still rare, but appearing more and more.  So far, none of these have become local standards yet--but things are happening fast.

In terms of beer, Victoria is blossoming.  There's a lot of excitement about beer, and it's permeating the whole city.  A few of the breweries are production-only, and when we visited (Sally was along for the ride), troops of growler-toting fans filed through.  They were young and old, male and female--a cross-section of the city.  The brewers are watching beer spike in popularity and are full of excitement about what comes next.  Oh, and this is interesting, too: despite their proximity to Vancouver and Seattle, the town that seems to most inspire the breweries there is Portland.  Rose City beers were far more common than Seattle beers, and the brewers regularly referenced Porltand as a model.

More to come as I get into the specific breweries.

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