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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Good Beer in Victoria: a Round-up

A few weeks back, Travel Victoria brought me to Canada for a beery weekend.  I got to set the agenda, and managed to visit six of the city's ten breweries while I was there.  What follows is in no way a definitive guide (you might consult Joe Wiebe for that), but a useful starting place if you decide to visit that lovely little city.  (And you should--it's a wonderful getaway.)

Hoyne and Driftwood
2740 Bridge St and #102-450 Hillside Ave

They're this close.
The internet age makes the life of a beer tourist a snap.  When I think about Michael Jackson trying to figure out which Belgian breweries to visit, without aid of GPS and the vast internet archives, I marvel.  Achieving intreptitude (TM, Jeff Alworth, pending) takes no more than a few hours with Google now.  It was in this way that I discovered broad agreement about Victoria's hottest brewery--Driftwood.  But the Google can also fail you--Hoyne gets absolutely no love at all, and had it not been literally next door, I would have missed what I believe to be the city's most accomplished brewery.

Driftwood is definitely in the conversation, though, and they do it mainly because they have Victoria's favorite IPA, Fat Tug.  Brewer Jason Meyer seems most in synch with the kind of brewing we do south of the border, and in addition to the IPA, they do stuff like a saison, gose, wild ale, and fresh-hop ale.  It's clear why the IPA is so coveted--it has managed to become the quintessential Victoria IPA, hitting all the notes locals like, but with greater verve than anyone else.  It has an immensely juicy aroma, indicating the coming fruity flavor blast.  Falsely, it turns out.  The locals like their IPAs bitter, and Fat Tug is intensely so--all that juiciness in the nose evaporates under the alpha assault in the mouth. For my tastes, the Pale is a tastier pour.  Meyer manages to get a softness out of his beers, and it really shines here with more subdued and flavorful hopping.   Their saison uses the Ardennes yeast and black peppercorn and is also quite nice.

The brewhouse at Driftwood

Brewer Sean Hoyne got started at Canoe (see below) before founding his eponymous brewery three years ago.  Even though the beer geeks have overlooked the brewery, the public has not--Hoyne is already making 7,000 hectos (6,000 barrels) a year, the majority of it on draft.  I can see why.  As Dave, one of the brewers, was showing me around, the woman working the tasting room handed me a glass.  I didn't know what was in it and was taking notes and listening to Dave speak.  At a certain point, I distractedly passed the glass under my nose and was instantly rapt: a plume of Saaz hops blotted everything else out.  (There are also Hallertau, Hersbruck, and Spalt, which inflect the Saaz with an herbal note, but it's mainly the Saaz that grip you.)  The flavor was every bit as rewarding--aromatic pilsner malts and hop flavor that matched the the aroma in kind and intensity.  This was their flagship, Hoyner Pilsner.

They do another lager that is Hoyner's equal, called Off the Grid.  They call it a Vienna, but I've seen dunkels this color.  In any case, it focuses more on the rich, nutty, biscuity malts; the Tettnang hops provide a lacy accompaniment, but this is a moreish lager they'd love in Bavaria.  Hoyne, like Driftwood, does an eclectic mix of styles (including, in addition to more standard offerings, a smoked porter, hefeweizen, and espresso stout), but it's their lagers that really sing.

Hoyne's brewhouse

Swan's Brewpub
506 Pandora Ave

Swan's is so far off the radar, I didn't even realize it existed until I strolled by on my way to Canoe.  I can sort of see why: it's a wonderful space that nevertheless feels a bit touristy (it's right next to Chinatown) and the beer is decidedly old-fashioned.  (I don't know if our experience was typical, but on the lazy Sunday afternoon of our visit, the musical selection ran to Jimmy Buffet and Foghat--a choice that didn't make it feel any hipper.)   These things shouldn't condemn it, though: the ambiance is louche English pub (it recalled pubs from The Sweeney), airy but languid, and the old-fashioned beers are the reason to go.

 Swan's does English ales, a fair number of them served on cask.  The US went through an English ales period but has mostly left it behind--even New England's scene is turning more toward national trends.  Part of the reason we left this tradition behind is that we never did it properly in the first place--the beers were too sweet and heavy or just poorly made.  Swan's does them right.  The two standouts are an ESB and a brown, both of which I got on cask.  The ESB is made the way the English make strong bitters--just 5% ABV, with a definite focus on balance.  Hops are a balance between citrus and blackberry, and the malts have an undertone of toffee.  The Brown is geared toward woody, sweet malts.  But in both cases, there's a malt I've never encountered before--somewhere between roast and smoke, with an evocation of Scotch whisky.  It played a minor note in both beers, but really added a wonderful layer of interest.  I could have drunk either one for hours. 

Swan's also does some standards--a pale and and IPA and of course, the classic Victoria lager, with lots of Saaz--and one-offs like a white IPA.  But it's really the cask ales you should be drinking--they make Swan's a great stop.

Victoria's oldest brewery was such an interesting place that I'll treat it to a special case study in a future post.

Moon Under Water
350B Bay Street

If you see a theme developing--new style breweries versus old style--it's because that's how it started to seem to me.  Moon is definitely a charter member of the new school.  Unlike nearby Hoyne and Driftwood, which are production breweries, Moon is a brewpub.  The ambiance would be familiar to Portlanders--brewpub industrial.  It's got a casual, cozy vibe.  Along with Hoyne and Driftwood, it's in a slightly gritty industrial part of the city, but is in no way off-putting.  Some of the locals warned us about the neighborhood, but it was no different than large parts of Northeast and Southeast Portland. 

They had some experimental beer going on, including an Earl Gray IPA that was quite tasty.  The mainstays are an IPA and pilsner (naturally) as well as a dunkel, which was surprising.  I'd put Moon's beers a notch below their neighbor's, though they were pleasant enough.  The food and feel was great, and the beer was above-average for a brewpub.  And if you're looking for a place to land for a meal, it's a far better choice for these reasons than the final brewery I visited.

450 Swift St

Canoe has one of the best locations in the city, and the space is amazing.  It melds warehouse and lodge, with very high ceilings with exposed trusses and lots of unfinished wood.  The food is also well above average brewpub fare, and I especially loved the moules-frites, which are normally the best beer food going.  

Unfortunately, Canoe's beer was not good.  Like everyone else, they do a pilsner and an IPA, and they augment these musts with a dark ale and a pale--and on my visit, an ESB.  The pilsner was actually very nice.  It was the first place I went, so also the first time I had the classic Victoria pils.  But after that, it was downhill.  The pale was full of diacetyl, the dark was over roasty, and the IPA and ESB had very rough, harsh finishes.  Overall, a poor showing.  It's not a bad place to stop in for the food, and a pint of lager will do you good.  Don't bother with the taster tray, though.

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