© Cinda Chavich
Sails and ales
A five-day culinary adventure cruise exploring the best craft breweries around BC’s Salish Sea
It’s traditional to launch a sailing vessel with something bubbly, so starting our journey on the historic Maple Leaf schooner with a beer tasting seems fitting. It certainly sets the stage for what’s brewing for our five days at sea, the Maple Leaf Adventures’ annual Sails and Ales tour — now called the Craft Beer and Culinary Cruise (mapleleafadventures.com; from $2654 per person) — along the coast of Vancouver Island. Not only do I have a glass of Spinnaker’s special Maple Leaf brew in hand, I have the Victoria brewery’s founder sitting next to me, describing how each of his distinctive craft beers, lined up on the mahogany and brass-fitted deck, came to be.
“The beer we make for the Maple Leaf is a rye saison, barrel-aged in rye whisky barrels,” says Paul Hadfield holding the sparkling ale up against the low angle of the afternoon sun.
“We got to make this whole thing up, and changed what pubs were,” he continues, casting his mind back to 1984 when Spinnakers became the first pub in the country to brew and sell its own beer on site. “We’re now three generations in, with more than 100 craft breweries in BC and more opening all of the time.”
Which is exactly why we’re here on a late fall exploration of the “wet” coast, a corner of Canada known for both its warm, rainy winters and now for the country’s largest concentration of craft brewers. Hadfield is the granddaddy of the craft-brewing scene, but there are dozens of other brewers and unique bottles to discover. And so, like sailors of yore, we head out in search of treasure, our ports of call determined by what’s in the glass. We set sail from the pretty Sidney Marina and motor up through the sheltered side of the Strait of Georgia to coastal communities where beer has long been the tipple of choice.
Class is in session
This is not a booze cruise, but rather a floating classroom for a dozen ale aficionados, a chance to learn about BC’s burgeoning world of craft brewing with tastings, food pairings and visits to out-of-the-way island enclaves of suds. Our guide to it all is beer historian and all-round beer geek Greg Evans.
Evans, who is now writing the official history of brewing in BC, seems to be on a first name basis with every brewer in the province. He has an encyclopedic brain filled with tasting notes, brewing science and random beer history, gossip and lore. “Gary Lohin is one of BC’s best brewers. He got a home brewing kit at 13,” says Evans as we sip a glass of Central City’s Red Racer Pale Ale paired with a spicy crab cake, anchored next to Prevost Island for our first night at sea. “He’s a self-described hop head and he’s into antique bikes hence the name Red Racer, a hugely successful brand.”
The characters and tales of this small, but burgeoning BC beer revolution overlap and intertwine, and Evans explains it all in a nonstop, running commentary as we travel between ports of call.
Sean Hoyne first brewed beer at Swans in 1988, moved on to be the brewer at Canoe Brewpub and finally opened his namesake Hoyne Brewing in 2011. Matt Phillips raised the initial capital for his successful brewing empire with a fistful of credit cards. His Blue Buck Ale is now one of the industry’s wildest success stories.
There’s the pioneer brewer, William Steinberger, a German who came to Victoria in search of gold and instead struck it rich with Victoria Brewery in 1858, “the first commercial brewery west of the Great Lakes.” Then came the war, Prohibition and the rum runners who used this same cluster of remote islands and coves as drop points for sacks of illegal booze.
Evans has a tale for every beer with every course for every meal: the story of Bomber Brewing’s Extra Special Bitter that’s added to the dressing for our spinach salad; the Flemish Beer Stew made with Beaver Brown Ale from Canoe Brewpub; the Swans Coconut Porter to match molten chocolate lava cakes, served alongside a yarn about the late Michael Williams, the Shropshire shepherd turned publican who renovated an old “ugly duckling” feed store into Swans hotel and brewpub more than 25 years ago, still a downtown Victoria landmark.
Evans even explains the First Nations’ myths around Bigfoot — and the continuing hunt for the creature on Vancouver Island — while we dig into tender lamb marinated in award-winning Sasquatch Stout. It’s a launching point for a discussion about these dark ales, from dry Dublin-style to sweet English or cream stouts and the Imperial stouts of the Baltics. We learn the history of hops and that BC’s Fraser Valley was once “the largest area growing hops in the Commonwealth.” Evans teaches us how to sip and evaluate beer (“morning taste buds are best” and “never taste beer after coffee”), and what’s meant by the IBU number (international bitterness units) listed on labels.
Cooking with beer
For craft-brewing scholars, this is the perfect five-day immersion course, but for me, it’s about the beer and the food designed to match it, pairings created by chef James McKerricher at every meal.
A memorable lunch starts with Japanese-style shrimp and egg drop soup infused with the coriander and orange flavours of Driftwood White Bark Wheat Ale.
“Wheat beer is sweet and great for steaming seafood, whether it’s shrimp, mussels or crab,” explains McKerricher as he works his magic in the cramped galley kitchen below deck, where the 10 of us, both travellers and crew, squeeze around the table for every meal.
Sweet onion soup starts with Riley’s Scottish Ale. Chicken is braised in Hoyne’s Dark Matter. There’s beer-infused syrup with our breakfast pancakes, Cannery Maple Stout in the pecan pie, fruity dessert beers and after-dinner wild blackberry porter to sip in the cozy wheelhouse, before we crawl into our big berth’s below deck, anchored in another secluded bay.
Our journey is both extremely civilized and outdoorsy, a blend of culinary-tourism and soft adventure. We’ve barely been on deck an hour when, sailing off into the sunset, a humpback rolls deep, lifting its graceful tail, like a welcome into this west coast wilderness.
The tall ship winds through the scenic Gulf Islands, through Sansum Narrows, and past Thetis and Valdes Islands, to the shores of Gabriola. We motor into a pretty cove on a tiny, uninhabited Tumbo Island and hike past an old farmstead before settling down on a grassy bank for a lunch of chili and beer in the sunshine.
When the wind finally comes up, we take turns helping to hoist the main sail then zoom out in the zodiac for an up-close look at a colony of sea lions. There are whales, seals and eagles spotted daily, our adventure tied to the tides and changeable west coast weather.
As we go ashore in Nanaimo, “the second largest brewing centre on the island,” according to Evans, a major gale blows in from the west. The Maple Leaf stays secure at the marina, bobbing in the chop, while we head off through the storm to learn more about the process of beer making with tours at Wolf Brewing and Longwood Brewpub, the latter renowned for its Belgian-style framboise, fermented with 90 kilograms of fresh raspberries in every tank.
Before sailing off the next day we stop at the Crow and Gate Pub, another bit of BC publican history. Opened more than 40 years ago, it received the province’s first “neighbourhood pub” license and the rural watering hole, with its old English atmosphere, remains a favourite. After a traditional pub lunch — Stilton and leek quiche, pan-fried local oysters and Scotch eggs — we dutifully sample the selection of local brews on tap.
A historic voyage
The Maple Leaf is the other important craft in our craft beer tour and travelling in this historic ship adds much to our adventure.
Built for a wealthy Vancouver businessman in 1904, the yellow cedar and Douglas fir schooner was billed as “the most expensive pleasure craft on the Pacific Coast,” and once ferried high society guests. Converted to a halibut fishing vessel after the First World War, the ship was finally refitted in the 1980s for both tourism and the Tall Ship Program for Royal Canadian Sea Cadets learning to sail.
Today, restored to its original glory by Maple Leaf Adventures’ owner Kevin Smith, the ship is a museum-quality vessel, its mahogany woodwork gleaming. Our sleeping compartment has the air of an elegant luxury train, the gentle sway and creak of the ship at anchor is reminiscent of the rhythm of rails. Tucked into a cozy berth with fluffy duvets and brass reading lamps, it’s hard to imagine this was once the ship’s hold, slithering with a cargo of freshly caught fish.
Like this historic ship, BC’s beer-making history is fascinating, but it’s changing constantly, with new pubs and craft breweries popping up every year, some 130 and counting.
At the tiny Salt Spring Island Ales, the final stop on our island-hopping journey, brewer Murray Hunter tells us about the beer he crafts with his own spring water, locally-grown hops and other island botanicals, like the traditional Heather Ale made with flowers from Butchart Gardens.
“It tastes like home,” says Hunter, adding the ale is so popular, you need to come to the island to taste it. “We can’t even make enough to get it to Vancouver.” There’s a race to make the hoppiest beer — and apparently the craziest name and most memorable label, too. Today it’s Spinnaker’s Jolly Hopper Imperial IPA with 100 IBUs — “surrender thy taste buds” trumpets the small print — but we also try Kelp Ale (literally brewed with local seaweed) from Tofino Brewing Co. and A Wee Angry Scotch Ale from Russell Brewery with its smoky, peated malts.
“People will actually walk out of the pub with an armload of these things,” says Hadfield, describing a hoppy Northwest Ale with 85 IBUs brewed by his daughter Kala, one of the second generation of local craft brewers among the brewery’s eclectic lineup. “We’ve doubled our fermentation capacity and we still can’t keep up.” Spinnakers remains an innovator in the craft brewing business, the historic brewpub offering farm-to-table cuisine alongside 20 ever-changing taps, their own beer-infused breads, truffles and malt vinegars for sale. Spinnakers also runs a pair of city liquor stores, stocked with rare beer, wine and spirits from every corner of the island, and has entered the business of beer tourism, with its own guest houses for rent.
“The drinking experience has changed dramatically,” says Hadfield. “Craft beer is tied to tourism. People travel to drink beer.”
Note: While Maple Leaf Adventures continues to sail its historic Maple Leaf schooner for several itineraries along the BC coast, they now take beer lovers on their fall Craft Beer and Culinary Cruise in the newly refurbished tugboat, the MV Swell. An 80-foot former working vessel (originally built in 1912), the classic wooden tug was refitted and relaunched in 2015, offering more privacy and space for guests, with six private staterooms, each with its own ensuite “head” (bathroom with shower), two decks for wildlife spotting, and spacious lounges. With the same experts on board, Swell cruises the Gulf Island to ports from Salt Spring Island to Nanaimo to explore the world of BC craft brews.
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