Reviews

5 Days on the BC Ale Trail

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statue of Frank Ney, former Nanaimo mayor who dressed as a pirate

In early 2018 beer journalist Aaron Brussat and I were invited by Vancouver Island’s tourism board to travel to Victoria, BC and spend 5 days on the Nanaimo section of the BC Ale Trail. The prospect of cruising the east side of Vancouver Island was, of course, appealing and this was a paid gig for their website (win-win.) Little did we know that we’d meet, in each small town we visited, so many brewers and beer lovers with the shared vision of community over pints of craft beer. Beer is universally binding, and this trip solidified our appreciation for brewing communities outside of our own.

5 Days on the BC Ale Trail, by Aaron Brussat and Ezra Johnson-Greenough

 

Oak Bay Beach Hotel

view from our room at the Oak Bay Beach Hotel of the garden and pools reaching out to the bay

 

We arrived at the tiny, quiet Victoria airport to see the first small white flakes fluttering in the air and quickly melting into the pavement. By the time we had checked into the lavish Oak Bay Beach Hotel, we were in a winter wonderland. The hotel bar, The Snug Pub, provided a perfect place to get our bearings in order while sipping on a Moon Under Water Dunkel and looking down upon the private gardens, boathouse spa, and heated mineral hot tubs that we would enjoy later that night. Just a short jaunt from downtown Victoria, BC, the Oak Bay Beach Hotel pushes out towards the Pacific Ocean and into the Juan de Fuca Strait, and even offers its own car service for days or nights on the town.

 

Fan Tan Alley in Victoria, BC

That afternoon and evening we took a bar crawl with Canadian beer expert/historian Joe Wiebe through the snow-covered streets of downtown Victoria. Ducking down alleys in Chinatown and walking the windy windy pathways along the harbor, we toured some of the oldest and finest drinking establishments the city has to offer. Must stops include Spinnaker’s; BC’s first brewpub still makes solid beers and ciders with a top of the line kitchen, beautiful facility and amazing view. Also, don’t miss Drake’s Eatery, the city’s best beer bar, which features beers not just from Canada but from across the world.

 

Kinsol Trestle

 

We reluctantly arose on Thursday morning to embark on the ale trail into the Vancouver Island countryside. I say reluctantly only because Victoria and our hotel were such beautiful places, we wished to spend more time there soaking in hot tubs and sipping Phillip’s Brewing beers as huge snowflakes fell around us. Alas, it was off to other adventures, our first stop one of history and sightseeing a jaunt to the historic Kinsol Trestle. We parked our car in a gravel lot at the edge of a snow-covered wood and disappeared down a trail into the wild like Jeremiah Johnson. It wasn’t long until we came upon the Kinsol Trestle, a railroad bridge of such size it recalls David Lean’s classic film Bridge on the River Kwai. This trestle dates back to 1920 is one of the highest in the world at 44 m (144 ft) high and 188 m (617 ft) long. Operated by Canadian Northern Pacific Railway the trestle was to connect Victoria to Nootka Sound, but was abandoned in the 1980’s. It has now been restored as a landmark for pedestrian use and hikers. It’s a beautiful sight looking down to the valleys and river below, and an easy visit for tourists.

 

Red Arrow Brewing

After working up a thirst along the trestle, we were ready for our first beer stop at Red Arrow Brewing, alongside the Trans-Canada Highway just outside of Duncan, BC. This brewery has a taproom and gift shop inside an old brick building that looks like an old fire station but was actually a Harley Davidson repair shop. On nice days it has a beer garden and a food truck, and serves free samples of its beers with growler fills to-go. Here we began to learn the BC beer ropes: the difference between a taproom, a lounge, or a brewpub, which largely determines if you can enjoy pints or just small samples with growler fills to-go. At Red Arrow it was the latter. Red Arrow’s Brewer Chris Gress came from Craig St. Brewery, which is just up the street in downtown Duncan and has the same owners. Coincidentally, it was our next stop.

 

 

Craig St. Brew Pub has all the makings of a cozy classic-English-style pub, from the finished mahogany wood and vintage signs to the stately living room feel and fireplace. The bartender was happy to sample us through the collection of ales and lagers with nary an IPA in sight! Figuring we should eat local as well, we ordered a classic poutine to help with the alcohol, but even after a bed of cheese curds and gravy the multiple taster trays we had led us to seek refuge at our hotel for the evening.

 

Kiwi Cove Lodge

 

Kiwi Cove Lodge is located up the coastline another 34 KM from Duncan, off the beaten path next to an estuary of the Salish Sea. This small 12 room bed-and-breakfast style resort is named for the small kiwi orchard just behind it which is also home to a bountiful assortment of birds and squirrels. The Kiwi Cove’s primary attraction is quiet, simple pleasures like snacking on a cellar ripened kiwi while taking a stroll on its relatively undeveloped 10 acres and foraging for unharvested oysters in the tide pools. After checking in and taking a walk around the property, we had to head out to continue our beer adventure.

 

the cove at Kiwi Cove Lodge

 

In Chemainus, we stocked up on snacks and bottles of beer for the evening at the Kiwi Cove. There are not many evening options in Ladysmith. However, in the same small shopping center in Chemainus we found groceries, a liquor store, and our final two stops of the first day: Riot Brewing and The Sawmill Taphouse and Grill.

 

taps at Riot Brewing

 

Riot Brewing’s co-owners Aly and Ralph are a couple of crusty punks from the city who are now trying to integrate into the small town lifestyle by being active in the community and bringing a slightly flashier city-vibe and slickness. This bright, glassy brewery is all-ages friendly and seems to draw from a younger crowd and a strong older punk/greaser crowd that we were surprised to find here. It also just so happened that the local chapter of Victory Barber & Brand was doing a pop-up this evening and we were treated to an old-fashioned barber chair trim while sipping some very solid lagers from Riot Brewing. The brand and people at Riot Brewing speak loudly, with bright colorful punk aesthetic and zero BS. The brewery is also beginning to win some big time awards, like a Gold Medal for its Working Class Hero dark mild and a Bronze for Breakfast of Champions coffee lager, both at the 2018 World Beer Cup. At Riot Brewing we were treated like big city beer kings and both the locals and proprietors plumbed us for our stories and regaled us with theirs, and we left the pub literally dancing into the night.

 

 

Our final stop of the evening for last call dinner and drinks was The Sawmill Taphouse & Grill, right across the parking lot from Riot Brewing. This is a pretty solid little gastropub with homey fireplace, high beams and stone for a slight ski lodge/mountain resort vibe. The food was worthy of a return visit; pizzas are cooked in a brick wood-fired oven and the poutine with brisket is on point. The beer list was also fiercely Canadian with a large selection of BC brews. The bartender was very friendly, and we chatted about the next nights in Nanaimo and received a few recommendations for the journey.

 

downtown Nanaimo

After checking out of the Kiwi Cove Lodge, we got on the road to Nanaimo quickly because we had a packed day ahead of us. Nanaimo is known as “The Harbour City,” and an estimated 90,000 call this ferry port home. The Downtown Nanaimo Harbourfront Walkway is a key attraction, and on nice days it’s worth a stroll for local coffee and gift shops, bars and restaurants, and to watch the local fishermen bring their hauls in for the day. You can even catch a seaplane ride here or take a ferry to Newcastle Island and stop for a visit at the floating Dinghy Dock Pub. Be sure to stop and say “Avast!” to Black Frank.

Nanaimo has four breweries with a fifth on the way, but the local beer community is far from satisfied with that. We were in town for the launch of the Nanaimo Craft Beer Society, a newly formed group dedicated to promoting craft beer in Nanaimo and increasing business, local taps of craft beer, and encouraging new brewers. Coming from Portland where every dive bar and drive-thru has at least a handful of craft beers, this was a real eye opener; we were not in Kansas anymore. Indeed, it’s hard to find more than one or two taps of BC beer outside of the local taprooms.

 

White Sails Brewing

 

Judging by the inaugural mixer and cask night event that Nanaimo Craft Beer Society organized at White Sails Brewing, there is a growing and vocal fan base for craft beer. White Sails Brewing is the newest and by far the most modern of the Nanaimo breweries. It has a hip coffeehouse vibe because it does in fact serve coffee, espresso, pastries, soups, and sandwiches in a high-ceilinged modern beer hall with wood beams and a brick fireplace. The brewery is tucked into a corner behind a gate, and there is a counter service bar for beer, espresso, and snacks. Both the vibe and the beers are more modern chic than many of the places you will find along the trail. With hopped up IPAs, session ales, CDAs and even White IPAs in the mix, White Sails would be well at home in an even larger city.

 

Longwood Brewery (production facility & tasting room)

Longwood Brewery and its older sister, Longwood Brew Pub, are the established veterans of Nanaimo craft beer. I am still not sure how this works, but apparently the founders of the Longwood Brewpub left that operation to open a production facility with small taproom called Longwood Brewing; it is a separate but connected operation. Harley Smith, co-owner and Brewmaster at Longwood Brewing (formerly of Longwood Brew Pub), was there to greet us along with his wife and taproom manager. The brewery dog Milo even came out to greet us! They were a fun and welcoming bunch, eager to introduce us to their beers and the Nanaimo craft beer scene. Harley seemed to function as a father figure to not only everyone at Longwood, but to the entire group of industry folk in the area who look to him not only for advice but as a fun guy to have a drink with. Longwood Brewery operates a tasting room with growler fills and tastes of its draft beer, but focuses on production bottling and distribution. Breaking out of the box against the more standard ales in its lineup, they produce a unique, lightly tart, citrusy, botanical beer in cans called Quinceotica, and a beloved beer geek favorite Stoutnik Imperial Stout.

Hungry and tired of pub food, my companion and I struck out into Nanaimo for a fresher food option and eventually landed on Gabriel’s in downtown Nanaimo. The clean, bright cafe environment has a full kitchen with counter service and a solid beer selection. The food is farm-to-table with just about everything from local providers, from the meat and eggs to coffee, honey, and bread. Gabriel’s was just what we needed: healthy vegetarian rice bowls and Thai curry along with wraps, burritos, and salads aplenty.

 

Wolf Brewing

 

Replenished, we headed off to Wolf Brewing. It is located in an industrial warehouse with a bare bones tasting room resembling an auto station. After asking around a bit we met the brewer, an affable bloke with an English brewing background. It was clear he knew his stuff about traditional pub styles and real ale, and he lit into a soliloquy about this Barke malt from Bamberg he had acquired for his Pilsner. He wasn’t joking, the Pilsner has the unmistakable aroma of fresh honey and the taste of fine bready, smooth malt without that big sweet nose. Soon, we found ourselves in the brewery marveling at a cobbled together brewhouse and spare kettle, which is used primarily to boil Wolf Brewing’s Scotch Ale under direct fire for an amazing natural caramel flavor and color.

 

Nanaimo Craft beer Society gathering at White Sails Brewing

 

That night, we met a couple of the guys who founded the Nanaimo Craft Beer Society, which was kicking off its inauguration with a series of events while we were in town. That night was a gathering of brewers with live music and casks at White Sails Brewing. Backlit by a warm fireplace, we tipped pints of boozy whiskey barrel-aged real ale and sessionable British beer with Nanaimo’s brewers, bartenders and sales managers, many of whom we had met on our rounds that day.

 

 

The next morning, we rose early for the drive to Parksville, about a 34 minute drive north along the Salish Sea and Strait of Georgia. Before leaving Nanaimo we had to seek out a coffee and the BC-famous Nanaimo Bar at a local Serious Coffee location. Neither of us knew what to expect of the Nanaimo bar but what we were treated to was a heavy, rich, creamy brick of gooey vanilla buttercream between a layer of crunchy chocolate and cookie crumbs with flakes of coconut and topped with another blanket of chocolate. Brussat was like a hyper 8-year old after a double espresso after gnawing on it, and though we couldn’t finish the slab, it certainly was a memorable experience.

We arrived in Parksville for our breakfast stop at the much lauded Bread and Honey breakfast cafe, but found half the seats reserved and an hour long wait. Without much time to get to our next stop, the equally if not more lauded Mount Arrowsmith Brewing, we opted for a less tasty quick bite before hitting the brewery.

 

Mount Arrowsmith Brewing

Parksville is a bit of a retirement beach town as the locals tell it. It’s a down home place, without rowdy bars or trendy bistros. However, there is Mount Arrowsmith Brewing, which was British Columbia’s reigning Brewery of the Year winner at the 2017 BC Beer Awards. We met co-founder Matt Hill at the small brewery and tasting room for a tour and samples, and he told us how he was inspired to open a brewery and how his family had been in the area for generations. Surprisingly, the locals had initially worried Mount Arrowsmith would bring in a bad element and expressed concern about the smell of beer brewing. Going out of its way to alleviate those concerns, Mount Arrowsmith Brewing closes early, and installed a steam condenser to minimize smells. Despite the extra cost and hassle Hill was proud to have made the commitment to his neighbors, who have embraced the small, award-winning brewery.

 

 

Rathtrevor Beach is a provincial park just outside of Parksville, lined with quiet resorts along a beach cove that opens up to the Strait of Georgia. We were lucky enough to be staying at one of those resorts, Tigh-Na-Mara, with an amazing few to the sea and just a short walk down to the beach.

 

Even in March the resorts seemed nearly full, and the sandy and tree-lined beach was popular with families and tourists from Australia, England, and America as much as Canada. I knew I was in Canada because the park was so clean you didn’t have to worry about walking barefoot except for the billions of seashells in the upper area of the cove. After collecting stones and shells and more intact sand dollars than I have ever seen, we headed out to our next unlikely brewery stop.

 

great conversation in a garage at Loveshack Libations

 

The next stop on our BC Ale Trail adventure was Loveshack Libations, an evocatively named nano brewery in the back of a storage space in a tiny business park. It makes an equally small amount of beers, but owner/brewer Dave Paul’s reputation looms much larger over this quiet community. Dave is a tall and ebullient guy who greeted us and sat us at the “kid’s table” and lined up a flight of his unusual concoctions in kitschy-cute yard sale glassware. We sipped eight samples of beer, all served from bottles (Dave refuses to keg) and chatted with friendly locals; in a space this small you have no choice but to be conversational. The Loveshack garage taproom is filled with fermenting carboys, bottles and other brewing equipment. The space feels packed at only ten or so people, but the vibe is very friendly. Loveshack’s beers are all quirky takes on existing styles, like the frequent use of a fruity/spicy Belgian-yeast in an American or German-style of beer. Dave has no interest in scaling up his tiny nano brewery and thrives in the sort of intimate, conversational, bare bones space that may not be for everyone but is resolutely authentic.

 

 

For dinner, we were honored to be invited to attend the pre-Crafternoon Brewers Dinner at the Longwood Brew Pub, a beautiful multi-floored cottage-style pub that stands alone in a crowded shopping mall parking lot. Built in 2001, Longwood Brew Pub is the central destination for craft beer and dining in Nanaimo, with a menu of seafood and pub favorites and two levels of fireside dining. We sat down for the pairing dinner in the upstairs event space with a who’s who of the local brew scene. After a hearty meal, the showstopper of the event was a surprise dessert labeled on the menu only as “Chef’s Home Brew.” Served in a small pilsner glass, with bright yellow clarity and a white whipped cream head we were blown away to find you could upturn the glass without any spillage! This trick was achieved by meringue and gelatin, the liquid actually a beer jello and the head a thick but soft cream. Many photos were taken. No beer was spilled.

 

 

We were sad we couldn’t stick around and mingle with the brewers after the Longwood Dinner but we were in a rush to make it for last call at the historic Black Goose Inn. Located just off the Rathtrevor Beach near our resort, the inn is a converted 1921 hunting lodge in a quiet wooded area surrounded by vacation houses. The lodge itself seems to be mostly intact with a large open dining room, old piano and antique memorabilia showcasing a long British heritage. Multiple small rooms provide intimate dining and drinking areas, and the bar is squeezed into a corner with just four seats and a table next to a fireplace and window out to the lovely beer garden. Sitting back in our stools in this cozy, half-timbered video decorated with old coasters and beer mats and banners called for us to soak the trip in with a Fuller’s ESB. We chatted with the bartenders on the pub’s history and the retired guest rooms, sadly no longer up to code for guests. Our only regret was that we couldn’t spend more time in this charming villa over many more pints and perhaps a pasty or Scotch egg and whiskey.

 

view of the beach from Tigh-Na-Mara resort

 

We ended our night back at the Tigh-Na-Mara, a lovely resort with cabins and large suites of buildings nestled into the woods just above the beach. It operates two different restaurants, the Cedars Restaurant and Lounge in the main building across from the lobby, and a shop carrying gifts, merchandise and light provisions. The real draw at the Tigh-Na-Mara other than the beach and woods is the The Grotto Spa. This is a truly spectacular 20,000 sq. ft. indoor spa with mineral water pools and hot tubs in a man-made indoor cave experience. It also has its own attached Treetop Tapas restaurant. The only problem is that to experience the grotto you must book ahead as much as 4-6 weeks out. To save a buck, wait until the tide is out on Rathtrevor Beach. It recedes nearly a kilometer, and the waters are shallow and fairly warm all year round.

 

walking the path down to Neck Point Park

 

After reluctantly checking out of Tigh-Na-Mara we headed back to Nanaimo for our final night on the BC Ale Trail. Stopping in to Neck Point Park for some fresh air (we soaked up enough views and wilderness to know we had to make a return trip.) we headed to our next spot. We checked in at the Inn on Long Lake, a fairly standard hotel and conference center with basic amenities, next to a small lake with kayaks for rent seasonally.

 

Crafternoon at Longwood Brewpub

 

Our first beer-y stop of the day was also one of the best of the trip, the culmination of the Nanaimo Craft Beer Society Weekend at its Crafternoon beer fest. This was held back at the Longwood Brew Pub, which closed down for this event featuring over a dozen BC breweries from Nanaimo all the way down to Vancouver and its outskirts. Each brewery had set up jockey boxes stationed around the main floor and lower level of the brewpub, and free food samples were handed out from the pub kitchen. We were given a $2.50 coupon for a local taxi service and a cup of pretzel sticks and we were off. The selection at this event was the best so far, with lots of beer worth writing home about from trendy sour ales and hazy IPAs to classic Stouts and Lagers. Many of the brewers were in attendance, milling about and having a great time. Overall a great success for the inaugural Nanaimo Craft Beer Society weekend, we look forward to them doing great things in the future.

 

Neck Point Park

 

With beer in our veins and clouds in our heads we headed back to Neck Point Park before it was time for dinner. Truly a beautiful place to visit, its rocky coastal edges provided a hell of a view to the sea and all the way across to the mainland. From here we could even see cruise ships heading out to the San Juan Islands and Vancouver. It’s a popular area with scuba divers, and you might even peep a look at a sea lion or orca whale. The trail ambles along the shore and doubles back at times into the woods. It was low tide, and we hopped across the seaweed-coated rocks to take pictures and look at a lone sea lion making its rounds. The wind was up and brought a chill, but the late afternoon sunlight was outstanding. The trail is well maintained and easy for anybody, and totally worthy of a long picnic and stroll.

After dinner at SimonHolt restaurant we retreated to our hotel and had a walk out to the pool house for a relaxing dip in the hot tub and sauna while processing our first BC Ale Trail experience. Knowing it was our last night on the island brought an extra sense of introspection and admiration for the growing community. There is a purity of intent, a youthful exuberance and curiosity, and a moderate but growing collective maturity among the younger breweries we visited. Though many of the breweries along the ale trail are not new, the craft beer scene still feels young with only great things ahead of it.

 

Founder of The New School and most frequent contributor Ezra Johnson-Greenough has worked in the craft beer industry for almost 10 years, doing everything from illustrating beer labels to bartending at renowned beer bars and breweries like Belmont Station, Apex, Laurelwood and Upright Brewing. He has also had a hand in creating events like the Portland Fruit Beer Festival, Portland Beer Week, and the Brewing up Cocktails series. He is available for freelance consultation in marketing, events, graphic design and branding. Contact: SamuraiArtist@NewSchoolBeer.com

2 Comments

  1. david

    March 29, 2019 at 9:11 am

    Good thing it was a comped press trip…otherwise it would have cost you $1500 just to try a dozen quite mediocre breweries.
    Nice work if you can get it, but Yikes.
    Sounds like the “human wort boiling kettle” was the highlight…!

    • Samurai Artist

      March 29, 2019 at 3:10 pm

      there was some beer highlights and the overall experience and community up there is great, plus the beauty of the island would make the trip worth doing for anyone in my opinion.

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