Beer Run: Vancouver

Greetings from the Pacific Northwest. I’m hiding from the rain right now and decided to pen a dispatch from the field. I’m going to be visiting friends in Seattle next weekend but since they’re all away for the holiday I thought I’d explore our neighbor to the north a bit. On very little sleep, I drove north to Vancouver.

I was very excited about Vancouver, and not just because I had such a great time at Dieu Du Ciel brewpub in Montreal and was hoping that the Canadians know good beer. Everyone I know tells me Vancouver is a beautiful city, with plentiful nature close at hand, and clean, orderly streets full of good food and good times.

For the most part they are right. I’ve had a lot of great food here, and an awesome night of live music at the Railway Club. The streets are unusually clean. In fact the only litter I’ve seen since I crossed the border was inside my rental car. And the traffic appears far more cordial and orderly than I’m used to. Unlike Boston, when I cross the street, no one tries to run me over, and no one blocks the sidewalk by charging past the stop line (except me). And people actually wait for the walk sign at crosswalks (how quaint).

In short, I feel a little out of place here. Kind of like I’m in a modern, urban version of Mayberry or something. In Boston I’m thought of as too nice, too considerate; here I’m afraid I’ll be deported for jaywalking or vagrancy or something. Even the bums are polite; one was so busy asking me to have a nice weekend he forgot to ask for spare change. Another, finding I didn’t have 35 cents to spare, but noticing I did have a bag of beers, asked if I could spare a beer instead. I gave him the 35 cents.

But enough about Vancouver the city, how are the suds? Frankly I’ve been a little disappointed. I mean, you could do worse – the Granville Island brewery seems to be fairly ubiquitous around here with it’s Pale Ale ending up on tap at most establishments. There’s local beer all over downtown as far as I can tell, but it all just kind of ends up being fairly generic Brit-style ales and extremely boring light lagers. Today I visited the two dominant brew pubs near downtown, and things were starting to look a lot brighter, but at the end of the day I had to admit there was nothing on tap at either establishment that really, truly moved me.

First was brunch and a flight of tasters at Yaletown Brewing Company downtown. The food was amazing: a giant helping of applewood smoked cheddar soup with bacon, scallions, and crème fraiche, and duck confit done to perfection, with a crispy skin and meat so tender it melts in the mouth. Everything was not only tasty, but well presented, and the help was fairly attentive despite the lunch rush crowd. The place itself has a very sizable bar with lots of flat screens, so it seems like the place to be for both large groups and sports fanatics. Of which I am neither, so on to business.

The beers were pretty consistent threes on our scale of 1 to 5, which really only means they rank as craft beer, but aren’t exceptional in any way. This would include the Mainland Lager, Nagilia Pale, Hills Special Wheat (a hefeweizen roughly on par with Franziskaner and quite a ways below Ayinger), and the Warehouse Stout, which despite delightful notes of coffee and smoke and a nose to die for, fell quite short on body. The Downtown Brown faired a bit better, squeaking by with a four for its nutty malt character and velvety mouthfeel, not to mention quaffability. The Brick and Beam IPA is a bit less quaffable, with a bitter, hoppy aftertaste that lingers a bit too long for a session beer, but its respectable hop character and good balance still let it squeak by with a four as well.

The only real standout at Yaletown was the Wit, which is an excellent example of an underappreciated style. This is what blue moon should taste like: delicate malt character that is restrained enough to let the citrus, coriander, and yeasty character show through, without the spices needing to be overbearing. With a fairly light body and a finish that tails off quickly, this one is definitely a session beer, and though not one of my favorite styles, would be extremely appropriate for a summer day (if such a thing exists in the Pacific Northwest). I might appreciate this style more if there were better examples of it in the US.

Next I walked over to the Gastown district, the “historic” district according to my guidebook and the arch that welcomed me to the neighborhood. For the record, Lonely Planet, those are not cobblestones, they’re paving stones. Cobblestones are a lot more uncomfortable to drive or walk on, a fact that gives historic districts their charm. This place feels like you’re trespassing in someone’s back yard. I was also uncomfortable with the overwhelming presence of trendy clothing shops and the fairly contemporary looking street lighting. The area is named after it’s founder, a gold prospector named “Gassy Jack” Deighton, who in turn was named after his penchant for spinning tall tales. Gastown was apparently the oldest settlement in what would become Vancouver, but was founded in only 1867, which might explain the oddly contemporary flair for a historic district (mind you I’m visiting from Boston, founded in 1630).

That said, it was a perfectly pleasant neighborhood, clean and orderly (as usual) and with a wide array of dining and nightlife options. There’s also a steam driven clock that seems to be all the rage with the tour bus set, but I wasn’t moved. After all, I was on a mission.

I found my way to the Steamworks Brewery, which is downstairs when you enter the building. I was pretty stuffed so I didn’t get a fair sampling of the food, but it smelled delicious as I passed it a few times on my way to the restroom. I did grab some mushroom caps with cream cheese and crab, which were certainly a solid appetizer, so I suspect the food would pass. Speaking of the restroom, it posessed something rare: a Punk-approved air dryer for your hands. Up until now we’ve only approved of one, the Xlerator which I believe we first encountered at Ulysses in Manhattan. Anything else you might as well blow on your own hands, or just shake like a dog if there’s no paper towels. This is the first time I’ve ever seen the Dyson Airblade, which puts out a squeegie shaped air jet that is perhaps more effective than the xlerator. It has a bit less horse power, though, so you don’t get that cool deformation of the skin on your hands while you are using it (Ever see pictures of people’s faces during freefall? Then you know what I’m talking about.)

Bladder drained and hands dry I strapped on my second flight of the afternoon. Again, the bulk of the lineup was solid threes. The seasonal Hefeweizen was a little too clovey for my taste, and the banana was overpowered (though anybody who likes the Sgt. Pepper at my local Cambridge Brewing Company might not find this as offensive as I do), Lion’s Gate Lager (which is actually a pretty nice straw colored lager, but really serves no purpose other than providing a safe haven for Bud – or is it Molson – drinkers in a sea of craft beer), and the Coal Porter all fall in this category. I’d also throw the Empress IPA in this category because the malt character was a little boring, but IPAs aren’t really my thing, so many people might surely disagree with me on that point. The Nut Brown faired a bit better; it was a bit hoppy for a brown in my opinion but certainly well balanced, and the nose was really a standout with notes of maple syrup, and woody or smokey character (which is not to say it was wood aged or smoked, this was probably all from the roasting of the malt). It barely earned a four, but was certainly a step in the right direction.

The standouts for me at Steamworks were the Signature Pale and the seasonal German Pilsner. The Pilner had a very clean and fairly light malt character, quite restrained, which allowed a fairly robust hopping to shine through. The balance was good and the finish was clean, making it very quaffable. The Pale turned out to be my favorite here because it seemed to have the most assertive and interesting malt character of the entire lineup. I picked up lots of nutty and toffee notes, and even some woody and smokey character in the finish. There was a great balance, but also quite assertive hopping that lent a spicey, resiny flavor and aroma. Both earned a solid four.

As I finish this, the sun is shining again (for how long?) and I’m drinking a fairly decent “Springbock” from Phillips Brewing Company (one of the beers I saved from the homeless man about an hour ago). I’m pondering the state of the beer scene here in Vancouver and I’m seeing two things. First, most pubs and restaurants seem to carry local beer. The beer isn’t exceptional, but it is very accessible, and makes for a great session beer. There is a variety of styles on the market for the consumer to gradually trade up to – starting with the bland lagers, then progressing to hoppier and maltier English styles.

The second thing is that I havent mentioned the two best beers I’ve had in Vancouver: Big Rock’s Traditional Ale from Calgary (one province East, in Alberta near Banff National Park) and Back Hand of God Stout from Crannog Ales, on a farm in Sorrento, BC. Both were great beers, earning a solid four, and both come from outside Vancouver, but somewhere in the general region.

I feel both of these facts portend well for the future of beer in Vancouver, even if I’m not that impressed yet. I think that the revolution really begins when: 1) your average consumer is encouraged to trade up to craft beers, which seems very easy to do here, and 2) some mavericks in the sticks, heavy on craft and light on capital, start brewing exceptional beer and either kegging it up to put on tap in the city or putting it in big bottles to ship to high end liquor stores, while they slowly build their empire. If I’m right, you can assure that the revolution will not be televised, at least not in Boston, so be sure to check the scene in person from time to time and monitor progress.

Just wait til it’s sunny.

PS, I apologize to the city of Vancouver for the generally curmudgeonly tone of this article; but seriously, what’s with all the rain?