Head brewer Dean McLeod taps the hoops down a whiskey barrel in the parking lot of the Victoria Caledonian Brewery and Distillery in Saanich.                                Travis Paterson/News Staff

Head brewer Dean McLeod taps the hoops down a whiskey barrel in the parking lot of the Victoria Caledonian Brewery and Distillery in Saanich. Travis Paterson/News Staff

Saanich’s Caledonian Brewery celebrates first birthday at Beer Fest

Breweries’ best on tap at 25th annual Great Canadian Beer Festival Sept. 8 and 9 at RAP

It’s another hot summer day as Dean McLeod turns the sprinkler off and proceeds to tap a metal hoop further across the bulge of a barrel’s staves.

“We use [a garden] sprinkler to keep them moist or they can dry out and crack, especially in a hot summer like this,” McLeod said.

This summer the head brewer of Victoria Caledonian Brewery and Distillery has been using the whiskey hogshead barrels to special age a batch of Holy Willie’s Robust Porter for an upcoming seasonal that will appear in 650-millilitre bottles, or ‘bombers.’ It helps that the distillery half of Caledonian has brought in a load of pre-aged whiskey barrels (including the strong peated styles of Islay, and the more popular Speyside) for its in-house whiskey blend, which is for sale on site at the Enterprise Crescent tasting room.

The whiskey-aged porter will also appear at the 25th anniversary edition of the Great Canadian Beer Festival, Sept. 8 and 9 at Royal Athletic Park.

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While it’s a big birthday for Beer Fest, it’s also a big birthday for the Caledonian brewery, whose Twa Dogs label of beer has now been on shelves for a year. McLeod is about to launch a new raspberry kolsch seasonal in addition to Twa Dogs’ regular line of the beers, the Drouthy Neibor IPA, Jolly Beggar’s Pale Ale, Keekin’ Glass Pilsner, Mistress of My Soul Saison and Holy Willie’s Robust Porter.

“Our top seller is the IPA, by a lot, pretty much like every brewery,” McLeod said.

Caledonian is in the midst of testing its first whiskeys in a variety of barrels that previously aged wines, sherries and more. The facility, a former Graphics Office and Zellers distribution warehouse, has been renovated into a distillery complete with copper stills, towering tanks, heat adjusted aging rooms for the casks and barrels of various sizes.

The main brewing area is brimming with top of the line equipment and a bottling equipment. They’re currently hosting and monitoring a third-party batch by another new brewer in town, Sooke Oceanside Brewing.

In the meantime, cases of beer are flying out the door by the palette-full but come winter McLeod’s focus will shift slightly from brewing beers to filling the hundreds of empty barrels with what will become Caledonian’s whiskey. It’s a process he’s been learning under Caledonian’s master distiller Mike Nicolson.

“It’s been a learning curve but a lot of it’s basic, preparing the ‘new make’ [spirit] before it goes into any casks,” McLeod said.

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Joe Wiebe, author of Craft Beer Revolution, confimed the growing craft beer industry is not slowing down. Already, six breweries have opened on Vancouver Island since McLeood first poured Twa Dogs in August 2016.

“It’s been a nice little boom of new breweries opening on the South Island, with more on the way,” Wiebe said.

The closest being Sooke Oceanside and Riot Brewing in Chemainus, with Île Sauvage (in the former Prima Strada location at Bridge Street) and Sooke Brewing on the way later this year.

With so many breweries opening, Beer Fest has become a go-to event for beer geeks like Wiebe – a well-travelled craft beer writer – to keep updated on B.C.’s constantly expanding industry.

Surprisingly, there’s still tickets available, partly due to a circulating myth that Beer Fest still sells out in eight minutes (which it has done), though there’s a growing waiting list for breweries to join the festival.

“I’m getting emails from people begging me for tickets, and I’m just telling them to go to the site,” laughs Gerry Hieter, chair and co-founder of GCBF. “For years we did sell out in eight minutes, but not this year.”

While tickets are available, booths for breweries aren’t.

Going into 2018, Hieter expects a 40-booth waitlist for Beer Fest as there are currently 151 breweries in B.C. but only 68 booths at the festival.

A brief history of the Great Canadian Beer Fest:

Beer Fest has faced some challenges since beer lovers first crowded into the Victoria Conference Centre to swap tokens for taster glasses.

“We started getting overcrowded and we weren’t getting our dates reserved so we moved outside which turned into a very good move for us,” Hieter recalled.

Beer Fest moved to Royal Athletic Park in 2003 and, after a steep learning curve, it’s been smooth sailing ever since. Well, mostly.

“The bigger challenges were regulatory, mostly from the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch, who’ve thrown some curveballs along the way.”

One year, the night before the festival, Hieter was told all partial kegs would have to be drained before they could leave the grounds.

“That’s about 250 kegs draining into the sewer at RAP,” Hieter said. “We asked politely if LCLB could rethink it and they backed off.”

There was also a challenge of over consumption, but after a generation of people growing up with craft beer, Beer Fest goers have become a very civil group.

“On any given weekend we have 8,000 to 10,000 people and the average number of people we remove from the festival is 12,” Hieter said, adding half of those are removed for smoking pot.

Tickets are available at gcbf.com/tickets.

reporter@saanichnews.com

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The Great Canadian Beer Festival draws 8,000 to 10,000 people through Royal Athletic Park. This year’s event is Sept. 8 and 9. Submitted

The Great Canadian Beer Festival draws 8,000 to 10,000 people through Royal Athletic Park. This year’s event is Sept. 8 and 9. Submitted

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