— Pamela Roth
With a van full of 14 people from Victoria, Alberta, the United States and New Zealand, Elton Walker hits the road, making his way towards Phillips Brewing, the largest craft brewer on Vancouver Island.
“Is everybody ready to drink some craft beer?” he says enthusiastically. The passengers reply with a quiet “Yeah.”
During the drive, Walker talks about the history of Victoria’s craft beer scene — one that dates back to 1856 when the Victoria Brewery opened on the corner of Government and Discovery streets.
The city has since become the craft beer capital of B.C., which Walker says is in a craft beer revolution. At the start of the year, there were 93 breweries throughout the province, but that number has since jumped to slightly more than 100. Victoria is home to at least a dozen.
“It’s a pretty good sign of where the industry is at for craft beer,” said Walker, who hails from New Zealand and conceived his business, West Coast Brewery Tours, about three years ago thanks to visits from family and friends.
During the next three hours, we’re slated to tour two other microbreweries — Lighthouse Brewing Company in Esquimalt and Moon Under Water in Rock Bay, where the bulk of the city’s microbreweries are located.
At Phillips Brewing, Bill Stuart talks enthusiastically about the beer process as he pours samples of five different brews, providing a cross-section of what the company creates. The company brews about 16 different beers on a regular basis and recently opened its own malting plant.
The afternoon isn’t just about sampling various flavours of craft beer, but also getting behind the scenes to see how the beer is made — a process that’s more complicated than most people think. Making craft beer involves four main ingredients: yeast, hops, water and barley, which typically go through five main steps that takes weeks to complete.
“Most people are shocked at how much technical elements go into making beer. They think it’s just four different ingredients together, but no,” said Walker, noting craft beer isn’t designed to stay good for more than three to five months since there’s no preservatives.
“People come away with a whole new appreciation and amazement with what it takes to make good craft beer. My goal always is to try to convert non craft beer drinkers into craft beer drinkers. It’s not hard to switch once people try it.”
At Lighthouse Brewing, we’re guided through the back of the brewery filled with various equipment and beer cans stacked to the roof. We’re handed a handful of hops that smell skunky, then taste two different roasts of barley — one that tastes like coffee – while sampling another selection of flavorful beer.
According to Walker, many local breweries use green practices, like sending spent grain to farms for livestock feed, using internal recycling systems and the growler — a large glass bottle purchased by the consumer that’s taken directly to the brewery for refilling. They also seek out local ingredients and team up with chefs and coffee shops to see what new flavours can be created.
Clay Potter is one of the owners of Moon Under Water. Originally a biochemist, Potter set up a lab for a home brewery and fell in love. He never thought of it as a career until he met Matt Phillips of Phillips Brewing.
Potter brewed for Lighthouse for several years, then moved to Europe and got his masters in distilling. Three years ago, his family opened their own microbrewery in Victoria, which now brews 1,000 litres a day, about five days a week.
“It’s been amazing. The craft beer scene has gone through some waves in the past and there’s been a lot of breweries open and then a bunch closed. This is sort of the third wave and it just seems to be endless,” said Potter, adding Victorians are very loyal to local breweries.
“It’s such a good community. The brewers are so collaborative and we all take turns at different breweries and have festivals. Every day you look forward to coming to work because you’re creating something new all the time. You never get bored. You never make the same beers.”
In 2011, the government proclaimed October as B.C. Craft Beer Month to celebrate the province’s finest brews. Local breweries are hosting a number of events throughout the month.