Category Archives: Beer Travels

What I Learned on Vancouver Island

I had the fortune to be invited, as both guest beer writer and chauffeur, to tour the southeastern coast of Vancouver Island. Along with Ezra, publican of The New School, the tour took five nights and covered Victoria to just north of Qualicum Beach, around 100 miles apart. This was my first ever media trip; lodging, car, and per diem were paid for by a tourism company in conjunction with the BC Ale Trail. In our rented Taurus with (thank heavens) GPS, we visited over a dozen breweries and beer bars and took some side jaunts to coffeeshops, beach parks, and a grand old train trestle.

Though the laws are slowly loosening, drinking beer in British Columbia is somewhat complicated, and expensive due to high taxes. Some taprooms only offer samples and beer to go, no full pours. Others sell flights and “sleeves,” or full pours (not always a pint; in fact, very rarely a pint it seemed). All of them filled growlers. It appeared that none were required to sell food. So whenever we walked into a new brewery, we weren’t entirely sure what to expect. Given our status as professional tourists, we always opted for flights in order to cover the most ground in the fewest sips. Touring this way can be tedious, as the palate eventually degrades into simple sensations.

The words “nascent,” “emerging,” and “burgeoning” are the most generic to describe a young and growing craft beer “scene,” just as the word “avid” is the most overused adjective to describe a homebrewer who goes pro. But the Vancouver Island beer industry is basically that. Though several breweries have been open for more than a decade, the majority are much younger than that. According to bartenders and brewers we spoke with, the reemergence of township breweries there is concurrent with that in the States. The collective beer-unconscious has produced a pox of small breweries in small towns; everybody had the same idea at the same time. This is the direct result of a legislative change in 2013 that allowed breweries to sell their beer on-premise in “lounges,” rather than being forced to sell it to the government and buy it back, or not make any retail margin at all.

The Island is lovely. Downtown Victoria has maintained much of its 19th century architecture, the beaches and harbors are photogenic and full of life, but also rocky and stark like the coast of Maine, or Alaska; life abounds in crevices. Fir, cedar, and madrone trees line roadways and trails. Though it snowed periodically through the week, it is generally temperate, with lower highs and higher lows than Oregon, at least on the coast. Mountain views are frequent, whether inland or across the Salish Sea to the mainland. Camping and backpacking here would be excellent (though we heard no reports on summer bugginess).

Victoria is a medium sized city, quite bigger than Eugene, but smaller than Portland. It has the most mature breweries, and several beer bars. We visited The Drake Eatery, a beer bar in downtown Victoria. The beer selection of around 30 taps was broad (i.e. did not lean heavily on hoppy beer) and carefully curated by the proprietor, Mike Spence. The experience there gave both of us, I think, a false sense of security about the beer we were to taste on the trip. It’s a really nice beer bar, and I would have liked to stay longer.

But Victoria was not our destination. The second day, we went to three breweries and a taphouse: Red Arrow, Craig Street, Riot, and Sawmill Taphouse & Grill. It’s difficult to write about the first two, especially Craig Street. The tourism company had given us an itinerary, but no times or appointments; communication with the breweries was spotty because very few expected us (that was not the case at Riot, which I’ll get to). We got into the brewery at Red Arrow for a couple minutes and looked around; yep, it’s a brewery. At Craig Street, we simply sat down with flights and a dish of poutine. Perhaps it’s best that nobody was there to meet us; the beer was not good, with buttery diacetyl in every one, even the seasonal Altbier. But it would have been nice to ask some questions, as the space is welcoming and well-adorned and seems reasonably popular.

The new breweries are all doing pretty much the same thing: blonde, pilsner, pale, IPA, porter or stout, and a seasonal make up the tap lists. Hardly any saison or other Belgian, no sour or wild ale. Not very adventurous. That goes for most of the food and coffee we experienced as well. This is likely because everything north of Victoria is basically the middle of nowhere. Nanaimo is the next largest city with about 100,000 people in the greater vicinity; only half the population of Eugene-Springfield. So really, the lack of urban culture shouldn’t have been surprising at all. We could have packed a bottle of Sriracha and called it good.

But it’s proven that beer quality has nothing to do with proximity to an urban center; there is plenty of shit beer in cities. Education and good brewery practices, however, are critical. Though we were unable to interview every brewer, it is clear that there is a collective dearth of good brewery practices; off flavors like diacetyl and acetaldehyde were common, appearing in at least one of every brewery’s beers. Attenuation issues, either over or under, were not uncommon either. Some beers were oxidized, presumably not having sold well; we only visited one brewery that had any real activity going on, which indicated at least a slow season, if not infrequent brewing.

The market is still growing; in the age of social media, it is easier to spread information about craft beer, and groups like the Nanaimo Craft Beer Society are doing a really good job. The ultimate event on our trip was called Crafternoon, and was the finale of Nanaimo Craft Beer Week, held at Longwood Brewpub. It was different from any beer fest I’d been to before, as it was held indoors at a brewpub and there were no tickets for beer and the food, brought around on trays by wait staff, was free. There were only 150 or so tickets sold, so the two floors of the pub weren’t jam packed; they probably could have sold 50 more tickets without issue; the event had sold out in December, anyhow. With 14 breweries from the Island and mainland serving two beers each, the selection was the broadest and the quality the highest we’d seen since The Drake. The community is strong, and part of the Society’s stated mission, as told to me by one of the members, is to improve the quality of the beer. They know it’s not all good; that’s a really big step! All too often, brewers think their shit smells great when in fact it smells like… so having a group like the NCBS will prove quite valuable.

I wrote a journal of the trip, which I might post here soon, along with more photos. Stay tuned!


Crowd Control

Spoiler Alert: this is not a post about the overwhelming traffic to my site. Shocking.

This past weekend was the Festival of Dark Arts, a single-day deluge of very dark beer held at Fort George Brewing’s campus during, appropriately, Stout Month. I say “campus” because there are two buildings, a courtyard, and a balcony, and roughly twelve places to get beer during the fest at Fort George, and I say “appropriately” because February is officially Stout Month (it is no longer called “February,” whatever that means), and that is because it was invented in the 90s by Jack Harris, who started Fort George.

Festival of Dark Arts got a lot of flak a couple years ago for being a “shit show,” according to some sources. I was there a couple years ago, and thought the shit show was mitigated to obscurity by the breadth and quality of stouts, the artisans working their crafts, and the spooky burlesque dancers. Yes, there were people crammed into every conceivable space. But look, people: it’s a stout fest during Stout Month in chilly wet Astoria, Oregon. I know you don’t like to touch elbows, much less come within feet of each other in a mosh pit, but suck it up; you’re in line for Parabajava. Where else can you find Parabajava in Oregon? Nowhere.

This year’s Festival of Dart Arts was, in comparison to 2016, more mature. At least, I was more mature; I knew not to stand in that stupid rainy entry line at noon when I could easily wait out the line with a beer at Reach Break Brewing, literally within a stone’s throw of the line. The crowd, as a unit, was also more mature. Yeah, they were older (but they still partied; just ask the people next door to us at the Norblad). They didn’t jostle. The one thing that held back the chaos in the first two hours of the fest was the fact that everybody knew they needed a beer in order to deal with the crowd, and if they could just wait in line to get that beer, the chaos, which was mostly in their heads, would dwindle to a din. Once everybody got beer in their awesome little whiskey snifters, got back in line, and did it again a few times, the fest was terrific and some people touched elbows.

I spoke briefly with a shift lead in the pizzeria at Fort George the next day, and she impressed upon me the literal insanity of that beer fest. Over 100 employees and 50 volunteers move everything, set up, herd people to beer, and then put it all back together within 24 hours.
Every year.
One day.

FoDA crowd
This is not a picture of a line at Festival of Dark Arts.

Ask a manager at any busy place about the psychology of lines. “I was in line for 20 minutes!” somebody might complain on Yelp. But that’s likely not true. Maybe they were in line for five or 10 minutes, and since it was obviously busy, their order took longer than normal. That’s not 20 minutes in line, that’s a manager stressing out over a ten minute wait because of a Yelper. The same psychology applies to lines at beer festivals. Unless something is seriously wrong or the keg of Hunahpu’s is about to be tapped at Hellshire, nobody waits that long for a beer. And lines aren’t bad, evil things to be afraid of. Hell, they’re probably a sign that a fest is successful. For the fest organizer, it’s where to put those lines that matters. Upstairs in the pizzeria shortly into the Festival of Dark Arts this year, the line to get to the bar to get beer snaked so wildly that it was hard to tell who was in line and who was just standing around with their glass getting empty. That was a shit show, but I eventually got beer, so it was great! And the line abated after a couple hours. The fest is only as happy as you make it.

When you subject yourself to a beer fest, a tiny universe in which the people are like insects whose only purpose for the duration of their short lives is to get drunk, you have to let go. Maybe you make a plan of action because you are a smart insect, but you must trust that the organizers mostly know what they’re doing. And the organizers trust that you are there to have a good time; that’s the relationship.

Festival of Dark Arts can be a hunt and a throng and a cattle call and a shit show and all the things people want to call it who didn’t let themselves enjoy the space for the marvel of stout and crowd control that it is.
For one day.
Every year.

The Eugene Beer T

Eugene is about to have its own “Beer T.” (Disclaimer: the T looks like it was drawn on an Etch-a-Sketch by a toddler. Work with me, people!) The mostly straight shot from Sam Bond’s Brewery in the east to Ninkasi in the west, which includes ColdFire, Steelhead, Oakshire, and Hop Valley, will be joined at the “joint” by The Wheel Apizza Pub, a New Haven-style pizzeria and pub from Tacovore’s Steve Mertz. Tobias Schock, former head brewer at Agrarian Ales, will head up the wet side of the operation. Word is he’s been perfecting a pilsner recipe and playing with new hops and Mecca Grade Estate Malt; sounds just right.

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Two new brewery tasting rooms will add to the vertical portion of the Eugene Beer T. Coincidentally, both are located in new buildings constructed after fires destroyed the previous ones. Claim 52 Kitchen will open just south of 12th Ave. on the east side of Willamette, where a fire destroyed an antique mall several years ago. Another local brewery will open a satellite tasting room in the former bowling alley at 2490 Willamette. Once the new locations are open, the pub crawl will also include the Falling Sky Pub. (And here’s a shameless plug for The Bier Stein!) The diverse range of beer produced in the Eugene-Springfield area easily matches that of other brewery-heavy cities, and should not be overlooked by tourists and locals seeking quality suds. Craft beer lovers in River Road and South Eugene are still waiting for a brewery to move in. 

Click the link below to view the map, which also includes pins of the good beer bars in the area. Please note that Google would only allow so many spots on the walking map; WildCraft’s new spot and Falling Sky Deli aren’t included.

A Whole Brew World

One year ago I was in Peru; we had flown to Cusco from Lima and taken a combi van to Ollantaytambo where we met our friends and their baby and their dog Rabbit. The day after we arrived, I assisted on the first of a two-day kettle sour beer at Cerverceria del Valle Sagrado, which my friends had helped build. The brewery is right next to the Urubamba River, and right across the street from thousand-foot cliffs. Finding a witbier at 9,000 feet elevation halfway across the world from its origin would have been a preposterous idea ten years ago. But there it was (and then wasn’t; I drank it).

Even odder was Wick’s, the English pub in Lima’s Barranco district. Barranco is the Peruvian version of the hip, low-slung neighborhood you might find in Portland or San Francisco. Every night, bands played at several spots on the sprawling plaza. Little kids zipped around on tiny wheels while parents watched percussion troupes. Native and tourist couples snogged and took selfies on el Puente de los Suspiros, the Bridge of Sighs.

In Wick’s, the street life disappeared except when the door opened. The large men at the bar had British accents, though they may have been Dutch. The barkeep pulled pints with sluggish indignation; I tried to chat him up casually, but he wasn’t having it. Only on my return visit, to watch the Super Bowl (yes, the Super Bowl goddammit), did he engage in the slightest. It must be frustrating to have a rotating cast of ex-pats and tourists at your bar.

Sunburnt and satisfied. At Wick’s Pub in Lima drinking an English bitter, representing Agrarian Ales.

But the beer was fantastic. The stout was stout but quaffable. The pale was flowers and biscuits. The tiny brew system couldn’t have been larger than 3 barrels. The gin ‘n tonic was mostly gin; that seems pretty appropriate. It felt sort of wrong to sit at a brown bar crushing pints of bitter in the middle of Lima; wrong that I chose to escape the onslaught of culture outside for a moment; wrong that such a place even existed amid the cevicherias. But then there are McDonalds and Starbucks crowded with locals; it is a huge, international city. Would a Peruvian think twice about getting a causa in D.C.? At the time, it also felt quite comfortable.

This won’t be the last not-in-Kansas-anymore sensation I get in my beer travels. I look forward to tasting how breweries in Berlin interpret an IPA in a couple months. As craft beer has grown global, it’s brought along certain aesthetics; these manifested differently at each of the 6 or so breweries we went to in Peru. The vibes swung from modern to homey, but each insinuated “craft beer” in its own way.


The Session #93: Beer Travel

This is my first foray into group blogging (kinky). The Session has been going on for many years; I have been reading them for just a couple; now I find the opportunity to contribute. Excellent. Here is the topic, presented by The Roaming Pint (and my scattered response):

Why is it important for us to visit the place the where our beers are made? Why does drinking from source always seem like a better and more valuable experience? Is it simply a matter of getting the beer at its freshest or is it more akin to pilgrimage to pay respect and understand the circumstances of the beer better?

It so happens that I recently returned from just such a mission. It dawned upon me while writing an entry for The Bier Stein’s newsletter that travelling great distances to try beer is like going to my neighborhood brewpub, but with more history, culture, and canals.

I had made a Google map of all the breweries I wanted to hit, and brought along CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide to Belgium, ever hopeful to meet my goals. Before leaving, I thought of the trip like a hajj, and was excited to step through so many old brewery doors, to feel the cobwebs brush my cheeks, and to proselytize to people about where I work in hopes of a deeper connection.

As it turned out, the act of getting to the beer was just as valuable as drinking the stuff. Our poetic limitations were transportation and communication: no car, no cell/smart phone– just an iPad with wifi. We relied on trains and trams, bicycles and our feet, paper maps and handwritten directions. The Guide was employed several times a day, and proved to be a sherpa worth its salt. Navigating the contoured streets and alleys of Belgian cities and towns broke us down; you have to get lost to find your way. Randomly spotting a good beer bar was satisfying; I felt like I did it myself.

“I made it!” I thought, and it showed on my face, as Liz would point out. In my head, walking through a door was like walking out of an Arctic blizzard; the hasp clicks and the screaming wind dies. Every pour was a new acquaintance, every acquaintance a new friend.

Tromping around the Belgian countryside, past fields of Brussels sprouts, cows, and hop trellises, you might imagine absorbing the local terroir and commiserating with your beer that way. Or breathing the air in Beersel, perhaps, would give you a preview of the flavors to come out of Drie Fonteinen’s barrels a few years down the road. It’s all in the mind, you know, so make the most of it.

Of course the beer is fresher; it is absolutely delicious, especially at a place like Het Waterhuis in Ghent, where they clearly take care of their draught system and glassware, or De Garre in Bruges where the owner is the bartender and pours beers like they were his kids. I got to admire a method of pouring that was not business-savvy, but made the beer better: from a height greater than 4 inches, plenty of foam that spills over; just before the foaming action peaks, it is scraped off the top with a flat knife so that the final bit billows and creates a lovely aromatic pillow for your upper lip. Dip the bottom of the glass in water to rinse, serve with a coaster and a nod.

Economically speaking, going to the source versus drinking at home is the same as going to the show versus buying the CD; the closer you are, the more your support counts. Personally, I feel more enriched having visited. I can attach memories of places to beers, which helps me in a number of ways:

-I sell beer as part of my job, and stories sell.
-I brew beer as a hobby, and now have a new challenge to brew a beer I feel is “legit” Belgian, to work the yeast the right way.
-Ray Daniels and the Cicerone website said it would boost my Ciccy cred to visit a famous beer brewing country. Oregon does not count as a beer brewing country yet.
-Time away from the drinking culture at home showed me just how ingrained beer is, and can be, in culture.
-I got to experience some flavors and textures I never had before. Nothing like a good old fashioned palate expansion.

[On the flip side, I’ve come back home with a renewed distaste for American IPA. I was slipping there for a bit (I actually enjoyed a can of Heady Topper from the mail!), but after that two week reset I’ve come to realize that the amount of hops being put into beer out here crosses the line from an entertainment dose to a medicinal dose (the subject of future rants, I’m sure). Somehow the general craft-swilling populace has adapted to the sedative quality of these beers, which are served by the entire pint rather than the moderate glass pours of the strong beers in Belgium. Or I’m just a sensitive little butterfly, I don’t know, I just don’t have the hop fetish that seems to grip the nation right now.]

Now I get to share stories with friends, to pass on the mystique. I get to open bottles and think “I was there!” How cool.