Vancouver’s food and craft beer tours aren’t just for tourists

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Suzanne Rushton starts off with the basics. “Get as much light as possible,” she instructs the small group of people who have gathered at Railtown’s Cadeaux Bakery to learn how to take better photos of their food. She grabs a delicate floral china plate, rimmed in mint green and gold, and moves it to a table by the window. Daylight bathes the dark chocolate brownie drizzled with salted caramel sauce. “You want the food to be bright, appetizing, and succulent,” she says. “You want to entice people with the picture of the food and make sure that they want to eat it.”

That may seem obvious, but as anyone who’s photographed their meal in a dark restaurant knows, it’s easier said than done. Nine students whose photography experience varies from relative beginner to professional have gathered on this Friday afternoon to hear Rushton’s tips for shooting with both smartphone and SLR cameras, tour four Railtown food destinations, and eat what they photograph. (Once the brownie is preserved for posterity, it’s quickly reduced to crumbs.) For this Dine Out Vancouver Festival event, Rushton, who founded Vancouver Photowalks, has partnered with Off the Eaten Track, a culinary walking-tour company. She hopes that participants will not only have fun but learn something along the way.

At press time, a few tickets remained for Dine Out’s Food-tography tours, which continue until Friday (January 31). A similar Dine Out event, the East Van Craft Brew & Culinary Tour—for which Off the Eaten Track is partnering with Vancouver Brewery Tours—still has tickets for Friday. Dine Out aside, all three companies offer tours throughout the year. And while one might think these are just relevant to tourists, they offer plenty for locals too.

Bonnie Todd, who co-owns Off the Eaten Track, tells the Georgia Straight that while tourists make up the bulk of her business in the summer, about 70 percent of participants during the winter are locals. Her company focuses on culinary offerings in the neighbourhoods of Railtown, Main Street, and the “East Village” (which she readily acknowledges is a controversial term for Hastings Sunrise).

The tours last two to three hours and cost $45 to $65. Each makes stops at a variety of small food shops and restaurants, sampling along the way. For example, on the East Van Craft Brew & Culinary Tour I attended, the group tasted foods that go well with beer, such as sausages at Windsor Meat Co., Black and Tan chocolate stout cake at Black Rook Bakehouse, and pizza and salads at Campagnolo Roma.

Vancouverites take her tours, Todd says, to keep up with the ever-changing food scene or to explore a neighbourhood they might otherwise be slightly intimidated to visit, such as Railtown in the Downtown Eastside. Sometimes, they come just to try places they’ve never tried before. “Even people who live on Main Street have come on our Main Street tour,” she says. Her tours provide historical commentary and often a behind-the-scenes peek at a business, such as a chat with the chef. “We try to give people an experience that they might not have on their own,” she explains.

Ryan Mackey, who owns Vancouver Brewery Tours, cites similar reasons for why locals take his tours. The craft-beer scene is evolving so rapidly, he says, that many people simply haven’t had a chance to check out many of the city’s breweries. (The latest? In North Vancouver, Black Kettle Brewing Co. opened this month and Green Leaf Brewing Co. opened there in December.) His company, which launched last June, offers $69 tours every weekend that visit three breweries in three hours. He switches up stops between his eight partner breweries, which include Parallel 49 Brewing Company, Deep Cove Brewers and Distillers, and Dockside Brewing Company. At each brewery, participants are offered three or four samples.

So why take a tour rather than visiting the breweries’ tasting rooms yourself? Mackey says that people enjoy taking a behind-the-scenes look at the breweries and the personal interaction with brewery staff. “When you meet the people who make your beer, you want to go back,” he explains. The tours include van transportation so that people don’t need to worry about drinking and driving. That makes them popular to book for private stag and staff parties.

The tours are also a great way to meet people in famously clique-y Vancouver. Each one starts off with participants introducing themselves, and the ice breaks quickly with the first beer poured. On the tour the Straight covered, the whole group went on to socialize at a nearby pub afterward.

Rushton’s Vancouver Photowalks tours are perhaps less social by nature, as participants are focused on their cameras. But they do give Vancouverites a new view on their city, since they force them to slow down and really look at places they might otherwise pass by without a thought.

While the Railtown Food-tography tour was created for the Dine Out Vancouver Festival, the tour companies may team up again to repeat it if there’s demand. Meanwhile, Rushton’s regular roster of two-hour walks ($99 each) take place in different corners of Metro Vancouver. A lively, engaging teacher, she promises customers a refund if they don’t have fun or learn something; nobody has asked for a refund in the three years she’s been operating the tours.

“Use your macro lens [or macro mode],” she instructs the Food-tography group. “Get closer to your food. It’s not going to get irritated, like people do,” she says, laughing. Later, she demonstrates how a companion can create soft, diffused light for a dish being photographed by holding a white piece of paper in front of the flashlight shining from a smartphone.

And with that, dinner is Instagram-ready.

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