What’s Vancouver’s best beer? Short answer: the beer in my hand. Facetious? Maybe. It also means that besides appearance, aroma, flavour, and mouthfeel, one must consider a beer’s freshness, seasonality, serving temperature, affinity with food, and sheer novelty. It takes a lot of effort to make a good beer—even more to find the best beer. Let’s have a look.
The most natural beer is cask ale. This is beer that has been conditioned in 40-litre firkins with a secondary addition of yeast and, perhaps, aroma hops. It is served live, naturally carbonated, directly from the cask. Its flavour hasn’t been compromised by filtration, pasteurization, or preservatives. Dix BBQ & Brewery (871 Beatty Street) popularized this “real ale” in Vancouver with their semiannual Caskival festivals and weekly Cask Thursdays. Their signature beer is an ultrahopped, Northwest-style India Pale Ale that’s bold with lots of piny, citrus flavour. Some versions, such as Dix’s, have a strong grapefruit flavour.
A growing number of establishments are offering an ever-changing cask selection on a regular basis. The Whip Restaurant & Gallery (209 East 6th Avenue) presents a cask from a different B.C. brewer every Sunday. Taylor’s Crossing Restaurant and Brewpub (1035 Marine Drive, North Vancouver) offers a cask on the first Friday of every month. Surrey’s BigRidge Brewing Company (15133 Highway 10, Surrey) hosts one or two casks on the last Friday of the month.
The latest entrants to the game are Central City Brewing Company (13450 102 Avenue, Surrey), which held its inaugural Surrey cask festival in July, and the new Irish Heather (212 Carrall Street), which serves a dry-hopped R & B Red Devil Pale Ale daily.
While brewpubs always offer draft lager and pale ale, the selection is as individual as the brewer. It also changes with the seasons. Consequently, the more you explore, the more difficult it becomes to settle on just one beer as your favourite.
Yaletown Brewing Company’s Cassiopeia is ideal for enjoying in the sunshine on the restaurant’s patio (1111 Mainland Street). It’s a light, crisp, Belgian-style Witbier that’s well suited to salads and light seafood. On the other hand, #666 Wee Beastie at Big River Brewpub (180–14200 Entertainment Boulevard, Richmond) will put warmth in your belly, absent a crackling fire. Typical of Scotch ales, it has a sweet malt character with a lingering smoothness that builds into a glow from the seven percent alcohol.
Seasonality is also reflected in festivals. What better way to mark St. Patrick’s Day, for example, than with an R & B Dark Star Oatmeal Stout? Smooth and creamy, it has a silky texture that comes from the oatmeal that’s added to the mash. Classic Irish pairings include oysters, Irish stew, or steak and stout pie.
September means Oktoberfest and a beer synonymous with the harvest celebration—Mí¤rzen. An amber-coloured lager with more body than the typical golden brew, Oktoberfest by Granville Island Brewing (1441 Cartwright Street) is an example of Mí¤rzen that achieves a nice balance between malt and hops. Its caramel notes are a natural with foods you would expect at a Bavarian beer festival: bratwurst, pork hock, or roast chicken. The hop bitterness cuts the fat, with the carbonation cleansing your palate.
Pumpkins are so emblematic of fall that they’ve found their way into beer. The Great Pumpkin Ale from Steamworks Brewing Company (375 Water Street) is brewed with 45 kilograms of the squash. Spiced with cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg, the malty copper-coloured brew is just like liquid pumpkin pie. A glass of it will give you a remarkable example of the versatility of beer.
There are always exceptions to the rule that beer is best consumed fresh. Last December, Sailor Hagar’s Brew Pub (86 Semisch Avenue, North Vancouver) offered an extremely complex 1997 Thor’s Hammer, originally brewed by Gary Lohin when Hagar’s still brewed its own beer. Lohin, now the brewmaster at Central City, will have a sequel available there this fall.
Ten years ago, Storm Brewing brewmaster James Walton made a Belgian-style blackcurrant lambic. Sour, with a balsamiclike acidity, this rare beer was served as a dessert course at the Whip’s January Feast of the Five Firkins event, both as a beverage and made into gelato. Most preferred it as gelato, but serious wine drinkers appreciated its eccentric, vinous quality.
I’ve offered just a few examples of Vancouver’s best beers here. For more choice, visit Gastown’s Alibi Room (157 Alexander Street) for the best selection of B.C. draft craft beer in the province.
If you want to explore in the comfort of your own home instead, Brewery Creek Beer & Wine Store (3045 Main Street) offers the city’s best selection of quality beers. Invite some friends over for a potluck dinner or a beer and cheese party. Who knows what you’ll discover?
Rick Green is the president of Campaign for Real Ale Vancouver, which advocates the promotion and consumption of natural, crafted beers.