Comox Valley sports brews and heritage

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      Fed up with the high cost of housing in Metro Vancouver? You might want to check out Cumberland on your next weekend getaway.

      “It’s Kitsilano 25 years ago,” asserts Darren Adam, co-owner of Cumberland Brewing Company. “It’s young families, it’s people who are choosing lifestyle over material goods.…We’ve got a ski hill, we’ve got world-class mountain-bike trails, we’ve got lakes and ocean. What more do you want?”

      Adam is an Alberta transplant who moved to the Vancouver Island village of 3,500 nine years ago. He opened the brewery last December with business partner Caroline Tymchuk, who is married to brewer Michael Tymchuk.

      So where the heck is Cumberland? It’s a little over an hour north of Nanaimo in the Comox Valley, inland from the twin cities of Courtenay and Comox, and close to Mount Washington. Regardless of whether you’re in the market for a move, a trip to the valley makes for a pleasant mini break, with three new craft breweries to explore.

      Carolyn Ali

      The name Cumberland might ring a bell in reference to beer. In 2000 Labatt declared it the “Lucky-est town in B.C.”, since residents bought more Lucky Lager as a percentage of overall beer sales than any other community in the province.

      The town has a long blue-collar history. It was a mining community from 1888 to 1966, but it faded into a sleepy village with the decline of the coal industry. It’s since undergone a revival, and there’s a definite laid-back vibe around the main drag of Dunsmuir Avenue. That’s where you’ll find the brewery, which is located kitty-corner to the 1907 brick customs building that now houses a café, and down the street from the colourful heritage false fronts adjacent to the Cumberland Museum & Archives.

      “Cumberland used to be described as ‘bar fights rolling into the streets’,” Adam tells me as the brewery’s patio fills up with a mix of 20-somethings and families. “Now, it’s strollers and mountain bikes.”

      At Forbidden Brewing.
      Carolyn Ali

      And of course, craft-beer drinkers. “The craft-beer wave came late to the Comox Valley, but it came with force,” he says. Since Cumberland Brewing opened at the end of last year, two breweries have opened in Courtenay: Gladstone Brewing Company in January and Forbidden Brewing Co. in July. While there’s still plenty of Lucky Lager consumed in the area, tastes are changing with the North American trend.

      Adam says Cumberland Brewing is a neighbourhood operation: 80 percent of customers come on foot or by bike. Since the brewery has no plans to can or bottle its beer, mainlanders who want to try the excellent Just a Little Bitter ESB or the signature Forest Fog unfiltered wheat ale have to come to Cumberland themselves.

      A 10-minute drive away, Courtenay (population 25,000) isn’t nearly as hip as Cumberland. Forbidden Brewing Co. is tucked away among the strip malls of Cliffe Avenue in the Best Western Westerly Hotel & Convention Centre. But the tasting room is bright and welcoming, with table seating and a small menu of burgers, fish tacos, and nachos.

      Carolyn Ali

      Named after the Forbidden Plateau, a popular local hiking area, Forbidden Brewing is owned by five partners, including Arcade Fire’s Sarah Neufeld, who grew up in the Comox Valley. This nanobrewery doesn’t bottle either, so if you want to try Nicholas Williams’s flagship pale ale or IPA, you’ll have to do it here. A stout and a pilsner are in the works, and guest taps serve selections from Victoria’s Hoyne Brewing.

      Courtenay isn’t all strip malls, however. Bisected by the Courtenay River, it lies across a pretty bay from the Comox peninsula. The city’s downtown has some quaint heri-tage buildings, and the Comox Valley Heritage Experience does a great job of signposting them. For example, the Native Sons Hall is the largest free-span log building in Canada; erected in 1928, it’s made from some pretty impressive timber and is the winter home of the Saturday Comox Valley farmers market.

      The Courtenay and District Museum & Paleontology Centre is located across the street, inside the heritage post-office building. It’s a good place to occupy the kids with some cool fossils, including the skeleton of an elasmosaur marine reptile discovered in 1988 on the banks of the nearby Puntledge River. Guided fossil-hunting tours are available if you book in advance.

      In the next block is Gladstone Brewing, which is a fun spot housed in a converted garage; the bright tasting lounge is dotted with automotive memorabilia. Owned by Daniel Sharratt and Alexandra Stephanson, with John Adair (formerly of Parallel 49 Brewing) as head brewer, Gladstone counts a Belgian single, a North American porter, and a West Coast IPA as part of its lineup. You can fill a growler to take back to the mainland—the brewery doesn’t bottle yet but will later this year—or settle in and order a pizza from the on-site Pizzeria Guerrilla.

      On your way to or from the ferry, be sure to take the longer Oceanside Route 19A for at least part of the stretch to Parksville. The scenic drive passes through the oyster capital of Fanny Bay, where you can see the oyster floats in Baynes Sound. Stop in at Mac’s Oysters and pick up a tub of the shucked-on-site oysters to fry up when you get home.

      If you can’t afford a house in Vancouver, you can at least have a po’ boy sandwich.

      Access: To get to the Comox Valley from the mainland, take B.C. Ferries to Nanaimo’s Departure Bay and drive north on Highway 19. The Comox Valley Heritage Experience has self-guided tours online at Discover Comox Valley, which also has tourist and accommodation info.