Even though Vancouver came considerably later to the microbrew party than Seattle, Portland, and pretty much all of Europe did, our city has started to position itself as a bona fide mecca for those whose sightseeing starts on the craft-beer scene. If you brew it, they will come.
“The word has been getting out, especially over the last couple of years,” Vancouver Brewery Tours founder Ryan Mackey tells the Straight in a phone interview. “More and more articles have led to more and more exposure around the world. We really have started to get that reputation as a craft-beer destination. We’ve got people from all over the world doing our tours. The coolest one for me was someone from Iceland who came on our tour with his buddy from Sweden. They went to Bomber Brewing, and the guy from Sweden said, ‘That pilsner is exactly what it tastes like back home.’ ”
Over the past half-decade, British Columbia has exploded with craft-beer businesses like Bomber. Over 70 breweries have opened up in the province, with new ventures joining the boom seemingly on a monthly basis. That’s attracting beer-loving tourists who, in the past, might have thought of heading to well-established hot spots like Oregon or Washington state. Earlier this spring, Vogue ran a story on Vancouver titled “Is This City the New Craft Beer Capital of North America?”.
Key to building the hype are events like the wildly popular Vancouver Craft Beer Week. Spearheaded by a four-person team (events director Leah Heneghan, technical director Tyler Olson, sales director Paul Kamon, and marketing director Chris Bjerrisgaard), VCBW has grown into the country’s biggest celebration of craft beer. (This year’s Vancouver Craft Beer Week—which features style-specific showcases and a three-day blowout at the PNE with a live-music component—takes place from Friday [May 26] to June 4.)
In a conference call, Heneghan, Olson, and Kamon are understandably stoked about the city’s rise as a beer-tourism destination.
“It’s an ongoing thing. I’ve just been looking at some of the emails that we’ve had from New York and Germany and New Zealand,” Olson says. “They are people who are like, ‘Should we get our tickets early?’ We’ve got people who are actually coming from all over the world for the festival, looking to plan out their visits.”
Tourism Vancouver acknowledges that events like Vancouver Craft Beer Week, and the proliferation of breweries in the city, are having an impact on tourism. Last year, our city racked up a record 10 million visits, and that number is set to be eclipsed this year. Tourism Vancouver communications manager Amber Sessions says international media outlets continue to reach out to Tourism Vancouver for information on our beer boom.
“We’ve received a lot of questions and interest in Vancouver’s beer scene and craft-beer scene,” she says. “And the media is kind of a bellwether for what consumers and regular visitors are interested in.”
She adds that festivals like Vancouver Craft Beer Week can play a major role in convincing visitors to spend their tourist dollars here.
Vancouver isn’t alone in becoming a destination. The craft-beer revolution has extended to the suburbs, Victoria, and other parts of Vancouver Island. Add thriving breweries in communities that include—but are hardly limited to—Nelson, Penticton, Kamloops, and Salmon Arm, and you’ve got the inspiration for the B.C. Ale Trail, a tourism initiative by Destination British Columbia and the B.C. Craft Brewers Guild dedicated to boosting the profile of the province’s microbrew community.
While the idea of hitting a city and then heading straight for the nearest brewery might suggest a blurry obsession with Barfly or The Lost Weekend, the reality is that the craft-beer explosion has helped reshape the way we look at alcohol.
“It’s not like going out on a Friday night to a pub downtown where the point is just to get drunk,” Mackey says. “People aren’t going out to get wasted. There’s a lot more appreciation, a little more savouring, and a little more of, I don’t know, an intellectual interest that’s grown over the year.”
There’s also been a sea change in how we choose to immerse ourselves in places when we go travelling, tied into the way we live at home. Think about how evolving neighbourhoods like Fraserhood, the East Village, and Commercial Drive have been taken over by hyperlocal butcher shops, artisanal coffee joints, and West Coast–driven eateries that actually feel part of the community.
If we’re hopping in an Evo for Mexican, we’re not going downtown to Chipotle but instead to a nondescript corner on Kingsway to hit the always packed Sal y Limón. Where Baskin-Robbins once meant the pinnacle of gourmet ice cream in Vancouver, today we line up at Earnest Ice Cream, Rain or Shine Homemade Ice Cream, and Bella Gelateria.
“As much as we see it from a beer angle, there’s also a travel angle to it,” Olson says. “When we travel, you gotta eat somewhere and you want to have a beverage. You want that sort of local residents’ view of what you should check out or what to not miss in the town. It all feeds into finding authentic food and culture—a real sense of localness. People like Anthony Bourdain have really put the spotlight on going someplace and really getting into what that town or city does.”
And craft breweries are great starting points for discovering what the locals are all about. Head to Andina Brewing Company, Parallel 49 Brewing, the Red Truck Beer Company, or Main Street Brewing Company and you’re settling in at a place that’s not only unique to Vancouver but also populated by locals who’ve realized that communities aren’t built on faceless chain bars and restaurants.
Vancouver Craft Beer Week’s Paul Kamon says B.C.’s provincial government kick-started craft-beer tourism in 2013, when it modernized liquor laws. Lounge licences have enabled the province’s craft breweries to set up tasting rooms. That’s helped those breweries flourish to the point where they are now provincewide, which in turn has helped create the B.C. Ale Trail for those who want to see more than Vancouver when they visit our province.
“Now you have tasting rooms opening up all over the province,” Kamon says. “They become social houses for local communities. And they are very much where tourists are going because they want to taste locally produced, authentic product. The bonus is that they are interacting with locals, who then give them recommendations on what to do and what to see. The province played a key role in basically opening the door for beer tourism by creating these
licences—just like they did for the wineries.”
And for a good idea of how much room there is for beer tourism in B.C. to grow, stop and think about where the B.C. wine industry once was and where it is today. As it’s become internationally recognized—thanks partly to the success of brands like Mission Hill and Burrowing Owl—the Okanagan has become a destination for tourists from across the continent and around the world.
“There’s so much to be gained in beer tourism,” says Kamon, who’s watched Vancouver Craft Beer Week grow from a small event in 2010 to one that now attracts thousands. “As we become known as a world-class beer destination, think of the opportunities, whether it’s promoting ourselves to Germany or to England or to America, for that matter. There are millions of people out there who are very much interested in the product that we have, so it can be just as big, if not bigger, than wine tourism.”
For a full rundown of Vancouver Craft Beer Week events, go to vancouvercraftbeerweek.com/.