If you brew it, they will come. That’s what Karen Skadsheim, co-owner of Townsite Brewing, has learned since she opened her craft brewery in Powell River.
“This was very much a Lucky Lager town,” explained Skadsheim, who moved to the mill community in 2007. Craft beer was nowhere to be found, and the Vancouver transplant just couldn’t stomach the fizzy yellow stuff. “I decided that if I was going to live here, something had to be done about the beer.”
So in April 2012 the self-described “amateur beer appreciator” teamed up with brewmaster Cédric Dauchot and business partner Steve Brooks to open a brewery. In their first month of operation, people bought 1,300 growlers, cleaning them out. “We thought we were going to get lynched,” she said, laughing.
The business has been going great guns ever since, producing 150 hectolitres of beer a month and winning multiple awards for its Pow Town porter and 7800 Saison. In the brewery’s tasting room, Skadsheim told the Georgia Straight that while she suspected there would be demand from Powell River residents, she had no idea how quickly they would get behind a local product. (Part of the reason is hometown pride: the Zunga blonde ale takes its name from the local term for a rope swing over water, and the Suncoast Pale Ale is sold exclusively on the Sunshine Coast, while other bottles are available at private Vancouver liquor stores.) “We thought we were driving an economy car, tooling down the craft beer road, but we soon realized we were clinging to the back of a craft beer drag racer,” she said.
Now, the brewery draws not only thirsty locals but craft beer tourists. I counted myself among them as I chatted with Skadsheim during one of the brewery’s free Saturday tours. Townsite’s craft beer is one of the things that attracted me to Powell River, a city of 12,500 people that I had previously not given much thought to visiting. But while I came for the beer, I discovered a town that’s so charming I wondered why I’d hadn’t been before.
Well, I do know why. Located on the Upper Sunshine Coast, Powell River has always seemed to me to be so very far away from Vancouver. To get there, you need to take two ferries: one from Horseshoe Bay to Langdale—followed by an hour-and-a-half-long drive—and then a second from Earls Cove to Saltery Bay. From there, it’s a half-hour drive to Powell River. All told, the trip took me about six hours. That said, it was a beautiful journey, and one that wasn’t much longer than the drive to the B.C. interior—without the snowy mountain pass and with the bonus of two built-in naps on the ferry.
After driving through the sleepy, coast-hugging towns of Sechelt and Pender Harbour on the Lower Sunshine Coast, I expected Powell River to be more of the same. But the city has an open, expansive feel since it’s built on a gentle slope leading down to the ocean. While it does have its share of big-box stores, it also offers some very good independent shops and restaurants, such as Costa del Sol Latin Cuisine, which makes a fish taco that would hold its own in any big city.
Powell River’s real attraction, however, is its charming historical district, where Townsite Brewing is located. The original town site was built in the early 20th century around the pulp-and-paper mill that still billows steam on the waterfront. (Now operated by Catalyst Paper mill, it has the dubious honour of producing some of the paper for Fifty Shades of Grey.) The residential area—perched on a hill above the old commercial buildings and the mill—was professionally planned in a compact grid pattern. Four hundred original buildings still stand within the borders of the 1910 town plan, influenced by the garden city and arts and crafts movements. While many of the houses have seen better days, others have been beautifully restored. What’s remarkable is that this is still a living, breathing neighbourhood—one so cute it would nail an audition to play small-town America in a movie.
Townsite Brewing is located in a brick building that used to house the old post and telegraph office, and it’s one of the new businesses that’s adding some hipster revitalization to the old commercial district. The Townsite Heritage Society of Powell River offers guided walking tours of the area on request, or you can grab one of their maps and take a self-guided tour of the architectural landmarks. Don’t miss the Patricia Theatre, with its irresistibly old-school marquee. Built in 1928 in the Spanish Renaissance style, it sits regally on a corner with a view of the ocean. The oldest continuously operating cinema and vaudeville business in Canada now shows first-run movies, and keeps its doors open in the off-hours so the curious can peek inside at the atmospheric murals.
I stayed within stumbling distance of the brewery, at the Old Courthouse Inn, which was built as a provincial-government building in 1939. At one time it housed the police station, courtroom, and even the community jail; a gold placard above my room says “Judge's Chamber”. The inn’s décor is eclectic to say the least, packed with antiques in both the rooms and hallways, which you can purchase should you fall in love with them. If you ask owner JP Brosseau nicely, he’ll show you inside the jail that’s still accessible in the basement, which he’s transforming into an antique store.
Brosseau grew up in Powell River but left to work for a decade in Alberta. When he returned to his hometown in September 2012 and bought the inn, he was struck by how much the community had changed. “It’s a lot more progressive with a lot more fun, funky people moving into town,” he says. His life and business partner, Kelly Belanger, runs the kitchen at the hotel’s Edie Rae’s Café, where he makes his own biscuits and cures his own salmon for the Benedict breakfasts. Sepia-toned photos of Brosseau’s mother as a teenager grace the walls, lending the café an old-fashioned charm.
Quirky places like this make it easy to feel like you’ve escaped into another era in Powell River’s history. But when you return home, you can bring a growler of excellent craft beer with you.