With a deep-rooted brewing history dating back to the mid-1800s, Vancouver has followed a similar path to the modern US craft beer scene; in the 1970s, homebrewers united to provide an alternative to mass-market lagers. Out of this emerged Horseshoe Bay Brewing in 1982, headed by Frank Appleton and considered the first modern Canadian craft brewer. From the mid-1980s through the ’90s, the first wave of craft brewers in British Columbia included Granville Island, Vancouver Island and Spinnakers (all established 1984), Whistler (’89), Yaletown and Bowen Island (’94), and Steamworks, Russell and Storm (’95) – all of which survived a round of industry consolidation in the late 1990s.
After a relatively quiet first decade of the millennium, the brewing scene in Vancouver and the wider province has exploded since 2010, and particularly in the last three years. RateBeer currently lists 137 active breweries in BC, with 40 of those within Vancouver city limits and numerous others in the metro area. Nanobreweries abound, particularly in a section of East Vancouver (fondly nicknamed “Yeast Van”) – meaning growler fills are popular and it’s a prime spot for brewery-hopping. Some of the top names in the local scene today include Strange Fellows, Parallel 49, Storm, Central City, Dageraad, 33 Acres, Fuggles & Warlock (Richmond’s only brewery), Driftwood, Four Winds, Brassneck, Category 12, Bridge, Ravens, Doan’s, Phillips, Red Truck and Bomber.
As with much of the Pacific Northwest, BC’s IPAs tend towards the hoppy West Coast style. But unlike many of their US counterparts that focus heavily on IPA, the BC scene is quite eclectic, with numerous sours and cutting-edge brews happening right now. In addition, there’s a boatload of organic, sustainable and environmentally conscious beers. If you’re going to pick one bar to visit that encapsulates this, make it Alibi Room. Just off Powell Street in Gastown and located on an active rail line, it features a constantly rotating 50-tap menu of hard-to-find seasonal Canadian brews and fantastic farm-to-table-style comfort food that exemplifies the Vancouver experience. St Augustine’s, BierCraft and Portland Craft are also spots worth visiting, but sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day.
Got a little more time, though? Head over to Olympic Village and drop by two must-visit bars within a half-block of each other: Craft Beer Market (with 100+ taps) occupies a huge space in the historic Salt Building, while Tap & Barrel is a perfect after-work spot with gorgeous waterfront views. Then, pop over and take a few bottles home from Legacy Liquor Store, by far the largest private retailer of awesome brews. It’s a sprawling paradise, with more than 1,000 bottles and kegs available, focused on the local craft beer scene but with a healthy balance of imports. If you’re looking for another great bottle shop, Brewery Creek in Mount Pleasant is another fine spot to pick up some rare brews.
The off-premise beer sales market is heavily regulated and the government serves as the distributor through its Liquor Distribution Branch. There are government-run liquor stores (under the brand BC Liquor Stores), private liquor retailers and a handful of grocery stores that are allowed to sell beer. With new laws coming into effect last year, the livelihood of private retailers – which had benefited from a 16% wholesale pricing discount and expanded operating hours before the changes – seems to be under threat.
As it stands, Vancouver is a thriving food and beer paradise for independent businesses – though there’s certainly nothing wrong with popping by a Tim Hortons. A great time to visit is during Vancouver Craft Beer Week in May and June, or during BC Craft Beer Month in October. Go forth and explore the world!