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The Breakwater Guide to Good Beer in Victoria

The Breakwater Guide to Good Beer in Victoria

Victoria has always been on the cutting edge of beer, and craft beer has been a part of the city’s culture for more than 35 years. It’s home to the country’s oldest brewpub, iconic beers like Dark Matter and Fat Tug (those that know, know) and some of the best breweries in B.C.


Each brewery offers its own perspective on craft beer, from English-style ales to Belgian-influenced sours to big IPAs bursting with hops. When it comes to inventive brews, Victoria breweries were responsible for a lot of the cutting edge styles in B.C. craft beer for many years. Sure, there’s more competition now, but with the likes of Île Sauvage Brewing, Whistle Buoy Brewing and Phillips’ small-batch beers, we’re still seeing plenty of creativity. And thanks to a compact downtown core, many Victoria breweries are within walking or biking distance of each other, making Victoria a dangerously good place for a beer crawl. Here’s Breakwater’s guide to good beer in Victoria.


History in a nutshell: Craft beer kicks off in 1984. There’s a bit of a local debate as to who opens first: Spinnakers Brewpub or Vancouver Island Brewing (then known as Island Pacific Brewing Company), but either way, these two started it all. In 1989, Swans Brewpub opens and Sean Hoyne cuts his brewing teeth here (later opening Hoyne Brewing Co). Next up, Lighthouse and Canoe join the club, Phillips Brewing opens on “a mountain of credit card debt,” followed by Driftwood, Moon Under Water, Category 12, Victoria Caledonian (Twa Dogs Beer) and Ile Sauvage. The latest? Whistle Buoy.

Notable beers:  Vancouver Island Brewing’s Hermannator. Driftwood’s Fat Tug. Hoyne’s Dark Matter. Phillips’ Blue Buck. 

On tasting rooms (or lack thereof): In 2012, the province relaxed regulations on craft breweries and tasting rooms. Because Victoria was already firmly entrenched in the craft beer industry, most of the craft beer growth happened in the new market of Vancouver. Victoria breweries didn’t have space to add tasting rooms once the legislation changed, which is why you’ll find fewer tasting rooms at established breweries here than in other cities. But not to worry: Phillips opened a tasting room in 2018, new breweries like Île Sauvage and Whistle Buoy are fully licensed, and others, like Vancouver Island Brewing, are in the process of securing their license.


Downtown

Canoe Brewpub | 450 Swift St • canoebrewpub.com
Housed in a historic brick-and-timber former powerhouse right on the Inner Harbour, Canoe has long been a favourite of locals (and yes, tourists too). There’s a solid selection of West Coast craft beer classics and food—but the big draw is Canoe’s spectacular patio, where you can easily end up spending the whole day if you’re not careful. The fun doesn’t stop when the sun goes down, with live music from local bands like Electric Sex Panther who keep the party going until the wee hours.

Tasting room: Yes
Food: Yes; try the Canoe Classic Burger
Recommended beer: Witbier

Phillips Brewing and Malting Co. | 2010 Government St • phillipsbeer.com
In its nearly 20 years of existence, Phillips has become a veritable juggernaut of craft beer—and for good reason. In addition to producing a vast lineup of approachable and wildly popular beers, Phillips’ Willy Wonka-esque branding keeps things fun and unpretentious. The brewery’s new tasting room at the edge of downtown has quickly become one of the most popular meeting spots in the city. Phillips’ parking lot also plays host to beer festivals, live music events and even movie nights all summer long.

Tasting room: Yes
Food: Bar snacks, like pretzels and Blue Buck-infused mustard
Recommended beer: Out of Fucus Rock Weed Gose

Swans Brewpub | 506 Pandora Ave • swanshotel.com
Swans celebrated its 30th birthday this year with a much-needed renovation to get rid of its dated ‘90s vibe. Now sporting a new bar, new tables, new beer lines, a remodelled patio area and a brighter, more open feel, the updated Swans still manages to retain its heritage character. The brewpub also expanded its beer offerings to include 58 draft taps, with Swans beer pouring on 20 to 24 taps at any time. The remaining taps are reserved for rotating guest beers, ciders, tap takeovers and hand-pulled cask beers, so you’re sure to find something you’ll love. Grab a pint and park it on the patio—it might be the best spot for people-watching in the whole city.

Tasting room: Brewpub
Food: Full kitchen
Recommended beer: Flammenbeer

Whistle Buoy Brewing | 560 Johnson St • whistlebuoybrewing.com
The city’s newest brewery, Whistle Buoy Brewing, already looks to be popular with locals, thanks to a prime location, nice-sized patio and a fresh lineup of beers. Located in Market Square, they’re focused on brewing small-batch beers and creating a community space where people can hang out for hours (the brewery is open till midnight). They purposely wanted to keep things small—you won’t find their beers in liquor stores, but they’ve got tasting flights, 14-oz and 20-oz options and growler fills. The interior is bright and tastefully decorated, and you can grab prepackaged sandwiches from the brewery brought in fresh from Little June everyday or order in food from one of the restaurants nearby.

Tasting room: Yes
Food: Yes; light snacks and prepackaged sandwiches from Little June Cafe
Recommended beer: Currant Swill

Rock Bay

Driftwood Brewery | 102-450 Hillside Ave • driftwoodbeer.com
We should all thank and curse the brewery that gave us Fat Tug IPA. As any local knows, even a single beer is enough to make you feel tipsy. Add to this Driftwood’s other game-changing beers like Sartori Harvest and Singularity, and it’s no wonder this Rock Bay brewery has cemented a place in the B.C. craft beer pantheon. While the Rock Bay brewery doesn’t have a tasting room or offer tours, it does have a retail shop where you can try samples and fill up on growlers. Definitely worth a visit.

Tasting room: No; retail shop with growler station
Food: No
Recommended beer: Fat Tug IPA

Hoyne Brewing Co.| 102-2740 Bridge St • hoynebrewing.ca
Founder Sean Hoyne has been an integral part of the Victoria beer scene since he started brewing at Swans Brewpub back in 1989. Today, the brewery that bears his name produces some of the best lagers in the province, and there’s barely a bar or restaurant in the city that doesn’t serve Dark Matter. Located right across the parking lot from Driftwood, Hoyne’s modest tasting room offers growler fills, retail sales and samples.

Tasting room: No; retail shop with growler station
Food: No
Recommended beer: Helios Dortmunder Golden Lager

Île Sauvage Brewing | 2960 Bridge St • ilesauvage.com
Île Sauvage is all about the sours and they do it the old fashioned way: barrel-aged, as the Belgians intended. So if you’re looking for funky brett ales, tart saisons, or IPAs brewed with Norwegian farmhouse yeast, look no further. Unlike many Victoria breweries, which tend to feature a pub-like atmosphere, Île Sauvage has a thoroughly modern tasting room with a casual vibe that’s all about the beer. It’s little wonder the brewery has become such a hit with the city’s hardcore beer nerds (of which there are many).

Tasting room: Yes.
Food: Bar snacks (the giant handfuls of Pistachios will keep you going for a while)
Recommended beer: Yuzu Gose

Vancouver Island Brewing | 2330 Government St • vibrewing.com
After weathering a few recent bumps in the road, Vancouver Island Brewing is back with a new look and new beers. The brewery has become a prolific collaborator with other Island breweries, and this summer, it’s planning to release its Pod Pack collab beer mixer, with proceeds going to the Pacific Wild Salmon Foundation, a vital food source for the endangered Salish Sea’s resident orca whales. The brewery’s tasting room—located halfway between downtown and Rock Bay—is where you’ll find award-winning limited release beers, like the legendary Hermannator or the elusive Nanaimo Bar Imperial Porter. Word has it that a lounge licence is coming soon, which will mean full pints for everyone.

Tasting room: Yes
Food: Bar snacks
Recommended beer: Castles in the Sand Pineapple and Pink Peppercorn Saison, a collaboration with Mount Arrowsmith Brewing

Moon Under Water Brewpub and Distillery | 350 Bay St • moonunderwater.ca
Clay Potter’s German-inspired beers are a big hit with the Rock Bay locals. Clay trained in Germany, and the core of the brand are all sessionable German styles: hefeweizen, dunkel, pilsner, weizenbock, marzen. Other than Hip as Funk, which is more of a saison IPA, and the Crow’s Nest barrel-aged series, they don’t do a lot of “funky beers.” This Is Hefeweizen might be the best example of the fruity German wheat beer in the province. 

Tasting room: Brewpub and family-friendly tasting room
Food: Full kitchen
Recommended beer: This Is Hefeweizen

Vic West

Spinnakers Brewpub | 308 Catherine St • spinnakers.com
In 1984, founders Paul Hadfield and John Mitchell helped kick off the craft beer revolution when they decided to bring real ales and the English pub atmosphere in Canada. The impact of Spinnakers cannot be understated: craft beer fans from Portland used it as inspiration to spark their own revolution, making it a model for the explosion of brewpubs across North America in the ’80s and ’90s. Today, Spinnakers focuses on an ambitious barrel-aging program, in addition to its core lineup of classic ales. The brewpub itself offers two different experiences: upstairs is the classic English-style pub, complete with hand-pulled cask ales; downstairs is the family-friendly restaurant that serves up food with sweeping views of Victoria’s Lime Bay and the Olympic Mountains. We recommend the Mitchell’s ESB, named after founder John Mitchell—the “Grandfather of Canadian Craft Beer”—who recently passed away in June of 2019 and whose impact on craft beer and Canadian culture cannot be understated.

Tasting room: Brewpub and restaurant
Food: Full kitchen
Recommended beer: Mitchell’s ESB

[Editor’s note: Vancouver Island Brewing is the publisher of Breakwater; this article was not influenced, reviewed or approved by the brewery prior to publishing.]

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