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Oakes Weekly - Boxing Day Edition

A Vancouver Brewpub Crawl
Beer Travels December 26, 2002      
Written by Oakes

Vancouver, CANADA -

<P>As some of you already know, I am originally from Vancouver. So every time I go back (such as for Christmas) the first thing I do is a little brewpub crawl to get caught up on the scene. There are, of course, a number of suburban brewpubs that are not possible to include on a crawl, but there are five that are lined up in a neat little row for me. Make that six, as there was a new addition at the start of the crawl this time.

<P>The new addition was the Avalon Brewing Company, the fifth brewpub from the Mark James Group (the others being Yaletown and Dix in downtown Vancouver, Big Ridge in south Surrey and High Mountain in Whistler). Like all Mark James brewpubs, Avalon is stylish, sharp and clean. The food is as important as the beer, and the house accent seems to be towards the Chinese (proper Chinese, not fusion). I figured since I had a cold I might not be able to do as much in the way of note-taking as usual when I visit a new brewpub, but when the big peat smoke aroma of the Scottish Ale (the first one the bartender poured) hit my nose, I knew it was going to be okay, after all. It did seem kind of unusual to start with a Scottish, but after tasting the rest of the lineup I knew why - it was clearly the star of the show. A beautiful brick amber, with the aforementioned peat smoke aroma, some roast, a firm maltiness and a dry finish, this is one nice pint. A little light-bodied would be my only compaint. Next up was the Hefeweizen, which was much hoppier and less estery than I expected from a Mark James brewery (the Yaletown Hefeweizen is an excellent example, exploding with Weihenstephan).

<P>The next few beers drifted into normality, bottoming out with the Boddington's knockoff Pale Ale, which being a nitrokeg had neither taste nor aroma. The IPA was far too understated, again atypical of the James Group. Having sampled the range, I went for some Sichuan green beans - perfectly done with ample garlic and chile, cooked firm and flavourful.

<P>From Avalon it is a twenty minute walk through suburubia to Sailor Hagar's. They didn't have too much new for me. The Wee Heavy was smokier and less hoppy than the last time I had it (circa 1996!). One new beer was on - Clear Cut Lager. I spoke to brewmaster Gary Lohin and this was made with special malts brought in from Germany at great expense. The truth is, I found the beer light, and the husky maltiness indistinctive. He seemed quite proud of his malts but I wouldn't have guessed there was anything special about them if he didn't tell me. And if it's lost on me, one can imagine how many other patrons would appreciate the effort and expense that went into the beer. It's too bad, because normally I would like to encourage brewmasters to get their specialty stuff from small producers.

<P>Before I talked to Gary, I was just sitting with my Wee Heavy, enjoying the spectacular view. Coming from Toronto, it was a sensory assault to be treated to first the fog in the morning off the Fraser River, then the North Shore mountains, then the smells of the harbour as I crossed the Sea Bus to North Vancouver. And now I was sitting at Hagar's overlooking the harbour, with downtown Vancouver silhouetted by the setting sun. I then overheard some customers talking about the cask of 2000 Thor's Hammer Barley Wine that had just been tapped. My seven-stop pub crawl was coming to a close at pub number two!

<P>Having managed to show an unbelievable amount of discipline in tearing myself from the cask of Thor's Hammer (which they were selling far too cheaply!), I made the short walk back from Sailor Hagar's to the Lonsdale Quay to catch the SeaBus back downtown. At the other end of the SeaBus terminal downtown is Steamworks Brewing. In their first few years, they produced a wealth of brews, but their current brewmaster seems to have zero inclination to experimentation. As they did not have a single new beer for me to try, and I was starting to really feel that Thor's Hammer on my head, I decided to skip it, and hope that they still tap their Kriek in early January (it's been a while since I've had that one).

<P>The next stop was Wasubeez, a bar that used to carry a lot of micros. What was once over a dozen taps has dwindled to five or six, and since they didn't have any Crannog on, I took a pass, and headed over to Dix Barbeque and Brewery. Of the Mark James brewpubs, this has the cheapest food, and some of the best, too, since we don't have so many barbeque joints in Canada, at least ones you can eat at for a reasonable price. Sadly, though, the quality of their brews was always the least of the five brewpubs in the chain, and the new ones I tried did nothing to change that situation - a predictably abysmal Honey Brown and a lacklustre, clear (WTF?) Belgian Wheat that lacked all semblance of hop or malt.

<P>The Yaletown Brewing Company is no more than five minutes walk from Dix. They had sold out of their Christmas seasonal. I didn't bother to ask which one it was, because they said more would be coming on soon. I drank some Double Dome Stout and will return before I go back to Toronto to check out the seasonal (please let it be Old Hooligan). This meant that I'd quickly ripped through four stops and I only had one left to go. All of a sudden I was wondering if I shouldn't have just stayed at Hagar's after all. From Yaletown it is a short walk to False Creek, which one must cross by water taxi.

<P>The taxi ride takes all of a minute, and deposits you on Granville Island. The Granville Island Hotel has had a brewery for a few years now. At first it was The Creek, who's German- style beers never lived up to their billing in terms of authenticity or character. The Creek is gone now, having been replaced by the Dockside Brewing Company. I had six of their beers, only one of which was even marginally agreeable. Future editions of the downtown Vancouver brewpub crawl might not include this stop, because I don't think either brewing entity at the Granville Island Hotel has ever impressed me with anything.

<P>I now have a selection of bottles from other new micros in the area - Phillips and Old Yale specifically, with Naramata on the shelf at the store still. That I hope to hit on an Okanagan brewpub tour later in the trip (along with Barley Mill, Big Ridge, plus Alpine Brewing in Oroville, WA). Plans for this west coast sojourn also include a visit to the Crannog Ales organic farm brewery, and a return trip to the Mission Springs brewpub, which might be the only suburban micro around here that I do get to re-visit.

<P>So I hope you've all had an excellent Christmas, with lots of good beer and food at the table. New Year's is coming up in a few days, and the first Oakes Weekly of the New Year will be the First Annual Oakes Weekly Awards! Enjoy.



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