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Oakes Weekly - August 4, 2005
Tourist in my Own Town
August 4, 2005
Written by Oakes
In Canada, Victoria Day in May serves as the unofficial start of summer, while Labour Day marks the end. In between, weekends are pleasure-filled times of cottages, beaches, and beer. The August long weekend has many names across the country, and here the excuse is BC Day. In the middle of the summer doldrums, it’s too hot to do anything serious, so I figured I’d kick off my long weekend with a bit of beer drinking.
I headed into town with an unusual mission. I wanted to bum around my hometown as though I was a tourist. I figured my beerhunting strategies work pretty well elsewhere in the world, why not here? Maybe I’d pull a Tashkent and find a whole new beer scene. So I started poking my head into various bars, starting with a backpacker joint known as the Ivanhoe. Well, since they converted the once welfare hotel in to a youth hostel I figured it was a backpacker joint. But no, the Ivanhoe is still a total shithole and I decided not to stick around.
Next stop was the Irish Heather, an airy Irish spot that backs onto Gaoler’s Mews. The current mews was built in 1886, but the site was used prior to that as the city’s first jail (it had two cells). The Heather used to carry Crannóg’s Hell’s Kitchen, a robust Irish ale made with potatoes. Brian at Crannóg told me a few months ago that this relationship was no more, but I thought I’d poke my head in the door anyway. Nothing but Guinness and other Irish macro taps. Though it’s a lovely place for a drink, I decided to move on.
Up the street I stopped at the Lamplighter, at the ground level of the Dominion Hotel. This cavernous 1899 tavern is better known as a live music venue, though if anybody big ever played there it was long before they were famous. With high metal-tile ceilings and a looming gothic chandelier, the Lamplighter looks the part of a stellar dive. Even on this bright afternoon, it was dark and reeked of smoke, sweat and spilled beer. I grabbed a Sun God Wheat from R&B, the only non-macro they had. While other area bars have large patios to accommodate the summer masses, the Lamplighter is the sort of place you want to be when the sun goes down. Being mid-afternoon, I headed for something more al fresco.
I ended up at the Cambie, at the corner of Cambie & Cordova since 1897. I ordered a Granville Island Hefeweizen. Either low turnover or (I suspect, given the volume of business the Cambie does in summer) dirty draught lines left me with a lifeless, dirty-tasting pint with a slight diacetyl note. The Cambie now boasts a youth hostel, one of several on the fringe of the rough but historic Downtown Eastside. It’s certainly the type of place I’d drink if I were a backpacker, not a local.
The Dominion building at Cambie & Hastings is one of the coolest office buildings in Vancouver. Built in 1910, it houses film production companies, clothing designers and record labels. In the base of the building, there used to be a place called the Victory Café. It’s four taps poured rare micro stuff. Now, a Mexican restaurant – apparently without any alcohol at all – has taken over. Across the street in Victory Square, a protest is under way, with demonstrators decrying the raids on the BC Marijuana Party that were conducted at the request of the DEA. No shit – our country ought to be subject to our laws, not America’s. The DEA has long scapegoated Canada as a major source of drugs to the US (we aren’t) because they don’t have the brains or skill to catch the drug barons to the south and within their own borders. But I suppose this rant is best saved for another day.
Moving away from the protest, with its placards, chants and television crews, I headed for Steamworks, the first beer stop on the trip. I had some of their Frambozen and then noticed a tap for R&B’s Raven Ale. Steamworks has finally outstripped their capacity. With no room for expansion, they have had to add outside taps to ensure that they don’t run out of beer. The Raven was exceptionally fresh today, and as with most Vancouver beers, it’s not bad at all under optimal conditions. We just don’t see optimal conditions all that often, because bar owners here are corporate-minded, with the sole goal of profiteering, and don’t pay attention to details like good beer, clean lines, and interesting menus. But that’s why I was checking out some of these other places. They aren’t known for good beer, but they are also old-school beer joints that don’t concern themselves with the typical moneygrubbing of Vancouver licensed premises. Impressively, Steamworks was the only place all day where I was offered a menu. Usually in this town you not only have a menu shoved in your face, but they lay on a guilt trip if you don’t want to eat.
But I digress. I moved on to Malone’s, a few blocks up Seymour Street. The main pub is a crappy, dark, divey meat-market type of place and I was only there long enough to conduct my business. I quickly moved to the “Lounge” portion, which is at street level. Garage doors open up, lending it an open-air feel. There are no televisions here, which is practically a miracle for Vancouver. I grabbed a pint of Russell Amber, another mild local microbrew that only works when extremely fresh. Thankfully, it was.
From there it was a short walk to the Railway Club. This 1930’s pub, with its plush but worn carpets and wooden trim is very much lived-in. It is technically a members’ club, but that is not something strictly enforced, especially during the slow times. I’d been visiting most of these places during a fairly dead spot in the day, and it was a little discouraging. How can a guy bum around and have fun in a bunch of empty bars?
Anyway, the Railway has one of the better selections in town, though it is by no means a beer bar. It’s one of the few places to get Tree Hophead IPA on tap, which is always a good thing. They also offered on this day the Pooka Cherry Ale from Crannóg. That brewery is so hit-and-miss. Some of their beers are wonderfully understated session brews, but others miss the mark. The Cherry Ale drowns in too much alcohol.
After the Railway, I took a long walk to the now-depressing Fogg N’ Suds on Robson Street. Formerly a chain of beer bars, now greatly reduced in number, the Fogg can’t really be called a beer bar anymore. The selection is down to about 15 on tap and 50 in bottle, and none of it particularly special. For some reason, they actually had Moylan’s Kilt Lifter in the bottle, and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale as well. But that’s about it for exclusives. I ordered Moylan’s but by this point I was ready to pack it in for the night.
All in all, I gave it a good shot. I found some places that I think are okay for a beer or two, but my impressions of the drinking scene in Vancouver haven’t changed – it’s tough being a beer lover here.
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I figured my beerhunting strategies work pretty well elsewhere in the world, why not here? Maybe I’d pull a Tashkent and find a whole new beer scene.
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