"I came in here, saw there was no television and decided this was my pub! " a British accent chirped into my ear. I had to bend down and...
VICTORIA, B.C. — “I came in here, saw there was no television and decided this was my pub!” a British accent chirped into my ear.
I had to bend down and lean in close to hear Joan’s voice over the band. Seventy-nine years old, with a blunt Bette Davis haircut, the diminutive denizen of Swans pub barely reached my shoulder.
She’d been a regular for eight years, six nights a week, coming to hear music and make new friends, she explained. “I meet so many lovely people.”
My boyfriend, James, and I met the unstoppable Joan at Swans on the second night of a self-guided exploration of Victoria’s brewpubs.
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Our task was not for the meek. No tea, no flower gardens, no museums. Just three days of brewed-on-the-premises craft beer in as many styles as we could stomach. I admit we are not beer experts by any measure. We have never noticed an overzealous aroma of promiscuous ambiguity and docile pine notes in a beverage. Our main qualification is that James owns 23 different craft beer T-shirts. Relative expertise aside, we know a good pub when we see one.
Take the Victoria Clipper to Victoria, B.C., from Seattle (800-888-2525 or www.victoriaclipper.com) or travel by air or ferry. See www.tourismvictoria.com or call at 800-663-3883 for travel, accommodation and attraction information.
Lodging and dining
All four brewpubs we visited had excellent food. Each had two sections — pub and restaurant — with delicious offerings in each. Try the mushroom soup at the Canoe pub and the cheese tray at Spinnakers. (Pay no attention to your companion’s commentary on how fattening cheese is. This is vacation.)
Spinnakers Gastro Brewpub and Guesthouse: 308 Catherine St. 877-838-2739 or www.spinnakers.com. Room rates range from Canadian $149 to $249 depending on the room and the season, though we found a $100 rate in February from an ad in Northwest Brewing News.
Swans Suite Hotel and Brewpub: 506 Pandora Ave. 800-668-7926 or www.swanshotel.com. Rooms range from Canadian $139 to $895 for a 3,000-square-foot penthouse suite.
Canoe Brewpub, Marina & Restaurant: 450 Swift St. 250-361-1950 or www.canoebrewpub.com.
Hugo’s, 625 Courtney St., 250-920-4844 or www.hugoslounge.com.
Don’t ignore the off-season. Rates are lower, and though our February visit was three days of bright sunshine, Victoria’s cozy pubs offer a respite no matter what the weather. Though the city is easy for walkers, cabs are available if the weather turns nasty.
All under one roof
We’d begun our tour the day before by checking into the one other Victoria brewpub that offers rooms, Spinnakers. Though not as close to the Inner Harbour action as are many of Victoria’s hotels, its location across the Johnson Street Bridge in the Esquimalt area of town was in easy walking distance. (Brew Tour Rule No. 1: No driving.) In addition to brewing its own beer, Spinnakers boasts restored Victorian guest-house rooms, local cheeses, a bakery, home-brewed malt vinegar and its own chocolatier!
We arrived at lunchtime and started with fish and chips and my regular brew of choice, India Pale Ale. It was good, but milder, not as hoppy as the IPAs of Washington and Oregon.
But our search had begun.
To get to our next stop — Swans, we took a sunny stroll along Westsong Way, a manicured, waterside path with views of the harbor’s kayaks, seaplanes and ferries. The pub’s building, a former granary and feed store, was rescued by developer Michael Williams in 1988.
Williams adorned the property with art from his vast collection of native and local works, and when he died in 2000 and left his collection to the University of Victoria, much of it continued to be displayed in the pub.
The Swans brewery is called Buckerfields and offered nine selections on tap. We opted for a taster tray of six small glasses: brown, Scotch and pale ales, a bitter, a Bavarian lager and a dark lager. The Bavarian lager was much to our liking, Strong, smooth, but with more of a bite than many American lagers.
On to the Canoe Pub
Our next stop, the Canoe Pub, was just down the street. Near the entrance, a burley, bearded man muttered and struggled with the leaky lid of a growler (the beer aficionado’s word for take-home jug).
“It’s too valuable to spill,” he said. His shirt stretched over an expanse of stomach that lent credibility to his views on drinking, so I asked if the beer was really that great.
“The Pope is Catholic, right? And a bear does his business in the woods? Then the beer here is good,” he answered.
We walked up the stairs and across the room to the bar, passing by invitingly soft and deep, brown leather couches in the high-ceilinged room. (Rule No. 2: Don’t sit in anything you might not be able to get out of. Barstools have the added attraction of being closer to bartenders.) The affable Graham Gidden provided us with immediate service, samples, history and friendly opinions on everything from travel in Mexico to “Hockey Night in Canada.”
Throwing caution to the winds, we skipped the taster glasses and ordered pints of River Rock Bitter and Siren Song Pale Ale, followed by nachos (Rule No. 3: Eat. And then keep eating.) and more pints of Beaver Brown Ale and Red Canoe Lager.
According to my notes, we really liked the bitter.
Adding some punch
Somehow we missed the obvious path on our return to Spinnakers and our room, but made it back uninjured, except for the punches (from me) that James suffered at his attempts to “speak Canadian.”
“It’s cold, eh?”
“This isn’t the right path, eh?”
“I’m annoying you, eh?”
Our room included the restorative, though coma-inducing luxury, of a large Jacuzzi tub and fireplace, prompting a 14-hour nap.
The next day, Sunday, started a bit slowly, to be sure, but we were still in good spirits, having intentionally followed Rule No. 4: Drink lots of water, and, accidentally, Rule Number 5: Get plenty of rest.
We had only one more brewpub to explore. Though diligent in our quest, drinking before noon was not part of the plan, so we spent the morning window-shopping and buying a few presents with our ever-shrinking American dollars. By the time we found Hugo’s Grill and Brewhouse, it was time for lunch.
“The menu looks good, but they’re really not pushing their beer are they?” I commented as I looked around for tanks, taps or other brewing paraphernalia. After a superb, spicy plate of Thai noodles and several diet sodas, I asked the waitress why beer was taking a back seat.
“This is the dining room,” she explained politely. “The pub is on the other side of the building.”
So we paid and slunk to the other side. The place was practically empty, being a Sunday afternoon, though we’d heard Hugo’s is quite the party scene on weekend nights with its black walls, projection televisions and loud music. We sat down, pulled out our cribbage board and ordered from the slightly exotic beer selection.
Adding an accent
“He likes to put things like ginseng in the beer, eh,” Graham had told us when describing Hugo’s brewer’s style.
Slightly leery, we ordered some tasters. There was ginseng in the cream ale (interesting), and Czechoslovakian yeast in the Pilsner (tasty) and a definite banana flavor to the Rowdy Monk Belgian ale (ee-eww!) The “generous portions of Cascade hops” in the pale ale sounded more to my Seattle-trained palate’s liking but, oh, no, too much citrus!
Hugo’s is near the Empress Hotel and its famed high tea, so we smoothed our hair, checked our clothes for banana-beer stains and wandered in, trying to look as tea-worthy as possible.
“Thirty-six dollars per person,” the hostess said through a fixed smile to the couple ahead of me. While they hemmed and hawed and tried to extricate themselves without looking cheap, I backed out, wondering if the Empress herself was serving the tea at that price.
“Is there a nice pub to relax in?” I asked a hotel gallery-gift shop employee.
“The (Bengal) lounge is what it’s all about,” came an upper-crust voice from the back of the store. One look into that Kiplingesque den of potted-palms, tiger skin-draped wall and strong curry smell sent us scurrying back to Spinnakers for more of their malt beverages.
Though four of their beers were hand-pumped at “cellar” temperature, there were five colder choices for unsophisticated drinkers like myself. The crisp pilsner was especially refreshing after our long walk.
Missed brews of home
While we’d found some excellent beer during our visit, I still missed the giant hoppiness of my favorite IPAs back home. Was there a Victorian equivalent to our Diamond Knot or Hales Mongoose?
For answers we talked to the Sean Hoyne, brewmaster at the Canoe Brewpub. Canadians, he explained, enjoy a much more “balanced, subtle beer” that doesn’t “blow your head off.” Hoppy beers just don’t sell in Canada.
There was an exception, he told us. Matt Phillips, a former Spinnaker brewer who lives on a sailboat near the Canoe pub, makes a couple of IPAs worthy of true hopheads. To sample one, we headed to the Sticky Wicket, an elephantine pub/restaurant advertising five levels, two stages, 275 feet of bar and two volleyball courts.
Phillips Brewing Co.’s IPA was indeed on tap. Orange in color, it, too, had a citrus hint, but enough Cascade hops to make us happy. Phillips also makes an even stronger brew, an 8.5 percent alcohol Amnesiac Double IPA, which we found in a bottle store next to Swans.
Back at Swans, Lana, a tall outgoing blonde, struck up a conversation. (Rule No. 6: Stand at a bar table, you’ll meet more people.)
She told us stories of other Swans regulars, including “Dancing Larry,” an older gentleman who’d been banned a few years back for allegedly getting a bit fresh with some of his dance partners. According to Lana, Dancing Larry spent the next several months picketing outside the pub, handing out copies of a manifesto entailing “what really happened.”
Joan, who wasn’t drinking much but was still there when the band finished up, explained her philosophy pretty succinctly.
“I might not be here tomorrow,” she said with a laugh, apparently comfortable with her mortality, “I’m enjoying my hedonistic lifestyle.”