Nestled in the heart of North Vancouver Island, Port McNeill is a resource town with stunning scenery and endless outdoor adventure potential. It has one grocery store, one pub, one general store, and, as of June 2021, one craft brewery: Devil’s Bath Brewing.
Head brewer Aaron Battaglio and his family, long-time locals of Port McNeill, are the brains behind Vancouver Island’s newest brewery. Named after Canada’s largest cenote, Devil’s Bath Brewing has already been a hit among locals and visitors alike. It’s built in an old mechanic shop that has been remodelled with a warm wood interior, giving the brewery beautiful atmosphere. Bright windows feature water views, and a giant patio invites you to linger while you enjoy delicious food and drink.
Despite delays, the brewery has finally opened to plenty of fanfare, with waits around the block on some evenings. As for myself, I was in town for some forestry work, which made me ask Aaron how the local forestry workers have taken to craft beer. Turns out, the locals are just as excited as I was.
“There’s great interest from a lot of guys who never expected to be interested in anything remotely different other than a Pabst Blue Ribbon,” Aaron chuckled. “It’s good for business.”
From homebrewer to head brewer
While working as a road builder and running a blasting company, Aaron never expected to get into the beer industry. But, after homebrewing for a few years, he developed a knack for it. Then, Aaron brought a growler of his homebrew on a Mt. Cain ski trip with his brothers. At the end of the day, they decided to taste Aaron’s brew alongside a craft beer that was on tap.
“The consensus was ‘Hey, we can sell this — it’s just as good,’” Aaron said.
Things started to take off from there. At its core, Devil’s Bath Brewing has been a family affair with Aaron’s brothers, Jason and Morgan, and their mother, Sharon. The family eventually got support from investors, one of which was Community Futures Mount Waddington, a national economic development program that supports rural-based businesses. To add to the community energy, plenty of local tradesmen would stop by to offer their services during construction. Other Vancouver Island breweries were also a huge help, Aaron says. He consulted with Darren and Mike from Cumberland Brewing, who were very supportive.
Now that the doors are open and the community is gathering, Aaron says he notices a new excitement and energy throughout town even more. With the growth in remote work, more young professionals have been able to make the move to Port McNeill, a perfect jumping-off point for outdoor adventures.
What’s on tap (and what’s cooking) in the Devil’s Bath
Devil’s Bath’s beer will most likely stick close to home in the North Island (all the more reason to make the trip yourself). A core mandate of the brewery is to leave as little of an environmental footprint as possible, Aaron said. With ingredients for the beer travelling quite far to get there, he doesn’t want to add to that by shipping the beer to the South Island.
Currently, there are five beers on tap with a Kolsch that had just started fermenting when I visited. The other styles on offer include the Morningstar Golden Ale, Sinners and Saints Hazy Pale Ale, Old Growth Red Ale, Bottomless Brown Ale, and the WhistlePunk IPA, all of which are excellent. Aaron also hopes to bring a lager or pilsner out in the near future to become a staple alongside the Hazy Pale Ale and Red Ale.
With many potential new craft beer fans in the area, Aaron recommends starting with the Golden Ale to get their taste buds warmed up. It’s a bit sweeter and finishes clean, similar to a lager.
Hungry from adventuring all day?
You’re in luck. The kitchen is run by Lilly, who “literally floated in here last September on a sailboat headed to Haida Gwaii,” Aaron said. With her travel plans halted due to COVID restrictions, Lilly decided to look for work, which brought her to the brewery. “She ended up totally surprising us and has now taken over the entire menu and design of the dishes, and executed it beautifully.”
The menu includes meat and veggie tacos, salads, creatives sides, and fantastic pizza with options for everyone. They even have a kids menu.
Port McNeill: What to do in the area
Besides enjoying delicious beer, you’re spoiled for adventures in Port McNeill. The Devil’s Bath cenote is just over an hour’s drive away from the brewery and connects to the Benson River via a complex cave system. While you’re there, make sure you also visit the Eternal Fountain, a nearby waterfall that appears to fall into the abyss.
Whether you’re into laid-back exploring or you crave the extreme, there are plenty of other options for both. If you want to relax and take in the sites, check out the fishing charters that leave Port McNeill and venture through some of the best fishing on the coast. There are also lots of lovely resorts along the Island’s coast and on the surrounding smaller islands.
If you’re not into fishing but want to see nature in action, the area offers top-notch wildlife viewing, including whale watching and grizzly bear tours. If you’re a mountain biker, you’re also in luck. According to Aaron, there is a burgeoning mountain bike community spearheaded by one of the town councillors. Take a look at the trail network to start plotting.
To get off the beaten path (and embark on some off-roading), the area boasts tons of rec sites that are perfect for camping. For one of the “must-sees,” head towards Port Hardy and Holberg to check out San Josef Bay, one of the best beaches on the Island. Just remember to always be prepared to meet logging trucks on the gravel roads.
For a day trip or stop on your itinerary, Sointula is a charming seaside town on Malcolm Island. Its name means “place in harmony” in Finnish. Port Alice is another nearby picturesque town (about 45 away) that has plenty of hiking in Link Regional Park. Port Alice also features the stunning Alice Lake Loop Karst driving tour, which is a great option for linking stops like the River to Nowhere, Eternal Fountain, and the Devil’s Bath cenote.
Finally, Telegraph Cove is also a noteworthy nearby stop (about 25 minutes from Port McNeill). A former fishery and cannery village, it has become a launch point for ecotourism. If you’re just stopping by, there are plenty of picturesque harbour views to enjoy, plus a great Whale Interpretive Centre to wander through.
Start planning your North Vancouver Island adventure
Clearly, there’s plenty to see and do in Port McNeill and the surrounding area. If you need more ales-spiration for North Vancouver Island excursions, make sure you check out the Vancouver Island Part 2 Ale Trail to discover all the ways you can experience the area’s natural beauty, agriculture splendour and, of course, plenty of fantastic craft beer.
Travel in BC
Travel is part of our DNA and we’re all excited to see it return and welcome our neighbours from Alberta and the rest of Canada. Summer 2021 is a great time to #exploreBCnow and connect with family and friends and explore everything British Columbia has to offer – great cities, incredible nature, and parts less travelled ready to welcome people. Step 3 has a lot of changes, such as masks being optional for those who have had both vaccination shots, and showing proof of vaccination is not required. It’s important to remember we are all learning as we go, and we need to have kindness and patience at the heart of everything we do. We’re asking everyone to be patient as we work to get our services to the same high levels they were before the pandemic. We’re improving quality all the time as we address staffing shortages, train new staff, and adapt to new guidelines. The B.C. government information on travel and business rules are online at www.gov.bc.ca/covidtravel.