UPDATE: Island Craft has been shortlisted for the 2020 Taste Canada Award in the Culinary Narratives category.
Jon Stott, author of Island Craft: Your Guide to the Breweries of Vancouver Island, had his first legal beer in Victoria in 1960. The windowless room, with an entrance for the “gentlemen” and a separate entrance for the “ladies and escorts,” was under a haze of smoke, and the glasses of beer were 20 cents in what was then known as a beer parlour.
The beer industry in those days was very different compared to the craft beer revolution we’ve been lucky enough to witness in BC, especially in the past three decades. The pioneers of craft have even helped modernize the once-rigid rules and regulations governing the beer industry, encouraging a transformation in both beer-focused establishments and beer-drinking consumers.
Island Craft is Jon’s tribute to these pioneers and their successors in this contemporary environment. The book combines a personal pilgrimage to his former hometown of Victoria, and the locations of many of the memories of his youth, with an entertaining and educational look at the evolution of craft beer on Vancouver Island.
A whirlwind tour of the Island’s craft beer
Released on May 7th, Island Craft is a travel guide, tasting diary, educational resource, and historical account of all things beer on Vancouver Island. With nearly 300 pages of anecdotes, brewery, brewer, and beer profiles, and handy appendices to fill in the knowledge gaps where needed, this quick and easy read is sprinkled with English literature references and personal reflections along the way and pairs best with a pint (or two).
A retired English professor, Jon spent his early years in Victoria and Vancouver before dedicating the next 33 years of his life to the academic world at the University of Alberta. Now based out of Albuquerque, New Mexico, he’s experiencing another revival of craft beer in his adopted hometown as the concept of small, locally-focused breweries and taprooms undergoes a similar explosion as the one Jon followed across Vancouver Island.
From south to north and coast to coast, Jon’s journey covers the Island well. The book explores parts of the Victoria Ale Trail, as well as both Vancouver Island Ale Trails (parts one and two) and beyond.
The changing landscape
From the dark and dreary beer parlours of the 1950s and ’60s, Jon continued his lifelong love affair with beer, keeping an eye on how the industry changed and shifted as the decades passed. But it was the return to his roots in 2009 as part of the research for his other beer-focused book, Beer Quest West, that really sparked an interest in delving deeper into the stories behind what makes the craft beer culture on the Island so special.
Eight years after his initial book-related visit, Jon came back to the Island to beginning working on Island Craft, retracing some of those initial footsteps to catch up with old friends and acquaintances and seeing how things developed. Some were still in the same places, running the same breweries or brewpubs, while others had moved onto new ventures, with some even opening up breweries of their own.
“There are more little, local places and I think that’s so important,” Jon says after I ask him what changes he noticed evolve in the time between the two trips. A big theme of Island Craft is this concept of a “third place,” a place that’s not home and not work, but another location that people can spend time in to engage with their community and socialize, while also enjoying local products made by local businesses.
Full of charming conversations with people in these third places, Island Craft gives readers an ample sneak peek into the brewpubs and tasting rooms that have become an inherent part of beer-drinking culture on the Island and beyond.
The changing culture
Another change Jon has seen is in the tremendous variety and nuance in styles, hop varieties, and experimentation as old, traditional recipes are revived in new way with creative ingredients and tweaks in the brewing process. The return of lagers and pilsners, the craft variety and not the pale, bland macro kind, is also an exciting development. As these typically take longer and are often more expensive than ales to brew, many microbreweries aren’t keen on brewing them, especially when they first start out. But seeing more craft brewers begin to create flavourful examples of these classic styles is a real treat.
“They’re finding old ways to be new.” The brewers of today, Jon says, are taking styles that have been around for centuries and bringing their own innovation and personal spin on the recipes to appeal to the modern craft beer drinker. And another great thing is that the demographic of those that enjoy a flight or a pint is growing.
Where we go from here
Jon thinks that in order to start a successful brewery in this fairly well-established scene it does require a few things, like a good business plan, a good market for it, and, of course, good beer. Support from both the local businesses and consumers, but also from tourism and the tourists it brings are a key part of being successful as well, particularly in the smaller communities on the Island.
And continuing to explore the worldwide beer scene is a great way to keep growing the beer-drinking market with “new” old flavours. Many of the brewers interviewed for the book were inspired to pursue their passion for beer on trips abroad. By experiencing the “Old World” tradition and getting a taste for the vast variety of styles and flavours, they gained inspiration and motivation, bringing their knowledge back to share with us in the “New World.”
Eventually, Jon says, the industry’s tremendous growth will level out a bit and the breweries that make good beer in a good market will remain. And, on the Island that Jon’s called home, we’re sure to keep the craft beer revolution going as new breweries and beer lovers join the movement.