On a late March weekend, with spring in the air, and the cherry blossoms popping, my family and I headed south from our mid-Vancouver Island home to explore Cowichan, Chemainus and Duncan — the Cowichan Valley’s burgeoning craft beer scene and some of its other rather unsung attributes.
Food and drink. It matters around here. You know it as soon as you spot the Cowichan River, lifeblood of the Quw’utsun people, the Cowichan Tribes First Nation, as it winds through a breadbasket of springtime green pastures, farms, orchards and vineyards on its journey toward the sea at Cowichan Bay. People are connected to this place. Those who grew up here remember a gritty, logging, fishing, and milling community. A diamond in the rough. Those who return rediscover a place where the grit still exists, but also a sense of place rooted in the bounty, even generosity of the land.
Before stepping up to any beer taps, we had things to do, places to explore.
First stop this morning was Stocking Creek Park, one of those ambiguous place names on a map that you could easily drive by without a second thought. Many people do. Within this protected slice of southern Vancouver Island, sandwiched between Hwy 1 and 1A in Saltair, you’ll discover ferns growing head high and western red cedars soaring to the canopy — wise arboreal elders. It feels as lush as a Costa Rican rainforest. An easy trail loops past the park’s centrepiece, Stocking Creek Falls, a cascade that’s no doubt been the subject of many an Instagram post.
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She doesn’t have a French bone in her body but she worked in French restaurants. Lauren Cartmel tells me this modestly as I sink a fork into a moist slice of quiche. You’d never know it. My kids savour blueberry scones and my wife is enjoying an almond-crusted lemon tarte, which could have been lifted from the shelves of a Parisienne patisserie.
We’re just north of Chemainus on Hwy 1A at Ma Maison, Cartmel’s French-inspired café located in an old E & N Railway station house. Over the years it has been an auto-repair shop and an antique store, among other things, and now this. I prefer its current delicious incarnation.
“A lot of people don’t drive this road so they don’t know we’re here,” Cartmel says.
Now, after our nourishing stop at Ma Maison, we’re heading further south on 1A toward Maple Mountain that, along with its sister Mount Tzouhalem, are two of the Cowichan Valley’s favourite mountain biking and hiking destinations.
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Rain patters from a grey sky as we drive through Crofton. The sulfuric scent of rotten eggs hangs faintly in the air. I explain to our kids that it’s a byproduct of the local pulp mill, the “smell of money,” I say, to use a well-worn cliché. It’s a reminder that the forest industry still matters around here.
Five minutes later we pull into the Maple Mountain parking lot. A group of four mountain bikers, wide smiles and faces speckled with mud, rolls to a stop next to a pick-up truck. We gear up, load snacks into our backpacks, and then start pedaling uphill through the stylized totem archway entrance to Story Trail — a trail with a fascinating story of community spirit.
The Story Trail program was launched in 2015 to engage Cowichan Tribes First Nation youth. It was an innovative idea with a dual focus on cultural and environmental education, along with teamwork and trail building on their traditional Maple Mountain territory. The result is this 1.3-km biking and hiking pathway that climbs gently through the forest before looping back downwards toward the start of Lower Xylem, a longer climbing trail.
We set off, convincing our kids through a combination of bribes and direct commands, to climb higher on Maple Mountain. After leaving Story Trail, we start switchbacking our way up Lower Xylem, at first through a 10-year-old clearcut, and then into mature forest. The muscular orange trunks and branches of beautiful old growth arbutus trees stitch through the arrow-straight Douglas fir trees. Death camus blossoms stubbornly from dirt-filled cracks in the rocky forest floor. It’s one of my favourite ecosystems, unique to southern Vancouver Island’s east coast and one that often inspired the distinctive work of the late prolific painter – and one of the Cowichan Valley’s more renowned residents – EJ Hughes.
We too are grinning widely and spattered with mud after a ripping descent on Phloem, a family-friendly blue square trail that dumps us back in the parking lot two hours later.
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Refreshments and food are well earned. Wet, muddy, and hungry, we check into the Best Western in Chemainus, leaving enough time for a shower and a promised dip in the indoor pool and jacuzzi. Later we drive through old Chemainus, a legendary town of murals that capture snapshots of Vancouver Island history and historical figures like the late logging king HR MacMillan. Explore More.
But there’s something more to this town – craft beer. We park in a new commercial area with an urban industrial aesthetic on the northern entrance to town and stroll into Riot Brewing Co.’s tasting room.
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I order a pint of this upstart’s award-winning Working Class Hero Dark Mild, an easy-lifting 3.8% ABV brew with subtle malty notes that took home a gold from the 2018 World Beer Cup in Nashville.
“We couldn’t afford to go there so we just live streamed the event in the brewery. When we won gold, our phone line and social media started blowing up,” recalls Alyson Tomlin who co-owns Riot with Ralf Rosenke.
The business partners live up to the brewery’s name – life for them since launching in 2016 has been a roller coaster of a riot, with enough random twists and turns to script a sitcom.
For example, early in the brewery’s life a Korean TV star, in the area for a shoot, stopped by the brewery with some of the crew for a beverage. It turned into a raucous party. When said film star posted about his visit on social media to his millions of followers, Riot Brewing suddenly became a thing — in Korea.
“We get bus tour groups of Koreans,” she says with a laugh.
Originally from Vancouver, Alyson and Ralf moved to the Island with a plan to open a brewery in Duncan. Available land and space was tight. That’s when an enterprising staffer at Economic Development Cowichan connected them with the developer building a new commercial property in Chemainus. He was looking for tenants. One thing led to another; things moved quickly. Fate landed the beer entrepreneurs in Chemainus, and Chemainus embraced them. So much so, that during some lean early years when there was more red than black on the balance sheet, locals started a fundraising campaign to help them stay afloat. In the end a beer fan and regular customer with deep pockets came through with some bridge financing when it was needed.
It says a lot about the social function of craft breweries. They help build community and the community supports the brewery.
Food has been delayed long enough. Our kids have scribbled their names on the wall at Riot Brewing along with the Korean TV star, and are now legitimately hangry.
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We say so long to Alyson and Ralf, extract ourselves with difficulty from Riot Brewing, and head next door to the Sawmill Taphouse and Grill, an eatery located on the opposite corner of this thriving little core of “suburban” Chemainus. Sawmill’s décor honours the region’s forest industry roots. High, vaulted ceilings and huge windows give the taphouse a spacious feel. But more important is the fact that there are 26 well-curated beers on tap, a veritable tour of BC’s craft brewing taps. Fearing option paralysis, I choose Longwood Brewery’s Citra Dragon Hazy Pale, my current favourite category of craft beer, then settle in for a pulled pork sandwich.
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Duncan and Cowichan Bay
Cowichan Valley locals seem to have generous spirits. Perhaps it’s a function of the region’s natural bounty, which is on full display at the Duncan Farmers’ Market.
Stalls from dozens of produce farms, artisans, vintners, curers of meat, harvesters of wild mushrooms, food trucks – and distillers – fill a few city blocks of the city’s historic core. It’s happy hour somewhere, so I sidle up to a booth staffed by one of Stillhead Distillery’s founders, Christal Colebank. This distiller of gin, whiskey, vodka and brandy is a family operation, which includes Christal and husband Ron, and their son Brennan and his wife Erica.
My family is a few stalls over sampling Botanical Bliss’s international award winning facial creams (who knew such an award existed?). Christal pours me a sip of wild blackberry gin, appropriately modest for 10:30 a.m.
“We source as much locally as we can. This is made from local blackberries and BC grains,” Christal tells me.
Stillhead is set to open a tasting room at its distillery (you can book a tour and tasting through their site) in the industrial zone along the Cowichan River, not far from Small Block Brewing where we plan to pull up some bar stools this evening.
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After wandering through Duncan’s exceptional farmers’ market, we set off to follow the Totems Tour, a perfect way to explore the city’s picturesque downtown on foot. Duncan comes by its nickname, the City of Totems, honestly. The tour has more than 20 stops and features the works of many globally-recognized indigenous artists. The project began in 1985 as a symbol of cooperation between Duncan and the valley’s original inhabitants, the Quw’utsun. It has since grown into one of the largest outdoor galleries of totem poles in the world, and it’s an unsung treasure trove of indigenous art accessible to anyone and everyone who visits the city.
Soon we’re standing in awe before Cedar Man Walking Out of Log. At 1.8 metres in diameter it is the widest totem pole in the world. Master Kwagu’l carver Richard Hunt sculpted it in 1988 from a 750-year-old cedar donated to Duncan by the now long disbanded logging giant MacMillan Bloedel. The totem is both imposing and beautiful, rich in detail with a copper shield representing wealth in Kwagu’l families on the chest of a man who holds a talking stick adorned with family crests.
Our family of four is dwarfed by this incredible monument. It takes me a moment to notice that Hunt’s totem stands in front of one the most unusual civic buildings I’ve ever seen in Canada. Known as the Round Building, this five-story, circular concrete structure houses the law courts and other government offices. It looks like a blend between a spaceship and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Locals have a love-hate relationship with it. To some it’s an ugly architectural indulgence, to others it’s a beloved downtown monument. I quite like it, despite the fact that Duncan’s small Chinatown was leveled in the 1960s to make way for it.
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Love-hate. That’s kind of how people can be with craft beers. Taste is in the eye – or rather mouth — of the beholder. We arrive at Red Arrow Brewing with a trickle of other patrons there for an early lunch. The brewery opened in 2015, a partnership between Chris Gress, who was the head brewer at Duncan’s Craig Street Brewpub, and one of the Craig Street’s owners, Lance Steward. Location can sometimes make craft beer taste even better. This brewery honours the red brick building’s former life as the longtime home of Arrow Custom Cycle. Dark Side of the Moon plays on the sound system as we sit down at a table next to a trio of middle-aged dudes refueling after a muddy morning ride at Mount Tzouhalem.
Red Arrow offers something a little different – beer cocktails like Kolsch Mule and Vodka Lagerade. I keep it simple and order up a crisp and uncomplicated Kustom Kolsch.
Simplicity was something Red Arrow kept in mind when it first opened.
“We had to meet people in the middle. We couldn’t push the boundaries the way breweries in bigger cities were doing,” says Duncan-raised brewery manager Jeremy Horgan, who returned to his hometown after earning a history and teaching degree. “When we did a hefeweizen with an orange slice it blew people’s minds.”
We’re a family who can’t sit still for long. After sharing a Carnivore pizza with Glenora Creek Applewood Smoked bacon, chorizo, and pepperoni, we’re well fueled for the days’ ride.
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But before heading to Tzouhalem, we make a pit stop at Cowichan Cycles to borrow a shock pump. It’s a block away from another one of Duncan’s claims to fame – the largest hockey stick in the world. We step through the doors of the bike shop. It feels new, as though the place has just been unwrapped. You need look no further than here for proof that the region has emerged as a biking and beer destination to be reckoned with.
“We just got our liquor license,” owner Grant Lestock-Kay tells me, as we check out a wall in the adjoining Wheelbase Cafe that he finished with the butt ends of logs. “We’re serving Riot beer. We’re kind of business buddies with Aly and Ralf because we started around the same time.”
Beer and bikes – a marriage made in heaven.
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Soon we’re driving through the Cowichan valley countryside, a quilt of farms and forest connected by the Cowichan River. The waters are milky green, full and fast flowing from the recent rains and snowmelt that nourished its namesake headwaters, Cowichan Lake.
A steep road through a surprising node of suburbia on the slopes of Mount Tzouhalem eventually leads to the trailhead parking lot. The mountain is named after the legendary Chief Tzouhalem, who led the Quw’utsun people in the mid-1800s. Despite being born with a hunchback, a birth defect that might have cursed him for life, he became a badass chief who united Coast Salish tribes and led them to victory in the Battle of Maple Bay.
There’s a hive of activity as hikers, trail runners, dog walkers and bikers ponder how to dress for weather that changes every 15 minutes – rain showers one minute, warm spring sunshine the next. When in doubt, prepare for the worst.
The rain holds long enough for us to pedal up the access road and drop into Double D, a Tzouhalem classic. I love how a trail builder’s juvenile sense of humour can be revealed in a name. More dirt, more fun.
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It’s quiet in Cowichan Bay when we check into the Oceanfront Suites, a place with a sense of faded glory that suggests movie stars once stayed here. Instead, some giddy newlyweds and their wedding party line up behind us.
Thankfully, we get an ocean-facing room. An ocean freighter, awaiting a load of lumber from the Western Forest Products mill, is anchored in glassy calm water. A great blue heron works the intertidal zone with meticulous attention.
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We allow ourselves an hour’s downtime before driving back into Duncan to meet Cate and Aaron Scally at Small Block Brewing. Cate was delivering mail for Canada Post and Aaron was wrenching on helicopters when they sold the house in Surrey, packed up their stuff, and moved to Duncan with plans to open a brewery. Big city life was getting increasingly unaffordable, and they wanted to live somewhere closer to land and sea.
Cate is full time at the brewery. Up until recently she even brewed the beer until they were able to hire a head brewer (“I couldn’t do it all,” she says.) Aaron fixes stuff, serves pints, cleans, and does whatever else needs to be done, while moonlighting as a technical writer for a San Francisco-based company.
“These are all our own beer recipes,” Cate told me, adding that they are excited to have recently hired a ramen chef.
Nail Head Canadian Pale Ale is their top seller, and it feels like this couple has hit the nail on the head with their intimate, garage-turned-brewery on the south side of the Cowichan River on Duncan’s outskirts. They’re also loving the camaraderie between the local breweries. Cowichan Breweries United is a collaboration aimed at hosting live music events, something the Scallys are looking forward to getting back to after a couple of challenging pandemic years.
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It’s time to go to where it all started, craft beer-wise, around here: Craig Street Brew Pub. Saturday night patrons are crowded around the pub’s century old wooden heritage bar. With our minors in tow, we’re kindly asked to head next door to Craig Street’s sister establishment, Just Jake’s — with the same menu and same solid rosters of beers that evoke the local geography, like Arbutus Pale Ale, Mt. Prevost Porter, and Cowichan Bay Lager.
I linger lazily over the classic yellow curry over steak, paired with the Craig Street pale ale. Lisa savours fish tacos, while the kids demolish burgers and fries.
It’s past 10 p.m. when the four of us share a slice of decadent chocolate mousse cake. It’s beyond the witching hour for the kids. We stroll down Ingram Street to the Old Firehouse Wine & Cocktail Bar – it’s packed, standing room only — so we decide to leave it for another time. Knowing it’s there in underappreciated downtown Duncan makes me glad.
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The same way I’m happy to know about Brunch On 3rd, our destination for breakfast on our last morning in the Cowichan Valley. There’s a line of five people waiting for a table to free up on the outdoor patio or inside the two-story renovated character building. Two days went by too fast.
Community spirit is Brunch On 3rd’s secret sauce. We decide to wait and it’s worth the wait. The thriving business is a collaboration between five women who met and worked together at different restaurants for six years. They decided to pool talents and resources to open their own restaurant. After finding the perfect spot, they got busy, and opened in 2019. Brunch On 3rd has been a go-to breakfast and lunch spot ever since, with a Market Menu that offers regularly changing specials. Eggs Benedict, made with a few minor twists like a chorizo patty or pickled capers, and good old fluffy pancakes with maple syrup and berry sauces, which light up my kids’ faces with big smiles, are among other tried-and-true breakfast favourites. There’s nothing pretentious about this menu, much like the Cowichan Valley itself. A diverse, back-to-Earth community of people who love and appreciate where they are, honour their past, but are not afraid to look to the future – even if it means putting an orange slice in their hefeweizen.
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Cowichan Valley bounty is no secret to the Quw’utsun people; for thousands of years the fields, forests, rivers and sea have sustained them. These days there’s a growing farm-to-table bond between craft brewer and community, between farmer and foodie. Like Story Trail on Maple Mountain, when locals want to get things done they get together.
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The Cowichan Region takes its name from “Quw’utsun’,” an aboriginal word that means “the warm land.” The First People knew what they were talking about: Cowichan is located in Canada’s only maritime Mediterranean climatic zone and is home to the warmest year-round temperature anywhere in the country.
It’s no wonder this place is so well suited to growing things, including an incredible array of food and an unmatched quality of life. For decades, the Cowichan has been producing amazing artisanal food and drink from the region’s burgeoning farms, wineries, cideries, distilleries, fishers and artists.