Day 1: Heading up Island
Vancouver Island is a strange and magical beast that attracts millions of visitors each year.
It’s known for its rugged wilderness, its laid-back inhabitants, and its capital city, mostly. But there is so much more to do and see beyond Victoria, particularly when in search of great craft beer. And a tasting tour of the Island’s “beer belt” is the perfect way to combine two of my favourite things, wandering around the great outdoors and sampling local craft brews with great company in unique spaces.
My partner and I start our journey in Victoria, all set for the hour’s drive through the Malahat to reach the Cowichan. Known for its warm weather (boasting Canada’s only maritime Mediterranean climate), the area is full of hidden outdoor adventures, amazing artisanal eats and drinks, and a whole lot of reasons to enjoy a well-earned beer.
As we wind our way through Goldstream Provincial Park, making the climb up the Malahat and then around the shores of Shawnigan Lake, I get increasingly excited to reach our first destination, the historic Kinsol Trestle. Crossing this sight off of my bucket list is made all the more appealing by an unexpected surprise, snow! (I know, I know – the rest of Canada is scoffing loudly, but the white stuff makes a fairly rare appearance on the Island and I, for one, am like a kid on Christmas when it does.)
The structure, completed in 1920, is nestled just a kilometre’s walk from the parking lot, down a quiet trail that winds through the west coast forest. Taking our time to walk to the end of the trestle, we occasionally step into the built-in lookouts to see the Koksilah River rushing over 40 metres below us. While it no longer serves its original purpose of transporting raw timber, the trestle remains one of the largest constructed wooden bridges in the world.
The last train ran across the trestle in 1979 before it was abandoned. After much debate around its preservation, a community-based campaign raised enough funds to restore the structure, which was reopened to the public in 2011 and now forms part of “The Great Trail”, also known as the Trans Canada Trail.
I snap way too many photos for the memory book and we make our way back to the parking lot, still all alone on the trail. As we arch around the opposite shore of Shawnigan Lake, past picturesque farms, parks, and vineyards, I’m already looking forward to our next stop – lunch.
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Pizzeria Prima Strada had its beginnings in Victoria, opening their Cook St. Village location around a decade ago. The Cobble Hill location is their newest, but is just as warmly inviting as any of their others. Olivia takes us to our table as I ask about their eye-catching bamboo light fixtures. I’m a sucker for decor and the little details that accentuate the space pop out immediately. The wood-fired oven, custom tiled with the pizzeria’s name, gives off that classic Neapolitan pizza smell – exactly what Prima Strada is known for.
I start with an overflowing small jar of marinated olives and split some giant meatballs drenched in homemade marinara with my partner before the pizza de resistance comes out. Thanks to the recommendation made by a friendly staff member, Andrew, we try something new on one of our go-to orders. A diavola pizza, drizzled with pesto, comes out of the oven in a few minutes, complete with that intoxicating wood-fired aroma.
With plenty of local craft beers on tap, I order a small glass of Small Block Brewing Co.’s Hazy IPA to quench the thirst (and heat) after drenching my already spicy slices in Prima Strada’s house-made chili oil. Featuring house-made gelato as dessert, the visit reaffirms my love for this Island-grown family business and deepens my obsession with wood-fired Napoli-style thin crust pizza.
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We get our leftovers packed up for an afternoon snack and get back in the car to make our way to Duncan for our first brewery stop. On the way, I make a mental note to put Whippletree Junction and The Old Farm Market on my bucket list for the drive home. Both old-timey centres made up of a strip of heritage buildings on the side of the highway, they offer artisanal baked goods, local produce, crafts, furniture, and First Nations’ art for those who have some spare time to peruse.
Getting a preview of Small Block Brewing Company’s Hazy IPA at Prima Strada was a wonderful introduction to this nearly year-old brewery (celebrating their one year anniversary on St. Patrick’s day!). Their logo is proudly displayed on a large garage door as we walk up to the entrance, already hinting at the classic car and vintage garage vibe of the space.
Cate, co-owner of the brewery, welcomes us in. As she pours a tasting flight, we begin to chat about the brewery, the car-centric atmosphere, and the little details that make up Small Block. A vintage jukebox plays tunes that fill up the space, and hand-picked details and accents, like connecting rod tap handles, are everywhere to discover.
Small Block’s branding is on point as well, with cars and custom-designed characters displayed on each can and bottle. Limited releases, like the UpCycle Nut Brown Ale brewed with sourdough bread, are made in collaboration with Cowichan Green Community. (Last year’s collaboration used rye bread to create Small Block’s RyeCycle Fresh Hopped IPA.) The local aspect is a pillar of Small Block’s community mentality, using locally sourced ingredients wherever possible.
I ask Cate to pour me her current favourite and she fills up a tasting glass of Miss Lead, a chocolatey oatmeal stout that’s part of Small Block’s core lineup of brews. The balanced, yet rich flavour makes it easy to see why it’s her favourite. We talk about future plans for the brewery, including a possible patio expansion behind the building to open up the tasting room on summer days and a potential car show. Cate also tells me about the live music events that the brewery hosts on a regular basis (including a ukulele jam every Sunday afternoon!), transforming the red and black leather car-seat couches in the back corner into a cozy little space for an audience. With special cask nights held on Fridays and Holy Cow Indian Eats available on site (as well as the occasional wood-fired pizza night), Small Block is a big addition to the area’s craft beer scene.
I finish my tastings and take a quick walk through the brewery itself, somewhere Cate hopes to be spending more time in the near future as she gets further into brewing herself. We say goodbye and get back in the car for the 2 minute drive down Chaster Road to our next brewery stop.
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Red Arrow Brewing Company, located in what used to be a custom motorcycle shop called Arrow Motorcycles, keeps the motor theme of the day going. The brick building is beautiful, with a small courtyard in front that serves as a self-serve picnic area. On the roof of the building sits Christopher, the gargoyle and unofficial mascot of Red Arrow, overlooking the tall totem pole in the centre of the courtyard.
Red Arrow opened in 2015 and shares ownership with the Craig Street Brew Pub, opened in 2006 as Duncan’s first brewpub. We step inside this production brewery’s tasting room where open-faced brick walls and wooden accents balance out the tributes to the old motorcycle shop that remain. Travis, Red Arrow’s sales manager, greets us and starts getting tasters of some of Red Arrow’s brews ready (including their latest creation called Threesome, an ale made with Egyptian hibiscus flowers, Cowichan Valley honey, and organic hemp, complete with a rosy hue and ready for release just in time for Valentine’s Day). The bar is surrounded by four wooden pillars covered in countless little plaques. Travis tells us these represent a community-supported initiative that helps fund sports teams like the Cowichan Piggies through keg purchases from the brewery. (Red Arrow’s award-winning Piggy Pale Ale is named after the local team.) The brewery also partners with a local country music festival held every summer, making their popular Laketown Lager for the event.
Besides supporting local sports teams, the brewery does as much as it can to recycle their spent grains. Patrons have made dog biscuits, soap, and other creative products using the grains that are left over after the brewing process is finished. By sourcing hops from hop farmers in Cedar Valley and Maple Bay, something that many of the breweries in the area try to do, Red Arrow hopes to encourage more farmers to grow hop varietals as well.
The back corner of the tasting room is loaded with merch, including bomber bottles, hats and toques, vests and jackets. We walk through the old wooden doors to the brewery side of the building to shake hands with the brewers and get a tour of the production area. Four horizontal tanks are against one of the walls, ready for faster conditioning of beers if/when the vertical tanks that make up the rest of the room are already at capacity. Partnering with UVic through a research grant to study hops and brewing techniques, Red Arrow’s long-term goals are to expand their commercial brewing production. They’re also looking to grow their licensed space to include a full patio area in the courtyard, already boasting a family-friendly atmosphere inside and out.
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After picking up a few hop-heavy bombers to go for the hop-headed designated driver on the journey, we get back in the car for another 20 minute drive further into the valley. We drive through downtown Duncan and then past the BC Forest Discovery Centre, a great family-friendly stop to learn more about the region, the logging industry, and the BC forests that surround the area. The Centre includes over 5,000 artifacts, such as operational steam locomotives, logging equipment, and a dozen heritage buildings. Some of the locomotives offer train rides throughout the year, with plenty of other big machines and historic spaces waiting for explorers.
Taking a right turn at Henry Rd. to leave the highway, we enter the community of Chemainus, a quaint little seaside town that was founded as an unincorporated logging town in 1858. The history of logging, fishing, and mining is strongly represented by the nearly 40 outdoor murals that decorate the sides of heritage and modern buildings. Its beautiful theatre, reminiscent of a lighthouse beacon when lit at night, won an award as the best building on Vancouver Island when it opened in 1993 and remains one of the touristic draws of the community. The Waterwheel Park in the centre of town, located right next to the Chemainus Valley Museum, is a lovely little spot with an outdoor stage, picnic tables, and a playground for the kids.
The story of resilience, creative reinvention, and perseverance is one that’s repeated throughout Chemainus, with locals having to reinvent themselves and their town after the loss of resource extraction industries like mining and logging. Part of that reinvention is a focus on tourism and, with that, attracting new businesses.
One of the new businesses that Chemainus is now the proud home of comes in the form of Riot Brewing Co., which opened in the town in 2016. Similarly, Riot’s story is also one of resilience, creativity, and perseverance so the brewery and the town have a lot in common.
We pull up to the newer complex of Chemainus Village Square, a few blocks past the main part of town. Riot’s red exterior jumps out, with a colourful sign proclaiming that “You’re on the BC Ale Trail” catching my eye. We walk in and are greeted by Aly, one of the two owners, pint in hand. She points out the first of many customer gifts hanging just above the entrance – a custom-made mobile made using three of Riot’s cans. Another gift, the digital guitar clock hanging on the main wall in the tasting room, just behind the colourful row of lightning-shaped tap handles, shows it’s already late afternoon.
One the way to a table, we run into Fabian, Riot’s brewer, on his way out with his partner and their dog. Aly introduces us and a few laughs are exchanged before they leave. The place already feels warm and friendly, and we’ve just sat down. Megan pours some taster glasses and brings them over in similarly colourful lightning shaped flights.
I ask Aly about how they came to open Riot in Chemainus and she starts a story I’m sure she’s told hundreds of times already about the long journey of getting to where she is today, with an open brewery, making beer she loves to drink with people she’s known for ages.
Aly and Riot’s co-founder, Ralf, were active in the Vancouver craft beer scene for many years before coming to the Island to start their own brewery. After countless headaches, delays, and finicky regulations to navigate through, they finally found a home in Chemainus. And it really is a home in the sense that the love for, and of, their community is evident in everything that’s Riot. The space is full of customer gifts and paraphernalia, including an entire wall that’s covered in signatures from past visitors and locals alike. The people inside range from friends to regulars to an investor/pinball machine repairman, all of which exude the same warmth and friendliness that Aly does.
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We go to the back where the brewery side of the building is. Ralf comes in as Aly tells us about the connection to skateboarding that Riot has. Besides living in Chemainus where an “inexplicably badass skate park”, as they put it, exists, much of the brewery’s branding and vibe show their passion for skateboarding culture. The stairs of the brewery are made safer thanks to grip tape, a “Screaming Hand” skateboard hangs at the end of the hall, and, in a serendipitous turn of events, the son of Jim Phillips (who created the “Screaming Hand” for skateboard company, Santa Cruz), Jimbo, is the designer behind Riot’s labels.
And what goes hand in hand with skateboarding? Punk rock. Both Aly and Ralf are avid fans and Riot regularly hosts live shows and open mic nights. They also sponsor events like Victoria’s Ska Fest, and the brewery is a HarbourCats sponsor this year as well. Keen on supporting community events and promoting local tourism, Riot’s become a BC Ale Trail champion for the region.
The patio and fire pit offer a place to cool off or warm up, depending on the season, and the whole space is family-friendly and dog-friendly too. The whole point of Riot is to continue boosting the community by being a hub and gathering place for locals and visitors too. The brewery offers tours, has order-in food options available, sells growlers, bombers, and cans of their brews, and also has some great merch to take home as a souvenir (beyond the beer, of course).
We look back up at the digital guitar clock and realize we’re late for dinner, getting so wrapped up in the fun-loving aura that beams from Riot’s founders, despite the long road to get here. We get a few hugs in and head just across the parking lot to Sawmill TapHouse and Grill. Providing some of Riot’s order-in food options, the restaurant offers a brunch menu and a main menu that includes wood-fired pizza, as well as a collection of Pacific Northwest craft beers on tap. A tribute to local industry, the interior decor and details, like saw-shaped signs, lofty timber ceilings, and lumberjack booths make you feel like you’re actually stepping into a sawmill, minus the deafening noise. Instead, some good food, great beer, and the sound of cozy company fill the space.
Staying on the pizza train, my partner orders a wood-fired pizza for dinner too – this time a Hawaiian – and I get the Southwest Fish Cakes made of halibut and crab and topped with a mango pico de gallo. My sweet tooth demands a dessert after most meals so we finish off dinner with a hefty piece of apple crisp, vanilla ice cream, and whipped cream.
We head back over to Riot where we left the car. It’s late evening now and there are a few locals inside playing cards, getting a growler filled, or enjoying a beer while chatting with other patrons. Getting back in the car, we drive another 20 minutes to our final stop for the night, the Microtel Inn & Suites by Wyndham in the Oyster Bay area of Ladysmith. The pet-friendly modern hotel is just off the highway and only 5 minutes away from the Nanaimo Airport, making it the perfect place for a central home base when exploring this part of the Island. The indoor pool (with waterslide!) and game room make it a great place to stop with the little (and big) kids in your life and a fitness centre offers a chance to keep up with your workout routine when you’re away from home. The hotel was built recently in partnership with MasterBuilt Hotels’ Common Ground initiative, aiming to promote socially responsible practices in the communities they build in.
As much as I’d love to take advantage of a swim, the exhaustion of a jam-packed day catches up with me quickly. My partner and I enjoy one of the bombers we picked up as a short-lived souvenir and are soon fast asleep.
Day 2: Nanaimo’s craft beer scene
We wake up in the morning at the Microtel to a lot more snow than the previous day.
Adventure is in the air as I peek out the window to see flakes still falling and the forest next to the hotel covered in the white stuff. After check-out and clearing the snow-covered car, we’re ready to head further up Island to the city of Nanaimo.
Parking downtown by the round facade of The Port Theatre, across the street from the similarly round Vancouver Island Military Museum on the hill, we start to walk the 4.4 kilometre stretch that is Nanaimo’s Harbourfront Walkway. We pass the various ferry terminals that take passengers and cars to Gabriola Island, Protection Island, and Newcastle Island Marine Provincial Park. The Duke Point ferry terminal to Tsawwassen is close by, as are the Harbour Air and Helijet terminals, making the city well-connected.
The Bastion, built in 1854, stands tall on a slight incline next to the walkway. This landmark remains as the Hudson Bay Company’s (HBC) last wooden bastion in North America and, from May long weekend to Labour Day, its three floors of history are open to curious visitors. At noon, a cannon firing ceremony takes place, harkening back to the days when the Bastion was used to defend the coal mining operation of the HBC in Nanaimo. Group tours of the Bastion can also be booked in the off-season.
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Our first brewery stop of the day is just a 10-minute walk down the walkway. Arriving at White Sails Brewing, we get out of the snow to enter a warm, fire-lit hallway entrance in a brick and wood building with unique design features. To the right, large windows and an open gate showcase the brewery side of the building where brewer, Tyler, is washing the tanks down. The taproom is large, lit through stepped windows that mirror the stepped shape of the central fireplace, lined with growlers.
We meet with Brian at White Sails. He gets a tasting flight ready and, at the end of one of the long tables, we start chatting about the brewery, taproom, and what the White Sails journey has been like since opening in 2015.
The brewery’s location is historic and has long-lasting ties to Nanaimo’s history. Built where the old Newcastle Hotel, owned by brewmaster of Nanaimo Brewing, John Mahrer, used to be, the original building burnt down in 1992. It was rebuilt with the help of a local architect and functioned as a sports bar for years, across the street from where Nanaimo’s old civic centre and arena were. Its history reaches back even further, with a brewing connection found in the Union Brewing Company which operated nearby from 1895 to 1910. In fact, if you look closely at the growler collection displayed on the fireplace, you might be able to find an old green Union Brewing Co. bottle that was discovered during the building’s renovations.
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Nanaimo’s push towards small business development after the loss of industry was also a big attraction to begin a brewery here. With its central location, White Sails now serves as downtown Nanaimo’s craft brewery, taproom, and community gathering space. The knots in their logo represent ties to the community and the brewery hosts many local events and quirky meetups. The taproom provides lots of space to socialize, enjoy many of White Sails’ award-winning craft brews, and get some bites from local spots in to boot!
Continuing to partner with other Nanaimo businesses, artists, organisations, and initiatives, White Sails now serves as a modern version of the local pub, with a much more social focus to provide a community gathering place that has great craft beer.
We pass the Nanaimo courthouse, another historic building built in 1896, on our way back to the car. Heading to our next stop, the snow starts falling in bigger flakes and we’re glad to make it to Longwood Brewery without too much trouble.
We meet with Morgan who’s at the front of the house, and Harley, the brewmaster. Pouring tasters into the cutest little mason-jar mugs I’ve ever seen, Morgan helps us take the flight into the back to get a tour from Harley who’s been in the brewing business for over 30 years. He tells us about starting at the Longwood Brewpub before moving to the larger production space that is now Longwood Brewery. While the two entities are still connected (the brewpub’s recipes are still the core beers at the brewery as well), there are unique brews that Harley makes specifically for the tasting room’s taps and growler fills (such as the seasonal beer made with quince fruit from a South Nanaimo orchard and their Beetnik beer made with beets from a local farm).
Most of the brewery’s ingredients are locally sourced wherever possible, with hops coming from Cedar Valley Hop Yards, Maple Bay, and Vancouver Island Hop Co. Focusing on hyperlocal production, Longwood also works to encourage more farmers in the area to grow hops. Some of their malt is sourced locally as well through a Nanaimo resident who was interested in malting and began his own small production to sell to the brewery. Both the brewery and the brewpub also try to recycle their spent grains by sending them to local farms as feed for animals or repurposing them in the form of dog treats and other artisanal byproducts.
The brewery often hosts music shows in the backyard during warmer months and is working on opening a picnic area this year as well.
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After the delightful flight of delicious beers, including a mixture of the seasonal quince with their Island Time Lager core beer to watch the slowly emulsifying reaction, we get back in the car to visit the sister operation at Longwood Brewpub. We meet Mike, the owner and operator, who gives us a tour of the large space.
With a family-friendly restaurant upstairs featuring fresh, locally sourced ingredients, a pub downstairs, and a private room for events on the top floor where some of the brewing equipment also lives, Longwood Brewpub has served as a staple in Longwood Station plaza since 1999. Graham, the brewer who worked under Harley until Harley moved to Longwood Brewery, is still brewing at the brewpub today, producing a lineup of English-style beers. In the summer, the patio is also open, providing great views of the Vancouver Island mountain range, and live music events are put on throughout the year as well. The brewpub also hosts Crafternoon, the final event of Nanaimo’s Craft Beer Week, held every February.
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After the tour, we sit down for lunch at the brewpub. My partner orders a schnitzel and I dig into my Longwood Ale-battered halibut and chips. Feeling nice and satisfied after a good meal and another taster of great beers, we brave the cold once more to visit our last brewery for the day, Wolf Brewing Company.
Originally opened in 2000 as Fat Cat Brewery, ownership changed hands in 2010 and Wolf Brewing came into existence. Bo, Wolf’s general manager, tells us about the history of the brewery and where it’s headed from here. With plans to expand beyond the “beer room”, as well as to grow their distribution area, Wolf’s current space is small but family-friendly and can be rented out for private events. Tours of the brewery are offered and bottles, growlers, and merch are all available for purchase, with Wolf’s current bottle designs being created by local artists.
The tasting room features classic “old world” styles of beer, in large part thanks to their brewmaster, Kevin, who hails from Liverpool, England. Using local ingredients from Cedar Valley and other nearby suppliers, the brewery offers a core lineup of a Golden Honey Ale, an India Pale Ale, a Scotch Ale, a dark malt Porter, and a Black & Tan, made by blending their honey ale and porter, alongside some seasonal brews. My tasting flight, served in a repurposed barrel stave, features these and a nitro pour of their seasonal Chocolate Cherry Hazelnut Dark Ale.
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Echoed by many of the breweries we get a chance to meet on this trip, part of the challenge is in educating consumers to try new or different styles of beer, especially those on the darker or maltier end of the spectrum. Kevin tells us that some of the brewery’s visitors refer to their nitro beers as “flat”, not knowing what their flavour, look, and feel should actually taste like. Getting visitors in to talk about the differences and to learn more about how these beers are produced is a priority for Wolf’s staff and the craft beer scene in the region, in general.
After our very own mini-lesson in nitro beer and a brief chat with a couple of other patrons about what more there is to do and see on the Island, we get back in the car for another 20-minute drive to Parksville for our stay at the beautiful Tigh-Na-Mara Resort.
Located right next to Rathtrevor Provincial Park, Tigh-Na-Mara is a seaside spa resort and conference centre. Offering a rustic cabin aesthetic and breathtaking views across the Georgia Strait, it’s a great place to relax and recharge. The Grotto Spa, located across the street from the resort’s Cedars Restaurant and Lounge, provides guests with an opportunity to really decompress.
We pop into Cedars for a welcome drink. My partner and I both get the Tigh-Na-Mara Copper, an American-style pale ale brewed in partnership with Parksville brewery, Mount Arrowsmith, and named after the restaurant’s Copper Lounge. Afterwards, we check into our ocean view room, complete with raw wood furnishings, beautiful log cabin beams, a gas fireplace, skylight, a jetted indoor tub, and the coziest bathrobes I’ve ever felt.
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A brisk walk in the evening takes us to another nearby resort for dinner at the Black Goose Inn, a classic English-style pub with a variety of traditional pies on the menu. The smell of the steak and mushroom pie we order is enticing and the gravy is perfect to dip our thick-cut chips into. With 16 local craft, British, and European beers on tap, the building is a 1921 Samuel McClure-designed historical beauty with a big fireplace in the Great Hall that’s also home to a piano and live music events.
Walking back in the lovely snowfall, I warm up again by the fireplace, splitting a bomber we picked up from Wolf Brewing with my partner as we reminisce over the memories we’ve made on the first part of the Vancouver Island Ale Trail.
Day 3: Paradise in Parksville Qualicum Beach
I wake up early, just before sunrise, to take in the view – trees framing the ocean and mountains across the strait.
Tigh-Na-Mara is a perfect getaway with the family, a significant other, or as a weekend away to reconnect with nature, friends, or yourself. Their log cabin cottages, bungalows, and studio suites are surrounded by 22 acres of lush forest, 3 kilometres of sandy beach, and the warmest ocean-swimming waters in Canada are waiting (although maybe not when it’s snowing out). Their award-winning restaurants and gift shop are also available for on-site dining and shopping. As we check out, I’m sure we’ll be back to this little bit of paradise in Parksville soon.
We head to nearby Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park for a morning walk to take in more of the majestic scenery and soak up some sunshine before starting another day full of tastings. Bunnies and birds are some of the wildlife we encounter as we walk around a small part of the 347 hectares of land that includes a five-kilometre stretch of sandy beach. At low tide, the beach is especially apt for beachcombing, with the ocean receding nearly a kilometre back from the shoreline.
With over 250 campsites available, the park is popular with locals and tourists alike. Nearby Englishman River Falls Provincial Park and Little Qualicum Falls Provincial Park also offer more opportunities for camping in the busier summer months when reservations at Rathtrevor book up quickly. Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park is in close vicinity too for a truly special experience exploring underground caves.
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We begin the second part of the Vancouver Island Ale Trail as we reach family-owned and operated Mount Arrowsmith Brewing. Co-founder, Matt, welcomes us into the sunny tasting room area where the brewery’s vibe can be felt immediately. Their branding, tied to the local area and named after a nearby mountain, is felt through the custom-made pieces of decor (an aptly designed skimboard hangs on a wall, the wooden wall accents made by a friend add pops of earth-toned colour, and the wrought-iron and live edge wood chairs and tables are also made by a local craftsman for the brewery). Even the beer names – Jagged Face IPA, Comfortably Chum Hefeweizen, Salish Sea Pale Ale – tie the brewery to their natural surroundings and history. Jagged Face is the rough translation of the Coast Salish Peoples’ name for Mount Arrowsmith. Comfortably Chum alludes to both the fish and being surrounded by friends, something that both Matt and Dan, the two co-founders, relate well to as avid fly fishermen.
With the recent addition of a small kitchen to provide in-house food options, the tasting room is also home to local live music on Fridays and Saturdays. A patio space allows them to open up the sunny patio on warm summer days and the brewery’s ample tank space gives them room to make unique collaborations or one-off styles for local partners (like the Tigh-Na-Mara), beyond their core beers.
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Made by BC craft brewing legend and Parksville local, Dave Woodward (previously of the Whistler BrewHouse, Tofino Brewing Company, and Axe & Barrel), Mount Arrowsmith’s beers have already won multiple awards in the nearly two years since the brewery’s been open. Sourcing local hops from Cedar Valley Hop Yards, the brewery has also ventured out to source ingredients from around the world (like their 49Karat collaboration brew with Parallel 49 in Vancouver, made using only Australian hops).
Their fishing ties have also provided an opportunity to make new connections. The Mount Arrowsmith team held a release party last year with Captain Sean Dwyer of The Deadliest Catch TV series in an effort to raise funds for ALS research. These types of innovative collaborations have helped Mount Arrowsmith establish itself as a craft beer champion in Parksville and the surrounding region.
We hop back in the car to head into the main section of Parksville for lunch at a local favourite, Bread and Honey Food Company. Owned and operated by a Parksville couple, the quaint little restaurant is already full when we arrive. We sit at a table in the corner and start perusing the menu, with plenty of unexpected dishes catching my eye.
I start with a latte made with their in-house vanilla syrup and order the bannock with cedar jelly and blueberry sage preserves, particularly looking forward to trying the cedar jelly. Then, for the main event, I get smoked albacore and avocado toast and my partner orders a bowl of fire-roasted tomato soup to warm up. The food comes out, looking as delicious as it tastes, and we quickly finish off the meal before heading to our final brewery stop of the trip.
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We decide to take the slightly longer (by two minutes) scenic oceanside route to the next destination in Qualicum Beach. Stopping for a quick photo op at the parking lot that’s lined with picnic tables alongside the water, I snap a few shots of the waves rolling in as the brisk air blows towards the shoreline, carrying a biting freshness with it.
We soon arrive at a building with four doors and double-check the navigation to see if we’re at the right place. The logo on the first door, a little heart encased in a house shape, and the BC Ale Trail sticker on the window confirm we’ve found the right place.
LoveShack Libations is both odd and outstanding at the same time. The small entrance room features all of the merch that proudly displays that same little logo, but the second larger room is where the magic happens. The space is already crowded with people sitting at the few tables available. Tanks are in the far corner filling up the rest of the room and chalkboards show what’s pouring these days. Dave, the creator, owner, and brewer of LoveShack Libations, is behind the bar, pouring his brews into a selection of glasses from an eccentric collection.
Only open two days a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, for limited hours, Dave is busy running the tasting room and brewing in between. His ease in the crowded chaos is evident, a lingering effect of working as a bartender and being in the service industry for around 30 years.
Dave comes to say hi and brings over four glasses of his core lineup for me to try (and a non-alcoholic house-made ginger beer for the designated driver). The couple next to us at the small table, locals, tell us it’s their first time here as they taste some of Dave’s beers themselves. Between chats with them and chats with Dave as he pops back to pour another little something of a bottle he’s just opened, it’s hard not to get caught up in the charming character of the LoveShack and the story behind it.
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A real labour of love, Dave and his wife, Rachel, moved to the Island and lived in a tent and then a small home that Dave built himself, dubbed the LoveShack. After building a bigger home for their family, Dave’s mother-in-law bought him a homebrew kit and he began pursuing hobby brewing in the LoveShack, spurred on by encouragement from his family. He turned the hobby into Qualicum Beach’s first craft nanobrewery, opened in 2017. Serving samples of his beers (available for purchase in 500mL bottles) on Saturdays to visitors, Dave’s new beers usually come out on Wednesdays. With no kegs or CO2 in the space, this really is craft beer that you can only drink here, and what’s pouring is changing all the time. And that’s the point. Dave wants to keep things hypersmall and hyperlocal, allowing him to still do the things that he enjoys, like skiing and spending time with his family. He also participates in community fundraising endeavours by creating beers specifically for them (Jazz Hands Pale Ale, currently being poured, supports his daughter’s school jazz club).
LoveShack’s expansion plans are currently non-existent by design. Dave makes creative recipes using ingredients that are unexpected (birch, lingonberry, meadowsweet, yarrow root, just to name a few). In fact, he’s recently partnered with Vancouver Island University to make three ancient recipes inspired by the Egyptian, Viking, and Mayan brews of centuries past. The three (Midas Touch, Odin’s Eye, and a Mayan Chicha that’s in the process of being created), are wonderfully modern examples of this historic craft.
Food options through a local food truck, the Knockananna Grill, are available for order too so the LoveShack is definitely worth the trip to truly experience the great beer that’s made here and the loving passion that creates it.
There’s a palpable sense of camaraderie that I feel us leaving as we get back in the car after getting some souvenirs to go. Dave’s operation of LoveShack Libations is another quintessential example of craft beer and the people and communities that have made this phenomenon such a success here in BC. Friends are made and neighbours are found in little rooms like this one, where even locals have the chance to discover something new and exciting.
We drive the 45 minutes back to Nanaimo to check into the Coast Bastion Hotel, across the street from the historic Bastion. This modern, full amenity hotel, spa, and conference centre also has pet-friendly rooms and is right in the centre of the city, making the harbourfront walkway, restaurants, bars, and shops all accessible within a few minutes. Our top-floor room gives us a stunning view of the harbourfront and the strait beyond.
We enjoy dinner at The Crow & Gate Pub, neighbour to the Cedar Valley Hop Yards which peek out behind the pub’s property limits. Another classic English-style pub, the Crow & Gate serves pies and pints in a cozy atmosphere. Open since 1972 by British ex-pat, Jack Nash, it was the first neighbourhood pub in BC, built on a 10-acre property in the Cedar community.
Sitting at classic long tables that are meant to be shared with the soon-to-be friend next to you, the pub has lots of crafted details and accents – a large fireplace, dark wood beams, and lots of decorative ties back to the United Kingdom. We order a plate of bratwurst with greens and sides and a plate of crab cakes with the same and quickly inhale the food after the busy day. By the time we leave, the pub is full and keen patrons are ready to snag the available seats as we make room.
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Back at the hotel, we drop off the car and make our way to The Cambie Hostel, established in 1897 and serving as Nanaimo’s downtown bar and hostel. The Cambie is hosting a tap takeover in celebration of Nanaimo Craft Beer Week. We meet Leif there, one of Nanaimo Craft Beer Society’s founders and a main organizer of the Crafternoon event.
During the day, Leif runs Vancouver Island Expeditions, a tour company that offers wilderness and nature tours, as well as winery, cidery, and craft beer tours in the region. A self-proclaimed beer geek, he tells us how he and some friends and fellow beer lovers started the local Beer Society to bring more attention to the city’s growing craft beer scene. Crafternoon is their main event, wrapping up a week of craft beer-focused gatherings around the city of Nanaimo. Leif tells us about the success of the first edition, held last year, and the encouraging interest for the second that quickly sold out. The spring event, balancing out the already full summer and fall craft beer schedules in the province, is focused on educating local consumers about craft beer and how to best enjoy some of the great breweries in Nanaimo and the nearby surroundings.
Part of that education is also making more craft beer available locally, beyond what each brewery’s taproom can offer. The Nanaimo Craft Beer Society, whose logo is a very apt stein of Nanaimo’s iconic Bastion, has also partnered with Lucky’s Liquor to bring a varied selection of craft beer bottles to the city. The Cambie has the largest selection of craft beers on tap in Nanaimo.
We chat more about the beer scene and how it’s evolved while drinking a few beers we haven’t come across yet (Boombox’s Rad Seeker and Twin City’s Fancy Pants). As the festivities of the night really begin to kick off, we walk the quick 5 minutes back to the Coast Bastion Hotel for a good night’s rest in preparation for Crafternoon.
I wake up early to catch another beautiful sunrise as the sun just peeks over the Duke Point ferry terminal. I’m already dreaming of breakfast at a nearby local favourite like Mon Petit Choux or Gabriel’s Cafe, staring out the window and thinking how we’ll have to come back to visit the Bastion during the summer season.
Unfortunately, a fresh snow storm is heading our way — and given the weather warnings, we are forced to make the difficult decision to start the journey home before the blizzard really picks up. That means we’ll miss the final event on our itinerary, Crafternoon, but better safe than sorry. Late that day, we get home full of good food, great beer, and memories that will last until the next time the Ale Trail comes a’callin’.
Because Sonia couldn’t attend Crafternoon, we asked one of the organizers, Matt Carter, to tell us more about this special annual event.
Q: What was your inspiration to create Crafternoon?
A: The local Kinsmen & Kinettes host a beer festival in Nanaimo every year, and we appreciate that it successfully sells out and raises a good amount of charitable funds. However, the Nanaimo Craft Beer Society directors felt that Nanaimo also needed a craft-centric beer event—something with more challenging and hard-to-find beers, particularly attractive for serious craft beer fans, and something that would attract some of our favourite BC breweries to this market.
We can’t go full ‘Farmhouse Fest’ and offer only obscure sours and funky lambics, but we can at least tip our hats towards that direction and introduce folks to some new flavours alongside IPAs, pale ales, and stouts.
Q: How is Crafternoon different from other beer festivals?
A: The event itself is modeled after the Canoe Brewpub’s ‘Winterbrau,’ where patrons are encouraged to wander around the brewpub to look for different breweries. Multiple courses of food are also served throughout the event. Canoe’s management was completely supportive of us adopting the idea and they offered solid advice when we were planning our first Crafternoon.
We also decided to go with a February event so we wouldn’t compete with the ‘festival fatigue’ that can strike breweries in the summer and fall. Providing care for the breweries in ways that go above-and-beyond is a huge part of what we’re trying to accomplish.
Q: What led to the decision to host the event at the Longwood Brewpub?
A: The Longwood Brewpub was a natural fit. It’s been in operation since the earlier days of the craft revolution in BC, and we respect that history.
In terms of layout, we’re able to split the breweries up between different floors, in a similar style to Winterbrau. This encourages attendees to walk around, upstairs and downstairs, to back room booths and casks at the bar, to see what breweries they can find.
As well, we knew that the Longwood culinary team would step up to the plate, but we didn’t imagine they’d knock it out of the park as much as they have. The specialty food creations at Crafternoon have been incredible and, to our pleasant surprise, has really elevated the event to something much more fulfilling than ‘just’ a beer festival.
Q: What were some of the beer highlights this year? Pick three.
A: We were thrilled that Île Sauvage joined us. They’ve only been open for, what, four months?—but we are so grateful they came up from Victoria. Their no-boil Berliner Weisse was a big hit and we’re stoked they have Kveik in hand.
Fellow beer nerds were trembling when they found out that the 2019 version of Driftwood’s Singularity Imperial Stout was on tap. There were many repeat visits to the Driftwood booth.
We are huge fans of what Twin City Brewing is doing up in Port Alberni, so we had to have them on the roster. They did up a pale ale cask with mango and Cashmere hops—exquisite.
Q: Was the event successful?
A: Absolutely. From a marketing perspective, we were sold out of tickets long before the brewery list was announced, and we believe that helped produce momentum for other Nanaimo Beer Week events. Feedback about the quality of the beer, food, and service has been overwhelmingly positive.
Weather nearly played havoc with us on the day of event; snow started falling heavily soon after we opened the doors, but everyone got in safely. Watching the wind-swept chaos of the snowstorm through the brewpub windows, listening to old-school funk music, and sipping on some of BC’s finest brews certainly made for a memorable environment. If you’re going to be snowed in, why not get snowed in with plenty of new friends?
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.
Stretched along the central east coast of Vancouver Island, appearing like arms reached out to welcome visitors, is the city of Nanaimo & Region, the heartbeat of the Island. Here, we set the pace of “Island time” with ferry horns, sea lion barks and the quiet roar of floatplanes passing above. Accessible by air via the Nanaimo airport, by seaplane or helicopter service directly into downtown and with your choice of two ferries to sail with, Nanaimo was long ago nicknamed the hub of the island for good reason.
Parksville Qualicum Beach is where memories come to life; the smells and sounds, tastes and textures that bring you back to a time when the world was a little smaller, people were a little nicer, and time wasn’t a big worry.
While Parksville Qualicum Beach may be best known for amazing sandy beaches that stretch for nearly a mile at low tide, there’s much more to the region than saltwater and sandy shores.
Start your next story with ‘there were goats on the roof’ or ‘we slept in a suspended treehouse,’, and see what kind of a reaction you get from your friends. Discover crystal formations and ancient fossils while sliding through Horne Lake Caves. Explore the ancient forests of Cathedral Grove, raging Englishman River and Little Qualicum Falls – enjoying the scenery and serenity, connecting with the Earth in a way that isn’t possible in the busy city. Visit rescued black bears, eagles, falcons, and other forest creatures, or paddle a kayak to discover sea lions and seals, watching from a respectful distance as they observe you, too.