The drive to the west coast of Vancouver Island is one of BC’s most celebrated road trips—and for good reason.
In the space of a couple of hours, you exchange the sunlit hills and gentle shores of eastern Vancouver Island for the rainswept, brooding austerity of the Pacific on the island’s west coast. It’s a study in contrasts. The steep mountains and roadside cliffs between the coasts only sharpen your feeling of being somewhere truly wild when you arrive.
For years, Tofino Brewing Company was the sole beacon in the fog for thirsty craft beer fans making their way westward across Vancouver Island, but recently a trio of new breweries has opened in Port Alberni and Ucluelet expanding the reach of craft beer all the way across the Island. My family and I didn’t need any convincing to schedule a vacation to the west coast — it had been a couple of years since we’d been out that way — but knowing that there were new breweries to visit along the way only added to the excitement when we booked ourselves a Tofino getaway at the end of July. After months of pandemic-related disruption in our lives, a road trip, craft beer and a big ocean promised to be just the thing to distract us for a while.
We arrived in Port Alberni ready for a meal, and, having been told in no uncertain terms that we needed to try the pizza at Twin City Brewing, we made it our first stop. Opening in 2017, Twin City is the most senior of the three new West Coast breweries we planned to visit on our trip. By most measures that’s a short time to have been around, but even so, brewmaster and owner Aaron Colyn’s brewery has made a name for itself by winning a Best In Show at the 2018 BC Beer Awards and picking up another gold medal for the same beer in the 2019 awards.
Twin City, like many BC breweries, has adapted to the pandemic by significantly increasing its outdoor seating areas. As I sat on the newly expanded patio with a pint of Tickity Boo British Pale Ale in my hand, I thought about the strange position craft breweries are in these days. Only half a year ago, going to a brewery meant getting close and comfortable with strangers. You could play games with your friends and your kids could run — well, not exactly free, but somewhat. Now there’s a necessary air of constraint at those craft breweries that have reopened, and yet it’s inspiring to see not only that breweries are carrying on under the new guidelines, but that they’re doing it in an exemplary way. At Twin City, and in fact all the breweries we visited on our trip, the front of house team carefully managed space so that nobody was crowded, while maintaining a warm and welcoming vibe.
The pizza was just as outstanding as it had been built up to be. We paid up, picked up some cans to go, and headed west along Highway 4. We’d been briefly disappointed on our way into Port Alberni to discover that Cathedral Grove, along with the rest of Macmillan Provincial Park, remained off-limits to visitors (for good reason, it turns out). We still wanted to enjoy a short walk in the woods, though, so 60 kilometres west of Port Alberni, we stopped at the Canoe Creek Recreation Site and set off down the Giant Cedar Trail. Ten minutes later, we stood at the foot of one of the largest cedar trees any of us had ever seen. And, quite unlike any stop we’d ever made at Cathedral Grove, we were alone. After a quick dip in the crystal-clear Kennedy River, we got back in the car and wound our way to our destination: Tofino.
Once we’d settled into the cabin that would be our home for the next few nights, it was time to pay a visit to Tofino Brewing Company. Originally opening in 2012, Tofino Brewing Company is a west coast institution, known widely for its creative use of local ingredients in beers such as their Kelp Stout and Spruce Tree Ale. These days the brewery is a hub of activity. A generously-spaced lineup of healthy-looking people in beachwear stretched from the front door nearly to the street. I wanted to wait it out and enjoy a pint or two on the recently-expanded patio, but also needed to get back to home base to start cooking, so I headed to the front of the queue to pick up some off-sales, scolding myself for turning up to a popular brewery late in the afternoon on a weekend. Everything worked out all right, though — just over an hour later I was seated on Mackenzie Beach under the early evening sun and holding a cold can of Dimension Ascension Dry-Hopped Pale in my hand. Without a cloud in sight, the golden colour of the sandy beach underneath me began to make me feel as if I were somewhere tropical — or was that the bright, aromatic hops in the beer? Either way, a quick and bracing dip in the Pacific Ocean robbed me of the illusion, though it left me feeling incredibly refreshed.
Getting a single sunny day on the west coast of Vancouver Island feels lucky, so when we stepped out of our cabin the next day under clear blue skies we knew that we were obliged to make the most of the day. Not wanting to waste a moment, we stopped by longstanding Tofino surf shop Live to Surf to rent a pair of boogie boards for the day. Officially, we justified renting boogie boards and not surfboards with our uncertainty over how our six-year-old would handle it, but inwardly we felt no regret about taking the easy way out. And we still didn’t feel any, a few minutes later, as we gleefully raced face-down through the whitewash splashing Wickanninnish Beach. Being an adult riding a boogie board, we reasoned, is more dignified than being an adult catapulting off a rented surfboard. Not much later, I was able to put this conjecture to the test when my old friend Casey arrived and offered to let me try out his longboard. Not one to pass up a challenge, I fought my way out into the waves and rode in, haphazardly, getting to my feet at least once. No, I don’t have photographic evidence, but I promise I am telling the truth.
Fighting your way through the waves is tough work, and so is getting in and out of a wetsuit when you’re totally unaccustomed to the job. We were hungry after our morning of beaching, so we drove to Ucluelet and parked at Jiggers, an old favourite of ours. There, we tucked the kind of picture-perfect three-piece fish and chips you daydream about when you’re desperately peckish. Despite the shade cast by the picnic umbrella, our body temperatures were rising steadily — so we decided to head to the forest, parking at the start of the “Lighthouse Loop” portion of the Wild Pacific Trail. There, we ambled along its gently rolling route, here and there taking in the trail’s awe-inspiring views of the open ocean.
By the time we’d cooled down, we figured it was was a respectable enough hour to go for a beer, so, with great anticipation, we headed over to the newly-opened Ucluelet Brewing Company. Or, rather, newly reopened — founder Dennis Morgan told me that he’d only been open for 32 days before temporarily closing shop when the pandemic struck. These are early days indeed, considering that Morgan has invested years in renovating this former church into the community hub it is now. The late afternoon sun flooded the timber-arched ceiling of the building with golden light, but the patio, mercifully, was shaded. Looking out on Ucluelet Harbour, I worked my way across a flight of head brewer Allan Cukier’s most seasonally appropriate beers: Seventh Day Kolsch, Tragically Wit, Belle Tower Farmhouse Saison, and South Swell IPA. IPAs are always seasonally appropriate, of course, but this one, delicate and drinkable, lent itself perfectly to patio sipping at the end of a hot day.
After another brilliantly sunny day spent mostly at the beach, it was time to say goodbye to the west coast and head back across the island. There was one more stop left to make, though. Port Alberni’s second craft brewery, Dog Mountain Brewing, opened late in 2019, and since then, co-owners Robin Miles and Andy Richards have been receiving accolades not just for their approachable and delicious beer, but also their rooftop patio, which offers a spectacular view of the Alberni Inlet. I stopped in at Dog Mountain as Miles and Richards were beginning to mash in a batch of IPA, and I watched as the two loaded bag after bag of grist into the mash tun. Richards, bathed in steam, stirred the mash furiously with what could be BC’s shortest mash paddle. Craft brewing, I reflected, is truly a labour of love. Afterwards, the two owners poured me a sample of their right-on-point 5 Mills Pils and the delicate, rosy-pink McLovin Honey Hibiscus Ale in their intimate tasting room, which boasts an intimate seating capacity of 12 guests under physical distancing rules (the patio, on the other hand, seats almost 60).
Vancouver Island’s west coast offers a perfect destination for the pandemic-weary traveller, because once you’ve followed the windy road up and over the middle of Vancouver Island you feel like you’ve truly left much of the world behind. Plus, the sandy beaches between Ucluelet and Tofino are spacious enough that it’s easy to keep a healthy distance from your fellow travellers. We were sad to leave, but look forward to returning soon to this far-flung stretch of the BC Ale Trail.
Dog Mountain Brewing and Twin City Brewing can be found on the Vancouver Island Ale Trail Part II. We hope to expand the BC Ale Trail to include Ucluelet Brewing and Tofino Brewing in the future.
Listen to this recent Cascadian Beer Podcast episode featuring both Port Alberni breweries.
Know before you go
As you start to plan your summer and fall vacations on the BC Ale Trail, make sure to look up important information about the area and check on cancellation policies. Be safe and respectful as you explore our wild backyard.
Some important links:
What’s open in BC (by community)
10 ways to travel safely and responsibly
This summer, explore your local breweries and you’ll find “New Experiences are Brewing Nearby!”