Writer Lucas Aykroyd hops on the BC Ale Trail to preview Vancouver Mural Festival 2020 and enjoy Mount Pleasant’s craft breweries along the way.
A giant mermaid with starfish in her hair swims in front of me, surrounded by seaweed and jellyfish. Am I hallucinating back to my recent Copenhagen encounter with the Little Mermaid statue? Has my history of checking out Daryl Hannah in Splash and riding Ariel’s Undersea Adventure at Disneyland finally caught up with me?
Actually, I’m in a back alley in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood, admiring Tia Rambaran’s 2017 “Lady Mermaids” mural. Today is all about exploring the surreal sights of the annual Vancouver Mural Festival and tasting the finest local craft beer on the BC Ale Trail.
Founded in 2016, the Vancouver Mural Festival features incredible, imaginative wall art painted by local artists, with strong representation from women, First Nations people, and minority groups. The reimagined 2020 edition (August 18 – September 7) includes more than 60 new murals in nine different neighbourhoods. You can check out artists in action and discover 200-plus murals across Vancouver with the new VMF Mobile App (launching August 18).
Mount Pleasant is where it all began, and I’m here for the ultimate marriage of art and alcohol. It’s hard to say no to a safe, fun outing on foot in Vancouver’s seminal craft beer hub.
On the eve of the festival, my epic journey to six breweries kicks off at 33 Acres Brewing at noon. It’s an easy stroll from downtown over the Cambie Street Bridge.
This white-walled, family-operated institution, which debuted in 2013, illustrates how once-industrial Mount Pleasant has been revitalized. 33 Acres is right next to a public bike share station and across from tech giant Hootsuite’s headquarters. A new patio outside the brewery offers great separation between wooden booths. Right next door is 33 Brewing Experiment, a sister brewery that opened in 2018.
I nab a corner table inside and chill with a 10.5-ounce glass of 33 Acres of Sunshine. This French Blanche ale is an ultra-refreshing choice for summer. The longstanding core beer mirrors this brewery’s vibe of minimalist elegance. 33 Acres staff are also meticulous about safety procedures, from hand sanitizer to social distancing to taking phone numbers for contact tracing, without being intrusive.
With Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” echoing in the background, I sip and reflect on my previous beer-powered forays into public art, ranging from a Detroit mural tour by bike to a self-guided Kiev appraisal of Soviet war monuments. If I had more time, I’d scarf down 33 Acres snacks like the hot pretzel with Dijon mustard and pickled cabbage. However, it’s time for my personal art party.
I’m in a sunny mood as I loop past Jonathan Rogers Park and turn into 7 1/2 Alley (between 7th and 8th Streets). Wow! I had no idea about the plethora of murals stashed back here.
The blue-and-green design of Alexis Tryfon’s “Argos” (2019), featuring a proud wolf inspired by Greek mythology, reminds me nostalgically of the official artwork of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. A mingling of humans and birds amid jungle greenery gives Michelle Nguyen’s “Monster in Hiding” (2018) complex layers. Tara Lee Bennet’s “No Rain No Flowers” (2018) offers a simple, clean slogan that makes me happy I don’t need an umbrella today.
Emerging on to Main Street, I cut across Kingsway to my next destination. I’ve spent plenty of time around this intersection, devouring gourmet doughnuts at Cartem’s Donuts or vegetarian Mexican food at Budgie’s Burritos. Yet right now, I’m just craving more beer artistry at Main Street Brewing.
The cheerful, high-ceilinged building on East 7th Avenue that housed Vancouver Breweries in the early 20th century has a colourful assortment of growlers in its shop. I chuckle at a growler that depicts R2-D2 and C-3PO from Star Wars playing beer pong.
Feeling excited by the murals I’ve viewed so far, I order a flight in the tasting room. It includes the classic Main Street Pilsner with notes of apples and the hoppy Kingpin pale ale. I inquire about Main Street Brewing’s selection of cask beers. The server informs me: “We have three of them, and they’re usually 40-litre batches, lasting about a week.”
Black-and-white photos, including a 1931 Vancouver Breweries horse-drawn delivery cart and a retro laundromat, flash on a TV above the bar as I finish off my flight. With that visual taste of history, I’m revved up for more murals.
In an East 5th Avenue parking lot, two cartoonish, colourful 2019 murals prompt beer-fuelled questions. Who is the mysterious, tattooed woman with the purple umbrella in Expel’s mural? Is that mischievous duck in a hat and cape channeling Zorro in Slate’s mural?
There’s also a large tribute to Vancouver mural artist Holden Courage, who passed away in 2015. And nearby, I discover “Eagle Opens Up” (2017), whose powerful Indigenous motifs reflect the creativity of Haisla-Heiltsuk artist Paul Windsor and Cree artist Jeska Slater. Their work reminds me that the Vancouver Mural Festival takes place on the traditional unceded territories of the Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh peoples.
Entering my third stop, Main Street’s Brassneck Brewery, I’m feeling contemplative. I chat with owner Nigel Springthorpe about the Vancouver Mural Festival’s positive impact on this neighbourhood. “It’s always hopping in here,” he says. “It’s great to have something that brings everybody together.”
This beloved venue is cozy, but there’s plenty of room. I sit down at a vacant communal table at 2:30 pm. Since 2013, Brassneck has delivered ever-changing, award-winning taps, the only constant being Passive-Aggressive, a 7% ABV dry-hopped pale ale. Nigel also steers me toward the King Maker Pilsner (“my beer of the moment”) and the Raspberry Changeling, incorporating Fraser Valley raspberries. I savour its tart, fruity rush.
At this stage of artistic appreciation, I could really use a pizza. Happily, a five-minute stroll brings me to R&B Ale & Pizza House. Their zesty pesto chicken pie, loaded with red peppers and feta cheese, gets me pumped for more craft beer.
R&B’s Barry Benson tells me about the 1997-founded brewery on East 4th Avenue, which boasts six core beers and 12 taps: “Currently, we come out with a new sour every month. And every time we do a new beer, 80 percent is packaged, while 20 percent is for sale on site.”
The Dude Chilling Pale Ale pairs perfectly with my pizza, while the crispy, easy-drinking Beer Island Session IPA has me pondering Def3’s Jurassic Park-esque dinosaur mural a few blocks south of here. (Maybe Steven Spielberg’s dinosaurs would have spent more time drinking if they lived on Beer Island instead of Isla Nublar. Just a theory.)
Just a few doors down is Electric Bicycle Brewing, whose psychedelic exterior dovetails thematically with the Vancouver Mural Festival. This 2018-founded brewery offers pure retro fun, and has adapted smartly to business in 2020. “We started making hand sanitizer and hawking beers out the window when the pandemic started,” explains Electric Bicycle’s Leigh Matkovich.
The beers are as eccentric as the decor, with faux-vintage snack bar signs and a neon sign trumpeting “Psychic Sessions.” My intuition is rewarded when I pick the Long Distance Relationship Smoked Stout, brewed with two kinds of chocolate malt. It’s so inspirational that I leave with four tall Electric Bicycle cans, including the popular It’s No Game Hazy IPA and Wobbly Code! German-style altbier.
A short detour on West 3rd Avenue leads me to Olivia Di Liberto’s unmissable “Cosmic Breeze” (2019) mural, covering the exterior of Titmouse Canada’s animation studios. Spontaneously, I burst into a medley of the Beatles’ “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” and “Yellow Submarine.” Checking out murals and drinking beer rocks.
My sixth and final destination is Faculty Brewing. The 2016-launched Ontario Street Brewery, which occupies a renovated former bike shop, has a gorgeous, tree-shaded patio. Inside, the brewery showcases local artists with a video slide show and QR codes that patrons can use to buy prints of the art.
Co-owners Mauricio Lozano and Alicia Medina offer a tasty, well-made selection of craft beers at their 1,400-square-foot facility. To refresh my palate after all the wild, eclectic murals I’ve viewed, I get one more flight. It includes Faculty Brewing’s Ginger Saison and Apricot Sourweisse. It’s after 5 pm and I’m enjoying the fruits of my labours.
This has been an amazing summer afternoon. I have a heightened appreciation for Mount Pleasant’s funky, gritty character after discovering its backstreet murals. And I can’t wait to come back and see what’s new during this year’s Vancouver Mural Festival. Especially if a pint or two is involved. Hail the mermaids!