While Canadian food, like poutine, may not be standard international fare, Canadian beer has found its way into refrigerators the world over. Molson dates back to 1786 and now ranks among the world’s largest brewing companies. Its importance to Canuck culture is such that “Molson muscle” has entered the Canadian lexicon as slang for beer belly. But while Molson may be the most quintessentially Canadian brew (check out their I Am Canadian commercials if you’re in doubt), there are plenty of contenders for the title of best beer north of the border.
Vancouver, host of the 2010 Winter Olympics, is home to a thriving microbrew scene. Considering the proud beer-making tradition in Pacific Northwest cities like Portland and Seattle, Vancouver arrived relatively late to the world of craft brewing. The first microbrewery in all of western Canada opened in 1984 in the city’s Granville Island neighborhood, a one-time factory district reborn as a waterfront hub for bars and restaurants. Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, Granville Island Brewing built a reputation by offering full-flavored beers christened after local landmarks, like its English Bay Pale Ale (named after one of the city’s nicer beaches) and Cypress Honey Lager (named after the 2010 Olympic snowboarding venue).
Despite its success in the local market, Granville Island Brewing has remained true to its humble roots. I sign up for a Saturday brewery tour ($9.75) expecting a gleaming, modern operation, with bottles zipping off the assembly line. Instead, I’m crammed into a dimly lit workshop that smells like baking bread with about a dozen other guests. We munch on malted barley to find out where beer comes from, squeeze past leaky hoses to peer into the fermentation room and sniff fresh hops that, according to the knowledgeable guide, “smell a lot like cannibus” (This is British Columbia, after all).
While there are a few beer nerds in our ranks, anxious to show they know their Hefeweizens from their Dunkels, the group is pretty eclectic for a brewery tour, with older couples from China, a mom and daughter from Montreal and a couple visiting from Seattle. And, overall, the feel is different from that of a slick, choreographed tour in the U.S. After about a half-hour spent tracing beer’s epic journey from grist to mash to wort, we all pile out of the brewery for the tasting.
The tasting is held in Granville Island Brewing’s taproom, one of the more popular watering holes on the island. The price of the tour includes four, six-ounce beers – a deal, especially with the two-for-one coupon on the brewery Web site. I take a seat in front of four full glasses, each tinted a different shade of amber. After a few sips, any loyalties to Molson are wavering. I try an IPA, a honey lager and a special edition bitter. They’re all good, but one taste of Granville’s Maple Cream Ale and I’ve found a new favorite. It’s smooth, with a strong body and sweet finish. And the best part: It’s made with real Canadian maple syrup.
- Getting There:
- Granville Island Brewing is located in Vancouver’s Granville Island neighborhood, a waterfront center of markets, shops and restaurants. From downtown Vancouver, cross the Granville Street bridge to reach the island.
- Getting Around:
- The brewery is housed in a modest warehouse at the entrance to Granville Island. Parking can be hard to find, so try to arrive early on weekends and holidays.
- When to Go:
- Tours ($9.75, including four, six-ounce tasters) are offered seven days a week at noon, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. and last for approximately 90 minutes. Advance reservations are not taken, so arrive early to secure a spot.
- Sign up for Granville Island Brewing’s VIP club on their Web site for a two-for-one tour coupon.