They say it’s a great time to be a craft beer lover in B.C., but you don’t have to drive far to discover we hosers are in fact getting hosed by a surprising lack of options for buying and consuming that sweet, sweet nectar. I recently took a road trip through Washington State, Oregon, California and Nevada and found that almost every town between Bellingham and Bakersfield had a bevy of options that doesn’t exist here — from breweries and bottle shops, to growler fills at bars, gas stations, and even pharmacies.
For those who aren’t familiar, bottle shops are like our own cold beer and wine stores — but on steroids. You can mix and match your own six-pack, fill a glass or a growler from a wide selection of breweries, even grab a cold one from the cooler and crack it open in-store. The shops also act as gathering places where suds-sippers can meet and mingle.
At first, I was only curious. But as the highway wound its way farther south, I became jealous. Even a rustic tavern in Crescent, Ore. — an unincorporated community of 581 people — welcomes travellers with a wooden statue of a sasquatch clutching a giant mug, and a sign reading: Now filling growlers. How could a world-class city like Vancouver be upstaged by a bump in the road 50 miles south of Bend?
Beer advocate Christopher Pierce, the man behind the popular @Portland_Beer Twitter account agrees: our corner of Cascadia has some catching up to do.
“It seems like everybody [in Oregon] is doing the growler fill thing,” he says. “Whether it’s your local grocery store, or there’s even some places that are like gas station-growler fill places, just little mom and pop shops.”
And don’t get him started on the selection at those stores.
“The place where I buy my meat and my bread and my pizzas, they’ve got between 900 and a thousand craft beers,” Pierce says. “They hired somebody who was a beer expert to run the place, and it’s a tiny grocery store, and everything’s refrigerated. It has a larger selection than any bottle shop that I think I’ve ever seen in Vancouver.”
I didn’t make it as far as Arizona on my trip, but the Park Plaza Liquor & Deli in Prescott is a perfect example of the kind of meccas we’re missing. The 15,000-square-foot property includes a liquor store, restaurant, bar and cigar lounge, with more than 1,000 beers. Fill growlers? Duh. Build your own six-pack? Yep. Purchase kegs? Why not! How about drink and smoke a cigar while you shop? WHAMMY.
So why don’t we have anything like that here? The new assistant manager of Firefly Fine Wines and Ales in Vancouver points to licensing, legislation and a lack of political will in B.C.
“No one’s running on a platform of ‘I’m going to free beer’ and I don’t think anybody ever will,” says Farees Kara. “Personally, I think what needs to be done is look at it as [an absence of] consumer advocacy. CAMRA was fantastic in B.C. in trying, but even they’ve gotten away from advocacy. There doesn’t seem to be any organization that’s willing to fight for the rights of consumers and to fight for what we want. It’s all about taxation and regulation.”
Kara says some local beer-based businesses have done a good job of expanding their offerings, like Jak’s Beer Wine Spirits. And he says the owners of Firefly are also taking a page from America’s playbook with plans for a major expansion of their Cambie Street location.
“We’re gonna make it a craft beer destination… a good third of the store will be craft beer,” he says. “It will be probably be one of the biggest spaces allocated to craft beer in Western Canada. Maybe all of Canada.”
He’s gunning for up to 5,000 sq. ft. of selling space. But of course, size isn’t everything.
“We plan to have taps,” says Kara. “We plan to have a private tasting room. So if a brewery wanted to come and do an event with some snacks and some beer, we’d be able to accommodate them, just like many places do for wine and spirits. We basically want to elevate beer to where wine is. There’s no reason why someone shouldn’t be able to come in and say, OK, you’ve got four taps, can I get a sample of each one before I buy some bottles?”
To find out what we’re missing, you don’t need to spend two weeks criss-crossing the West Coast like I did, or go all the way to Arizona. Just head to Bellingham, which is home to 13 breweries, a slew of dive bars and live music venues pouring local brews, as well as the famous Elizabeth Station bottle shop. But consider yourself warned: once you’ve had a taste of the craft beer experience in other parts of the Pacific Northwest, it will surely leave you thirsting for more.
- The Spring 2019 issue of The Growler is out now!You can find B.C.’s favourite craft beer guide at your local brewery, select private liquor stores, and on newsstands across the province.