A Gastown craft beer stumbling tour
Ready for a Stumble?
Vancouver may be among the most expensive beer drinking cities in the world, but fortunately, there are glorious quality ales available... if you know where to look.
Otherwise you'll miss out on the erstwhile BC craft brewery renaissance with world-class beers made locally by Howe Sound, R&B, Crannóg, Phillips, and more. Plus, resourceful importers are distributing micro-classics from the United States’ west coast mixed in with European standard-bearers which go beyond the basics. Are you missing out? If so, come along.
Railtown to Gastown
Amongst the steam clock and Gassy Jack statue photo-ops in cobble-stoned Gastown are plenty of bars, restaurants, nightclubs and cafes but many of them serve the same macro-beer swill and flaccid atmosphere found anywhere.
You'll need to scratch a little deeper to find the places which have substance to go along with the style. Pick the right door and you'll find beers from Cascadian brewmaster experiments, to west coast micro-classics, to Trappist ales with centuries of tradition.
To help out-of-towners and local alike, I created a tour of the spots I stop by en route from work in Railtown to the Seabus. The fine establishments in this tour range from almost dive-bars to almost gastro-pubs but all share a commitment to featuring (in some cases, exclusively) true craft handles.
All of the places serve food -- it’s the law, I think -- to keep your belly loaded and soak up all the sudsy goodness. But all the people here are on this route for their bevvies, not nibbles.
Follow the route closely and don't be tempted by long line-ups and glamorous patios or you'll be stuck with a disappointing beer served by someone who doesn't really know what they are serving. The route ends (or starts) with tall cans from the package store swilled at the (almost hidden) waterfront park while watching tugboats and float planes and reflecting on the porters, stouts, hefeweizens, IPAs, and abbey ales consumed on your route and this might be the best part.
On the edge of Railtown, the food and ambience are good but the 40-plus carefully selected draft and cask beers are even better with an ever-changing and elegantly curated variety of taps and casks with a focus on Cascadian beers – especially IPAs and limited runs.
Hopheads are in heaven here, but my current fave is the malty Bear Republic's Pete Brown Tribute Ale, or recently, coffee-rich HUB Organic Survival 7 Grain Stout. With so many top-end and strong beers, choosing can be hard. So ask your wise bartender for a "Frat Bat" of 4 tasters.
Check the chalkboard for the casks of the day – with no CO2, these beers are artisan and old-school and remember all the beers here are strong and excellent – be prepared for safe transport so you can really explore the list.
One particular Belgian gets this part of the Biercraft location on the map. This location has a few decent choices but go directly for Grimbergen – this Belgian beer will be served in a paired glass with 8 step prep and pour.
They've made this remarkable and heavy-duty treat since 1128 in a (waitforit) Premonstratensian monastery with a recipe protected from fires to wars. Note the great coaster collection too.
Quaint, cozy and fortified with a variety of European bottled treats with key locals... if you can grab a rare table. Settle in for a long sampling session and people watching with an R&B Raven Cream Ale in a big bottle or if you've never had the König Ludwig or Schneiderweisse hefeweizens from Germany, do so immediately – both are well textured and refreshing.
Since you are here, check a few more Trappist ales of the list with Duvel, Orval, and Chimay along for a few other Belgians but try to resist the urge to walk out with one of the handmade menus crafted from 1930s-era school books.
The Irish Heather
Hearty beers to go with sturdy food in a modern semi-gastro-pub setting. I was a sucker for the old spot because of the rickety chairs but with the Shebeen Whisk(e)y bar and Salty Tongue cafe combined, you have all your essentials including pot pies and shepherd's pie.
It's ostensibly an Irish pub, so Guinness or Kilkenny seem like the logical choices. But instead go with local Russel's Wee Angry Scotch Ale or look for the Howe Sound Rail Ale on tap here – made in Squamish, this nut brown is my go-to session beer.
I like divey but decent, and this landmark is the local equivalent of Star Wars’ Mos Eisley cantina filled with hostel backpackers, dope dealers, fried food and cheap beer – not as crafty as the others but completely devoid of any pretension.
The house Pale and Lager are made by local Russell and is cheap and serviceable but upgrade to the Russel Cream Ale or IPeh instead. The long benches ensure you get to know your neighbours whether you want to or not. Write your name in Sharpie on the table to prove you survived.
The Greedy Pig
I don't make it here as much as others, but friendly service, comfort food and a few solid tap handles make this a low-key getaway on busy nights. Sit at the bar, eat a grilled cheese sandwich or pickled quail eggs and watch a game in a non-sports bar atmosphere.
I enjoy Okanagan Spring Brewmaster Black Lager here – the best choice from an otherwise rather boring brewery (though I also like their Porter too).
Often packed with tourists but worth crowding in for the six-plus brews which are rotated to work in seasonal ales (and to stay up with demand). The Nirvana Nutbrown and Coal Porter are the front runners for me (the porter rotates with the Heroica Stout).
Skip the patio and head all the way downstairs for a pub-style area with pool tables and fireplaces but if waiting for the SeaBus, grab a seat at the mezzanine level bar, pay cash and keep an eye on the vessel arriving for a quick getaway.
Rogue Kitchen and Wetbar
Located in Waterfront Station with relatively-safe but solid choices – complete with tasting notes – make Rogue ideal for bringing your no-beer-geek pals (if you have any).
Go right for the prize with Crannóg's Backhand of God Stout which will teach you that God does love you and that's why she created beer. Order easy quaffing locals like Central City's Red Racer ESB, Deschutes Mirror Pond or Howe Sound's Garabaldi Honey Pale Ale for indecisive friends.
Still standing? Keep it going... Find the Wine Thief beer and wine store in front of Steamworks and load up your pockets with tall cans of Tree Brewing's Thirsty Beaver (which go down quick) or go pro with the Holsten Maibock which is strong and sweet. Then, walk across through the station towards the Seabus and zip out the Heliport exit towards Crab Park.
This mellow, underknow waterfront park makes a nice chill out to start or end the tour with a swill on the dock while watching tugboats toiling and float planes landing and classic railcars alongside commuters and boxcars. Head into your beloved Vancouver back over the lil' bridge at the north end of Main St. to complete your lap.
Tour: Follow my route in a free iPhone app called Urban Dig which includes a collection curated tours by renegade locals from LA to Vancouver. The tour includes my notes (with some hidden tips) plus photos and map. Be sure to "like" it.