How Vancouver’s craft beer scene is reshaping the city

And our interactions with each other

June 22, 2016

By Jan Zeschky / Photo: David Strongman

Barry Benson remembers what Mount Pleasant was like back when it didn’t quite live up to its name. He remembers how prostitutes frequented the streets and used needles littered the lanes, and how he found the retractable door at R&B Brewing bent upward by a thief who stole a bike belonging to Rick Dellow, Benson’s co-founder of the brewery at Fourth and Quebec.

“Back then it was a little grittier…certainly not somewhere you’d leave your car overnight,” Benson says. “The whole Olympic Village was nothing: it was flatlands, undeveloped, so there wasn’t a lot of population or transportation; there was no place to go for lunch, no restaurants.”

Main Street Brewing Company

These days, though, it’s much more appealing to stroll around the neighbourhood, one that’s been reshaped both by residential development and the businesses that have followed. You’ll occasionally catch a whiff of the warm, bready aroma of spent grain, and instead of streetwalkers you’re more likely to see beer drinkers moving from one tasting lounge to the next. That’s because the neighbourhood’s mixed-use zoning has attracted craft breweries to the area, and they’ve brought with them a new kind of drinking establishment: the tasting lounge. In the process, they’ve given the city back something that it’s lacked since before Prohibition: a neighbourhood pub culture.

That culture is booming, too. Where three years ago only R&B Brewing occupied the one square kilometre straddling Main Street, today there are seven operating in the area. That reflects a broader trend city-wide, where 10 breweries in 2013 will become 27 by the end of this year. Craft beer had been growing in popularity before 2013, but the floodgates fully opened in March that year, when the B.C. government allowed breweries to apply for a lounge endorsement. That’s one reason why, despite being the oldest brewery in Mount Pleasant (it was established in 1997), R&B only just recently opened its own lounge after tenants vacated an adjacent unit. The new room is a stylishly lived-in space that serves up fresh pizza and R&B’s beer range while music wafts from a wall of retro speakers hooked up to an eight-track.“The attitude with this place is very comfortable,” Benson says. “Come in, try some different beers, and leave happy; don’t try to force an attitude on anyone.”

That could be the motto of any of the new tasting lounges. Step inside one on any given evening and you’ll notice two things: how busy it is, and how different the experience is to a typical North American bar. Most will have you order at the bar, you can stand with your drink, children are welcome, televisions are anathema, and long tables foster interaction—even in Vancouver. “You have a better chance of socializing at a brewery than in a pub,” says Ken Beattie, executive director of the B.C. Craft Brewers Guild. “They’ve become the neighbourhood meeting place, with the same mystique that a British pub has; the British pub culture of little neighbourhoods all having their little local.”

This concept has probably found its fullest expression—but in a thoroughly West Coast style—at 33 Acres Brewing Co., which has developed into a one-stop hub that both serves and collaborates with its community. When owner Josh Michnik brought aboard a gorgeous Slayer coffee machine and switched the brewery’s opening hour to 9:00 a.m., it meant you could drop by in the morning for a latte and then swing by for a beer later. Its locally sourced food options have grown from beer snacks to charcuterie plates and beer waffles, and it even offered drop-in yoga classes at one point. Oh, and want some 33 Acres apparel? It’s made three blocks away by CYC Design Corporation. “It might sound cheesy, but I don’t look at 33 Acres as a brewery,” Michnik says. “It’s much more than that. It’s a neighbourhood hub, or starting place. Beer and coffee are a catalyst to collaboration. It’s something that can start a conversation that we all meet over, but in turn will always lead to discussions about a project or neighbourhood, community, or whatever else.”

Powell Street Craft Brewery
Powell Street Craft Brewery

For an even better gauge of how craft breweries are bringing neighbourhoods to life, head to the area now known as “Yeast Van”—specifically the sector sandwiched between Hastings and Powell. It’s a curious part of Vancouver, where quaint homes are nestled beside small industrial plants and the views are dominated by the dinosaur-like cranes of Port Metro Vancouver. In years past, there was little reason to walk through this part of the city unless you were a longshoreman. That was, until Parallel 49 Brewing Company set up on Triumph Street in 2012. Like Benson, Parallel 49 head brewer Graham With remembers witnessing “crazy” goings-on in the alley behind the brewery. He recalls how he’d start every 6:00 a.m. shift by making as much noise as possible to scare away any lurkers on the other side of the brewery’s bay doors.

But soon, the street dwellers stopped coming back as the neighbourhood began to change. A nearby JJ Bean café saw a big uptick in weekend sales after the brewery’s tasting room opened, With says. Powell Street Craft Brewery opened two blocks away in late 2012, and its pale ale ended up winning beer of the year at the Canadian Brewing Awards a few months later. (The brewery could barely keep up with demand.) Odd Society Spirits opened its own cocktail lounge. The Scandilicious waffle house opened around the corner and was soon joined by bistros Wagon Rouge and Kessel & March. New breweries like Callister Brewing and Doan’s Craft Beer Company, as well as stalwart Storm Brewing, have also opened their doors to the public in what used to be an almost-abandoned industrial area. This previously unknown corner of Vancouver has become a destination where many quality establishments are connected by a short walk, and foot traffic begets more foot traffic, With says. “People like to go downtown because there are people around. In an area like this, you see people walking around to the breweries, and it’s people of different demographics. You’re kind of like, ‘Oh, I’ll go down there, too.’”

NPA city councillor George Affleck shares the belief that breweries have revitalized this neighbourhood, particularly because of the area’s compact nature. The councillor was instrumental in encouraging city council to create zoning for brewery lounges, and he describes Vancouver as a city that’s focused more on foot traffic than vehicle traffic. “We’ve been trying to build neighbourhoods that are distinct,” he says. “We’re building them so you don’t have to drive to the mall to get your groceries. I think that sets us up for these kinds of cultural experiences like coffee and beer, and in that respect we’re perfectly designed to complement a new kind of trend like [brewery lounges].”

Off The Rail Brewing Co.
Off The Rail Brewing Co.

Combine pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods with the growing push to buy local and it’s easy to see the brewery lounge’s appeal. More importantly, perhaps, the tasting-lounge experience offers an increasingly rare physical connection to a product and the people who make it and enjoy it, Ken Beattie says. In this age of digitally enabled instant gratification there’s something special about being able to go to the source, take your time enjoying something tactile, and share your experience directly with others—one of whom might well be the owner or brewer. It’s a modified form of social lubrication beyond simply getting drunk. And in a city where loneliness and isolation is a common complaint, that might be the best feature of all. “People always say Vancouver is a hard city to meet people,” Beattie says. “But I think those walls are being torn down if you happen to be in the beer community.”

See our Craft Beer Awards winners here >>

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