B.C.’s Best Beer, Cider, and Fruit Wines

October 7, 2008

The past year brought the opening of two artisan distilleries to join Frank Deiter’s pioneering Okanagan Spirits. Winchester of Winchester Cellars launched Victoria Gin in high colonial style at the Empress Hotel’s Bengal Lounge while Rick Pipes at Merridale Estate Cidery opened his “Brandihouse” with apple and blackberry eaux de vie. Looking to 2009: a gin from Matt Phillips of Victoria’s Phillips Brewing and perhaps a Vancouver Island whisky—two more B.C. beverages to boast about.

Crannóg Ales Back Hand of God Stout

$80 / 18l Keg | specialty listing

One of the best reasons for a beer fridge is to buy a party pig of one of the Crannóg Ales. Otherwise only available on draught, this certified-organic farmhouse brewery uses the water from its well and grows its own hops and fruit. The brewery waste then feeds the pigs, the chickens, and the sheep, which in turn provide the compost for the hops and the fruit. The Back Hand of God Stout is dark brown with nicely toasted malt, lovely chocolate flavours, and an appetizing dry finish. Try on tap at the Alibi Room or Figmint.

Elephant Island Orchard Wines Pear Wine 2007

$15.90 | private wine stores

Come the fall, one of the best first courses is a salad of Okanagan pears with Tiger Blue from Naramata's Poplar Grove Cheese. A Sauvignon Blanc would taste pretty good with it, but even better would be the Pear Wine from Elephant Island just along the road from where the cheese is made. Elephant Island is the only fruit winery in B.C. that consistently turns out seriously drinkable fruit wines. This one's completely dry, clean, and crisp and gloriously full of pear flavours.

Howe Sound Brewing Rail Ale

$6.95 / LITRE BOTTLE | specialty listing

An inn, a bistro, and a bakery as well as a brewery, Howe Sound Brewing is a Squamish success story that's finally got its beers, packaged in old-fashioned pop-top litre bottles, into the LDB. The Rail Ale is a consistent favourite, named for one of Squamish's major attractions, the nearby Railway Heritage Park, a mellow, nut brown ale made with barley and oats. The light hoppiness is balanced by the sweet roasted malt, finishing with pleasant chocolate flavours.

Merridale Estate Cidery Somerset Cider

about $16 | private wine stores

A serious contender for the best B.C. cider, the Somerset is an English variant on a champagne-style cider. Small, persistent bubbles, extreme dryness, bracing acidity, and low tannins (even though it's been aged for a year) make this cider delicious. Bung a chicken on a bed of cut-up apples and onion in a casserole with a cup of the Somerset and roast for an hour at 200 C while you drink the rest of the bottle. Take the lid off and raise the heat a bit to brown the chicken. Open another bottle and enjoy the sheer appleness of it all.

Mt. Begbie Brewing High Country Kölsch

$4.50 / 650 ML | specialty listing

Lee Valley sells the 200-ml glasses traditionally used in Cologne to keep the city's light, hoppy, top-fermented kölsch perfectly fresh. And Revelstoke's Mt. Begbie makes exactly the right beer to go in them. Even without the perfect glass, this is delicious and unusual, fresh and lemony, with a biscuit sweetness followed by a hoppy finish that makes it stand up to food as well to the thirsty days of summer. Good for lunch with a cold sausage.

Phillips Brewing Company IPA

$11.95 / SIX PACK | general listing

One of the best things about Victoria is the beer. Four brewpubs and three microbreweries all produce fresh beer from mainly local ingredients. Matt Phillips now has a new, expanded brewery on Government Street, letting him continue to experiment with a changing lineup of eight or so beers, most of them available in bottle from the LDB. The IPA is unfiltered, unpasteurized, and naturally carbonated, orange-gold with a big hit of tangy, floral hops up front, lots of orange and grapefruit flavours, and a long yeasty finish that tames the bite. A very good Northwest IPA.

Okanagan Spirits Canados

$45 | specialty listing

Frank Deiter gave up a career in the forest industry to wrestle with bureaucracy and taxes and set up B.C.'s first artisan distillery in Vernon. Inspired by the thousands of distilleries around Lake Constance-the home of Black Forest cake-he now makes more than a dozen different products from apples, crab apples, cherries, chokecherries, grapes, apricots, peaches, plums, and pears, as well as grappa, absinthe, and aquavit, winning numerous awards with them in Europe. The barrel-aged Canados surpasses most of the Calvados in the LDB.

Osake Junmai Nama

$27 | direct

The red-label artisan saké from Masa Shiroki's tiny saké studio on Granville Island's Railspur Avenue is the one he makes in quantity and so the easiest to find. It's easy to drink, too-pale yellow, crisp and lively, streaked with citrusy minerality and loaded with Asian pear, apple, and peach. Shiroki likes it with charcuterie from the market's Oyama Sausage but it's also excellent with Dungeness crab or a Tojo-inspired salmon glazed with miso, ginger, green onion and a dash of Junmai Nama.

Sea Cider Kings & Spies 2007

$12 / 500 ML | private wine stores

The Kings are one of the oldest B.C. heritage apples and the Spies are Northern Spies, a more recent variety. In 2006, they were the main varieties harvested by LifeCycles Fruit Tree Project in Victoria for the newly opened Sea Cider from fruit that would otherwise rot on the ground. The 2007 blend is a bit different with a few more mystery varieties, but the name remains. Pale yellow, just off-dry, bursting with apple flavours, it matches up well with smoked meat or hot smoked salmon and local goat cheese.

Winchester Estate Victoria Gin

$49 | specialty listing

Just down the road from Sea Cider, Ken Winchester makes good Pinot Noir as well as B.C.'s first artisan gin. Floral and fragrant, the latter is a shock to anyone used to the major brands, even the premium ones, as rose petals dominate the usual juniper. Winchester distills 10 local botanicals-and one secret one-to give it heady, perfumed aromatics that knock you out before you've even taken a sip. Try it, in true colonial style, in the Empress Hotel's Bengal Lounge or find it at the Strath Ale, Wine and Spirit Merchants in Victoria or direct from the winery.

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