When it comes to craft brewery patios, the struggle is real in Vancouver

Written by Rebecca Whyman

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Picture it—it’s warm, the sun is shining, the beer is cold (but not too cold) and you’re on a patio enjoying it all. If you live in Vancouver, you’d better get up really early in the morning if you want to make that picture a reality.

There are a lot of us in the city, and not a whole lot of patio seats.

Photo by Dan Toulgoet

If you count only craft-beer-serving establishments, the number is so low I could have gone out and sat in each seat in the time it took you to read this paragraph. Some hyperbole there, but the struggle is real—there is a paucity of patio seats in Vancouver.

I’m sure there are a number of reasons for the lack. But I’m equally as sure those reasons mostly fall under the “No Fun City” banner.
Think about all the craft beer serving patios in the city. Notice anything about them? They all boast a shiny Food Primary licence. Yup, that’s the magic ticket to getting a patio in the City of Vancouver.

But hang on—there are brewery patios in other places… Like up and down Murray Street in Port Moody, for example. Those folks don’t have Food Primary licences, do they? Lucky them, their city council doesn’t require them to. Their uber-supportive mayor also went to bat for breweries to change the zoning to allow patios. While Food and Liquor Primary licences are provincial, patios are municipally ruled. All municipalities are not created equal. PoMo 1, Vancouver 0.

In Vancouver, it boils down to pay to play. Only those who can afford it get to serve you beers in the elusive Vancouver sunshine.

It’s not that Food Primary licences are prohibitively expensive—a mere $950 application fee and a 12- week processing time versus the $4,400 application fee and 7-12 month processing time for a Liquor Primary licence—it’s more about that pesky little requirement of a fully equipped kitchen. Because space and capital aren’t at all tight in most breweries…

And then there’s that other thing. That whole “most brewers didn’t get into brewing to be restaurateurs” thing. They just want to make beer and earn a little money doing so.

Pay to play seems to work okay for the bigger guys. But what are the little guys going to do? If you’re Steve Forsyth from Off the Rail, you bug city hall every few weeks to ask how that review of the Food Primary only rule is coming. You get told the review won’t happen until later this year, but you keep the pressure on.

Is there any way around the Food Primary requirement? Currently, the only option is holding special events—up to 24 per year. Twice a month during the good weather you can have a beer garden, provided you have an appropriate outdoor space to hold it in. Not a great solution, but it might just tide some breweries over until the rules change (fingers crossed).

The need for a Food Primary licence aside, getting a permit for a sidewalk patio in Vancouver ain’t easy.

Among the 999 requirements: 2.43 metres (that’s eight feet for those of us not yet embracing metric) clearance for pedestrians from the patio to the nearest sidewalk obstruction. What’s a sidewalk obstruction? Street signs, parking meters, garbage cans, all those ubiquitous sidewalk features people will have to sidestep while walking merrily along. Apparently, we are a clumsy and easily distracted people, who need oodles of room to avoid crashing into stationary things. And that’s before we’ve sat out on a patio and gotten pleasantly buzzed.

The patio has to be capable of being removed with 24 hours’ notice. And if you want to serve alcohol on it, you’ll need a liquor license extension. And railings. And so on and so forth.

Then there’s what I fear is the nail in the coffin for tasting rooms already at capacity—the total number of guests including the patio can’t be greater than what is approved by their occupancy permit. For those already at their occupancy maximum, adding a patio won’t be a way to increase the number of people they can serve—it just gives some of them fresh(ish) air to sit in.

It’s a shame to see city folk having to head to the ‘burbs to sit on a patio (and take up all their seats). And when we resort to taking the future fast train to Portland in search of a patio, it’ll take money out of the local economy.

May I suggest that when you join Steve in his “open dialogue” with city hall, you add in advocating for drinking in parks. That might just ease the need for patio seats.

Or you could get a beer fridge on your balcony and just stay home.