Brewer vs. Brewer: Breaking down Victoria’s craft beer scene

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Victoria is the undisputed birthplace of craft beer in Canada — if not North America — but after years of innovation, the beer scene seemed to stall in the past decade. While Vancouver exploded with new breweries, new brewers and new styles, Victoria was slow to adopt the tasting room model. Prior to Île Sauvage’s opening six months ago, the city hadn’t seen a new craft brewery open in more than seven years.

Thankfully, that’s changing.

Matt Phillips of Phillips Brewing & Malting Co. (left) and Stephane Turcotte of Île Sauvage Brewing Co. (right) share a pint at the Phillips Brewing tasting room in Victoria. Photo by Meghan Goertz

The capital now has its first two craft beer tasting rooms at Phillips and Île Sauvage, with plans in the work for one at Vancouver Island Brewing, too. And there are finally new breweries on the way, with Whistle Buoy, Herald Street Brew Works, Merridale and the Hudson all expected to open in the next 12 months. With the newly-formed Victoria Beer Society bringing an ever-growing calendar of craft beer events to the city—including taking over the Great Canadian Beer Fest—it seems Victoria is poised to regain its title as the craft beer capital of Canada.

So it seemed like a good time to sit down with craft beer visionary Matt Phillips of Phillips Brewing & Malting Co. and plucky young upstart Stephane Turcotte of Île Sauvage Brewing Co. and talk to them about where Victoria’s beer scene has come from and where it’s headed.

Growler: Victoria has always been a big brewpub town, are people here finally coming around to tasting rooms?

Matt Phillips: Honestly, there’s not a big difference between a brewpub and a tasting room now.

Stephane Turcotte: We can sell guest taps now, you’re not limited to just your beer.

You can bring your kids into most brewpubs now, too.

Phillips: Brewpubs tend to have more of a food focus, they have TVs, and we want people to come in and focus on our beers. The focus [in a tasting room] is on the experience. Experiencing the beer and experiencing the culture [of craft beer], that’s the biggest thing.

Matt Phillips of Phillips Brewing & Malting Co. Photo by Meghan Goertz

In 2012, the provincial government finally allowed craft breweries to have tasting rooms and that led to a huge explosion of breweries opening in Vancouver, but not in Victoria. Why do think it’s taken so long for tasting rooms to catch on here?

Phillips: We all built our breweries before tasting rooms were even allowed. And for a lot of breweries here, they don’t have the space, even if they wanted to build a tasting room. Our tasting room used to be a doggy daycare. We had to wait for them to leave to build this, because we didn’t have the space either.

It seemed like the brewpubs started because there was this demand for craft beer, and tasting rooms weren’t allowed, so that was the only way to pour your own beer. And Victoria has a really strong pub culture here, there are some absolutely fantastic pubs in this town. So Victoria was so far ahead of the curve that brewpubs were well established by the time 2012 came around and everything changed. Tasting rooms in Vancouver were filling a void, while in Victoria, that void didn’t exist.

Turcotte: That was why we wanted to open with a tasting room. There was nothing like that in Victoria. That’s our whole business model.

That’s a very different business model than most Victoria breweries.

Phillips: It’s absolutely a different model. None of the Victoria breweries were built with a tasting room in mind. The environment is different, the margins are different.

How has the process been, opening up the tasting room? I’ve heard that things tend to move slowly here in Victoria.

Turcotte: We have had unanimous support at every step of the way, but it still took us more than a year and a half. There’s just a lot of hoops to jump through. We could have opened much earlier if we didn’t have the tasting room, but our intent was always to have one.

Phillips: It’s an arduous political process to go through. It’s punishing for a business to go through that. This industry is so completely governed by the whims of government, at every level, not just municipal.

The craft beer scene in Victoria has seen a lot of changes since Spinnakers first opened back in 1984. It seems like things are starting to change once again.

Phillips: I think for a long time, there hasn’t been much change, actually. It’s still a lot of the same people brewing from when I first started.

How would you describe the state of the Victoria beer scene right now?

Phillips: It’s a really healthy beer scene right now. The brewers still interact with each other, they call each other up if they’re having an issue. And that’s part of why the beer here is so good, is that there is so much collaboration.

Turcotte: We needed helping hands at some points and we got it. Before we opened we introduced ourselves to the other breweries in Rock Bay and we put Moon [Under Water], Hoyne and Driftwood on as guest taps. We were the young upstart in their hood, but they were all very welcoming.

Matt, what was the Victoria beer scene like when you first opened?

Phillips: It was very different, everything was very different back then. You could be a production brewery or a brewpub, and that was it. It was a totally different model. My first space was 1,300 sq. ft. commercial space in Esquimalt and I learned to weld so I welded my own fermenters on the loading dock and brought them inside, and even sold some. I had the brewer’s mentality of, if I have more tanks, I could brew more beer, cause I didn’t want to brew the same beer everyday. So then I launched Longboat [Chocolate Porter], Amnesiac [Double IPA] and Organic Pale Ale. That was when the fun started to happen, and it got us addicted to having too many brands, which we still do today.

Turcotte: I remember the first time I tried Longboat Porter when I was in UVic, and I remember thinking, this is the best beer I’ve ever had. Chocolate in a beer? It was crazy to me at the time.

Stephane Turcotte of Île Sauvage Brewing. Photo by Meghan Goertz

Victoria craft beer drinkers seem to be really well educated about beer, is that because of the pub and brewpub scene here?

Turcotte: Places like The Drake, for sure. For UVic kids today, that’s their local pub, and they’re getting exposed to amazing craft beer. So we’re seeing craft beer drinkers that are a lot more educated.

Phillips: I think Great Canadian Beer Festival has been a big part of that for a long time. People can go there and try beers from all over and that creates demand. But craft beer has always been a part of Victoria. If you go back a hundred years there were dozens of breweries here.

How does Victoria’s beer scene compare to other beer destinations?

Turcotte: I don’t think it’s more unique than places like San Diego or Portland, and that’s fine, I don’t think we have to be. We’re getting a lot of tourists and they’re seeking us out. A lot of people do come here for the beer.

• The Summer 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.