By Kathy Mak
Baby, it’s cold outside! The best thing you can do is hoist a few wintry beers and cheers to chase the chill away. Winter beers, affectionately called “winter warmers”, are typically stouts and porters that are more robust – richer, bolder, creamier, and hoppier in style with a deeper hue appearance. They also tend to be higher in alcohol by volume (ABV) to keep you warm! Comforting flavours can range from hints of toffee, caramel, chocolate and molasses to smokiness. Some winter beers have spicy or sweet notes, while the more serious brews are barrel-aged. Unlike their summery counterparts, winter beers are sipped, not guzzled, and taste better around 7-10o C instead of icy-cold.
In Vancouver and the valley, microbrewers have been busy crafting some of the most innovative seasonal specialities. Touted as the craft beer mecca of Canada, with over 50 artisanal breweries, there is an abundant of choices to warm and wet your whistle! To get you started, although it’s only the tip of the iceberg, here are five of the buzziest microbreweries that offer tastings and West Coast crafted winter suds…all within easy beer hopping distance of each other in East Vancouver, better known as Yeast Van!
310 Commercial Drive, Vancouver
For over 20 years, James Walton (founder and Brewmaster) has been unstoppable in brewing up a storm of unpretentious and innovative craft beers. It’s not unusual to find him experimenting with 6-7 new beers every week! Since 2013 alone, James has masterminded over 90 impressive tasty brews in small batches. All Storm Brewing beers are unfiltered and free of additives. Although they don’t have a formal tasting lounge, visitors are always welcome to drop by and sample beers. Winter warmers include the smooth, rich and roasty Black Plague Stout (8.5% ABV) and the Eye of the Storm Barley Wine (12% ABV), which is fresh and complex with residual sweetness.
For this winter, James has big news! He has launched a one-of-a-kind beer of mammoth proportion, aptly named Glacial Mammoth Extinction (25% ABV). It’s made by freezing sour beer to -30oC in two stages within a month. The sweet alcoholic liquid that separated from the ice was then aged in French oak barrels for two years. The outcome is a sweet, rich, dark, and viscous 100% malt drink that is more Port-like than beer. You’ll be rewarded with a taste profile that is initially sweet, followed by flavours like prunes and muscatel grapes. Glacial Mammoth Extinction is thought to be the first beer of its type in the world and has already been named Canada’s most expensive 1L bottle of beer. The price tag is a cool $1000, because the bottles are hand blown glass and adorned with a pendant of ivory from the tusk of a prehistoric mammoth estimated to be 35,000 years old. Two East Vancouver artists (Brad Turner and Richard Marcus) were responsible for designing and creating the limited edition artisan bottles and ivory pendants. Only 10 are available. The unique beer can be purchased separately in growler fills or in 1oz tasters at the brewery; but available in limited quantities.
Powell Street Craft Brewery
1357 Powell Street, Vancouver
This small independent microbrewery, focused on handcrafted beers using all natural ingredients, is owned and operated by husband and wife team – David Bowkett and Nicole Stefanopoulos. After opening in 2012, they stunned the beer world by winning a Beer of the Year award in the Canadian Brewing Awards and the gold medal in the North American Style Pale Ale category (2013) for their Old Jalopy Pale Ale. They quickly expanded to accommodate the demand following their overnight success. Powell Street’s new and larger brewery offers a cozy tasting room with eight fantastic beers for growler fills and on tap for tasting as a sampler, by the glass or in a flight (4). For winter, the Enigma Stout (6% ABV) was released in a single batch and expected to last until February. Liken to an American-style stout, its dark, rich, malty body with firm bitterness and bright roast flavours (espresso and chocolate) make this a truly unique beer.
Off The Rail Brewing
1351 Adanac Street, Vancouver
While the brewery is fairly new, the owner, Steve Forsyth, is no stranger to the beer market. After running the Railway Club (a popular music venue) for 25 years, Steve trained in hop farming and brewing before opening Off The Rail in Feb 2015. In a short period, the microbrewery has established an impressive reputation and range of hand crafted beers, of which some are made from organic hops. Five beers are the backbone of the brewery, but visitors can taste and buy about 15 rotating beer varieties on tap in their tasting lounge.
Bringing comfort in the colder months, their Old Winston Smoked Porter (5.4-5.6% ABV) is like a winter sweater in a glass! It has a balance of mild smoked flavour with smooth rich coffee and chocolate notes. But possibly cozier is the Black Oat Stout (4.2% ABV), a heavier, creamier and nutter winter warmer that gives off a touch of sweetness along with a mild hop bitterness. Then, there’s the new Eastbound and Brown (5.5% ABV), a dark ale with a kick of chocolate malt and a tinge of sweetness.
1388 Adanac Street, Vancouver
Bomber Brewing was founded on a shared love of hockey by three close friends. Don Farion, Dean Mallel and Cam Andrews are now at the helm of one of the city’s newest and more notable microbreweries, named after their recreational hockey team. A roster of eight beers is on tap in their inviting tasting room. Within the expanding repertoire of beers, be sure to sample their Gold Medal winning Pilsner and Absolute Horizon CDA. But, in this season of mitts and toques, it is their winter warmers that will charm you, these are – the Choqlette Porter (5.5% ABV) and the Old Fat Heater Winter Ale (8% ABV). Bolder chocolaty flavours and rich roasted malts meet in this porter. The Ale, on the other hand, has notes of caramel, dates and figs shining through. With 8% alcohol content, it will most certainly heat you up from the inside!
Strange Fellows Brewing
1345 Clark Drive, Vancouver
Celebrating the strange and creating products that are far from the ordinary are what makes this microbrewery stand out from the others. The co-founding fellows are Iain Hill and Aaron Jonckheere, strangers who became brewing partners with a common love for creating unique and inspiring beer. Their boutique brewery includes a stylish tasting lounge/art gallery with rotating works of art exhibits and eight beers on tap. Once a month they organize a strange or special event.
For their beers, Strange Fellows is known for their sour style of beers and the use of wood in their beer making process (eg oak barrels and tanks) which provides a natural way for micro-oxygenation but can also help to smooth the texture of the beer and add flavour. Two of their winter delights may appeal to cold-weather fans, these are the Blackmail Milk Stout (4.5% ABV) and the Krampusnacht (9% ABV). The former is a dry Irish-style milk stout with added lactose for a creamier beer. It also has touches of dark chocolate and coffee tones. On the much darker side, the Krampusnacht is a Belgium abbey dubbel. It’s a stronger style of beer and its complexity comes from the double brewing. The dubbel is more malty than hoppy in nature because Belgian dark malts and candy sugar are used. Expect rich, dark stone fruit flavours and a slightly sweet finish. As the owners are not afraid to celebrate strangeness in each of us, the name was inspired by a scary folklore figure, Krampus, who kidnaps and punishes naughty children during the Christmas season. With an alcohol content of 9%, and other beer tastings under your belt, you’ll likely be merrier than stranger after this visit!
The above is a teaser of all the possible winter warmers available in Vancouver and the Valley during the chiller months between November and March. You can find a larger listing of breweries from the BC Craft Brewers Guild, The Ultimate Vancouver Craft Beer Brewery List (BC Magazine), or The Growler (a craft beer handbook). Instead of hibernating this winter, try sampling winter beers to warm your soul during the cooler days and longer nights!
Images courtesy of Storm Brewing, Powell Street Craft Brewery, Off The Rail Brewing, Bomber Brewing, and Strange Fellows Brewing.