Raise a glass: the brewers, winemakers and distillers of British Columbia

Raise a glass: the brewers, winemakers and distillers of British Columbia

Raise a glass: the brewers, winemakers and distillers of British Columbia

by Tom Shingler18 July 2017

B.C. is full of unique artisan producers, but it’s the province’s thriving drinks scene that really stands out. Tom Shingler visits three of the best.

Raise a glass: the brewers, winemakers and distillers of British Columbia

B.C. is full of unique artisan producers, but it’s the province’s thriving drinks scene that really stands out. Tom Shingler visits three of the best.

Tom Shingler is the former editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler was the editor at Great British Chefs until 2021, having first joined Great British Chefs in 2015.

Tom Shingler is the former editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler was the editor at Great British Chefs until 2021, having first joined Great British Chefs in 2015.

If there’s one thing I’d suggest to anyone visiting British Columbia, it’s this – make sure you arrive thirsty. I ate everything from deep-fried cheese curds to blowtorched salmon sushi when I was there, but what caught me by surprise was the sheer amount of locally made beers, wines and spirits on offer. Rather than being tucked away in specialist shops or only appearing at the more expensive end of a restaurant wine list, they were available everywhere we went, championed by people who really believed in them. And everything I tasted, from the potato-corn vodka and blueberry wine to spruce tip-infused beer, proved that this isn’t only a place full of artisan producers – it’s where some of the best booze in the world is made.

The second thing I’d suggest to anyone visiting British Columbia is to leave plenty of space to bring some of this booze back home, because it can be pretty hard to track down outside the country (or even the province). This is especially true for the wines made from grapes grown in the Okanagan Valley, which enjoys the same climate as California’s famous Napa Valley. Canadians know their wine is one of their best-kept secrets, and tend to keep the vast majority for themselves.

While touring B.C. I visited three drinks producers, each of which had different goals, philosophies and products, but they all had one thing in common – the drive to make something unique to their local area that tastes as good as it possibly can. Here are their stories.

Central City Brewing, Vancouver

Brewmaster Gary Lohin creates all the beers at Central City
The brewery's Red Racer IPA is one of the most popular craft ales in Canada

One thing’s for certain – craft beer in B.C. is huge. The UK’s certainly in the midst of an ale obsession right now, but it’s clear the Canadians have been developing their own beer scene for longer than we have (it also helps that B.C. produces some of the best hops in North America). Drinks menus don’t just have the country of origin next to the brewery name; they let you know what part of B.C. they’re from. And there are usually more than a dozen to choose from.

There are over 130 breweries in B.C., many of which are based in and around Vancouver – Canada’s craft beer capital. One that’s always been at the forefront of the scene is Central City, which over the past fourteen years has grown from a brewpub in Surrey (a suburb of the city) to a nationally acclaimed brewery with its own restaurant and bar in downtown Vancouver. I went along to see what brewmaster Gary Lohin is doing to celebrate Canada 150, a year-long celebration commemorating the country’s 150th birthday.

‘We thought it would be a cool idea to collaborate with a different brewery in each of Canada’s provinces and territories, except for Nunavut as we couldn’t find a brewery there,’ he tells me as we taste some of his signature brews, including a kettle-soured blackcurrant ale and his most popular, the Red Racer IPA. ‘We came up with twelve different beers which were all made at our brewery in Surrey but were conceived by different brewers across Canada to represent their local area.’

As well as producing Central City's core range, Gary also comes up with seasonal, limited edition brews throughout the year
For Canada 150, Central City collaborated with twelve other breweries from every province in Canada to create unique, regional beers

The beers are now available as a twelve-pack, which includes some of the most interesting brews I’ve ever tasted. Manitoba’s Half Pints Brewing Company created a saison flavoured with wild rice and wildflower honey, paying homage to the region’s rich farmland. Beau’s Brewing Company in Ontario used local peaches and white spruce tips (which can only be picked for a few weeks every spring) to create a completely unique pale ale. Garrison Brewing Company of Nova Scotia paid tribute to the province’s Scottish roots with a lightly peated Scottish ale. You get the idea – these are some seriously inventive brews that go way beyond the hop-heavy IPAs that are everywhere in the UK.

Central City’s beers – whether special collaboration brews or part of its core range – are available across Canada and in certain bars in the US, but it’s unlikely we’ll ever see them on the shelf in the UK. ‘I’d be too worried about how far they’d have to travel,’ says Gary. ‘Being in transit for that long would change the flavour.’ It goes to show that while the bigger North American breweries are keen to break into overseas markets whatever the cost, true craft brewers like Central City simply won’t compromise. And that means the only way you’ll get to taste their beer at its very best is by visiting their brewpub in downtown Vancouver.


Roots and Wings Distillery, Langley

Rebekah started Roots and Wings Distillery in early 2017 with her partner Rob Rindt
Vital Vodka, the distillery's first spirit, is made with both potatoes and corn

The most inspiring story of anyone I met during my trip to B.C. came from Rebekah Crowley, who with her partner Rob Rindt did what we all dream of doing – pack in the day job and follow our dreams. After visiting, I seriously looked into how I could emigrate to Canada and set up my own drinks business! Rebekah and Rob’s dream was to set-up their own micro-distillery, and rather than umming and ahhing over the risks and logistics, they went for it, setting up Roots and Wings Distillery in February 2017; the first of its kind in Langley, a largely agricultural region east of Vancouver.

The business was just a few months old when I visited, and the wooden walls of the new tasting room still smelled strongly of cedar. It’s a small operation, with just one building containing a tiny thirty-gallon copper kettle still, a basic bottling machine and lots of big plastic vats containing Roots and Wings’ flagship spirit, Vital Vodka.

The entire process takes place on the couple’s thirty-acre farm, which has been in Rob’s family for five generations. ‘He really liked potato vodka, I really liked corn vodka, and we knew we could grow both of them, so we decided to create a potato-corn vodka,’ says Rebekah. ‘I went on a week-long course that taught me the basics of distilling, and after I came back we started turning the old barn into a distillery and converted an old rental trailer into a tasting room. I read a bunch of books, left my job in IT sales, did a few practice distillation runs and then our first batch of Vital Vodka was ready.’

Rebekah and Rob grow the potatoes and corn needed to make the vodka on their farm, in fields just outside the stillhouse
Rob's farming background means he looks after the crops, while Rebekah is the master distiller

Being able to control the whole process – from growing the right variety of potatoes and corn to creating the mash and bottling on-site – Rebekah and Rob have the right to call their vodka ‘craft’. In the UK there’s no real regulations on what ‘craft’ means, but in B.C. it’s a whole different story. ‘To be able to call ourselves a craft distillery, all of our ingredients have to be from B.C. and we can’t produce more than 50,000 litres a year,’ explains Rebekah. ‘We also have to grow at least half of the potatoes and corn we plan to use ourselves.’ This might cause a headache for some artisan producers, but it worked perfectly for Rebekah and Rob – they set about planting six acres each of potato and corn in the field right outside the stillroom.

Roots and Wings is the definition of a craft distillery, producing a spirit that’s so small-batch and artisan it’s only available from the farm itself and a few bars and liquor stores around Langley. Rebekah is already moving into infusions, corn whiskey and gin, and has a larger still already on order from the US, but everything she produces is always going to be an expression of Langley’s agricultural landscape. For the time being at least, this is one spirit you’re only going to be able to taste in B.C.


LuLu Island Winery, Richmond

LuLu Island Winery uses state-of-the-art winemaking equipment to build on owner John Chang's eastern winemaking expertise
The winery owns vineyards in the Okanagan Valley, but sources the berries for its fruit wines within Richmond and Langley

It’s a shame that Canadian wine doesn't enjoy the same global recognition as wines from, say, New Zealand or California. It probably doesn’t help that only a small percentage is exported, which means finding a bottle in the UK can be tough – but that’s just testament to how good it can be. Ice wine (a type of dessert wine produced from naturally frozen grapes) is by far the most well-known, but more and more winemakers are using berries to create a quintessentially Canadian tipple that’s earning its place on wine lists across the country.

LuLu Island Winery is one such producer. As the biggest and newest winery in Richmond (a city just twenty minutes’ drive outside Vancouver) it creates fantastic wines of all kinds, including ice wines, reds and whites. But it was the fruit wines that really caught my attention. Made with blueberries from a farm literally over the road or raspberries from nearby Abbotsford, they’re nothing like the sugary liqueurs I thought they’d be. Instead, head winemaker John Chang (who emigrated to Canada from Taiwan in 1995) combines traditional eastern winemaking techniques with cutting-edge winemaking equipment from the west to create something very special.

The two most popular fruit wines are raspberry and blueberry, and are quickly becoming their most in demand products
As well as fruit wines, LuLu Island produces reds, whites and Canada's famous ice wine

Being based in Richmond (which was originally known as Lulu Island, hence the name) means the winery gets plenty of visitors to its tasting room, where you can try the different varieties for yourself. While the blueberry and raspberry wines are best served chilled as an aperitif, their delicate flavour and fruity, juicy taste means they can be served with food, too. A glass of blueberry wine served alongside some rich game, or even braising chicken in a splash of raspberry wine sounds delicious, and an incredibly local way of preparing a dish.

For me, however, the main reason to visit the winery, learn about the processes and (most importantly) taste the fruit wine is because it’s the perfect example of a business taking what’s on their doorstep and creating a wonderful product. You’d be hard put to find one of LuLu Island’s wines in the UK (although they’re quite popular in Asia), but I’m sure their blueberry wine can only be truly enjoyed when you’re sipping on it surrounded by giant wooden vats of the stuff and looking out onto the blueberry fields of Richmond.