by Yasmine Shemesh
VANCOUVER – Nine years ago a group of craft beer enthusiasts gathered at one of their favourite local watering holes — the Alibi Room — and decided to dedicate an entire week to one of the Vancouver’s now not-so-best-kept secrets: really great craft beer. In their inaugural year, Vancouver Craft Beer Week was a seven-day festival with a headcount of just 100 people. Today, VCBW has grown to cover 10 full days featuring more than 100 participating craft breweries and cideries and events throughout the whole city, including dinner pairings at restaurants and bars like Jackalope’s Neighbourhood Dive, and live music events. This year promises an estimated number of 20-25,000 attendees.
“The craft beer scene has exploded,” says festival director and co-founder Leah Heneghan. “When we first started, I think there was about 50 or 60 breweries in the whole province. This year, we are over 170. It’s almost difficult to keep track of all of them as they keep opening so quickly, which is pretty fantastic. I think one of the really great things about our scene here is how good the beer is. The breweries here are really putting out world class beers and we’ve caught up in that way really quickly to some of the folks who have been doing it a lot longer.”
Participating breweries range widely from downtown staples Parallel 49 and Strathcona Beer Company to gems like Vancouver Island’s Tofino Brewing Company and Gibsons’ Persephone Brewing Company. There will also be about 20 to 30 international breweries featured due to VCBW’s partnership with the American Brewers Association. “They choose one festival in Canada to work with each year and this is their third year with us, so we’re pretty happy about that,” Heneghan says. “Some people don’t enjoy the fact that we have American breweries up here at our festival necessarily, but I think it’s a very good opportunity to showcase how awesome our beer is. What we’re making up here is definitely comparable [to the States’ longstanding craft beer tradition] and it’s definitely in the same category.”
In fact, VCBW has also made changes to their participation guidelines to showcase only the best of the best. “Because there are so many new craft breweries in BC, we really wanted to open it up to the independent folks,” explains Heneghan. “So now, in order to actually participate, you have to be an independent brewery, so you can’t be owned by any of the larger beer corporations, which, unfortunately, cut out a couple of our breweries that have been supporters of us from the very beginning. It was a difficult decision to make, but it seemed to be the only way forward.”
Community, though, is perhaps the strongest ingredient in Vancouver Craft Beer Week. “It’s really collaborative and everyone supports each other in everything they’re doing rather than having a really competitive environment,” Heneghan says. “Everybody’s friends and they’re working together, which I think is really special.” The annual Official Beer epitomizes this component with a collaboration brew developed specially for the festival by a handful of breweries. This year, Backcountry Brewing, Beere Brewing, and Coast Mountain Brewing joined forces to create a Double Dry Hopped Pilsner.
“For the past few years, we’ve really been wanting to tie in something around the Sea to Sky Highway, because there’s breweries up in Whistler now, there’s a few breweries in Squamish, and more have opened up in North Van as well,” Heneghan expands. “So that was kind of the idea behind this, was really bringing in people who were just outside of Vancouver, but close still, and opening it up to that. And who doesn’t like to show off that beautiful stretch of road between here and Whistler? Beere Brewing, Backcountry Brewing, and Coast Mountain Brewing are all kind of known for their hoppier styles of beer, so that landed us in a Double Dry Hopped Pilsner. It’s a little bit of a stronger Pilsner. [Traditional Pilsner] can be quite hoppy, which is expected from a lot of people in that style because it is very close to a lager and it’s the lager family. We’re playing on the hops, bringing in more hop flavour and it’s a little bit of a higher ABV [alcohol by volume] as well. So enjoy, but enjoy responsibly!”
Partial proceeds from the Official Beer will be donated to the Eastside Boxing Club’s Self Defense Series, for all female-identifying members of the community. “We really wanted to support what they were doing and help them to keep this class free and open it up for more people,” Heneghan says. “We really love working with Eastside Boxing Club. They have a lot of fantastic initiatives and the fact that this is female-forward and female identifying-forward, it was a really important cause for us to get on board with.”
Vancouver Craft Beer Week runs from May 25-June 3.beer, brewing, local, Vancouver Craft Beer Week