West Coast Journey: Driftwood Brewery

A few days after returning to Vancouver Island, we decided to visit the charming city of Victoria. Vancouver may be the powerful engine driving the current boom in craft beer, but Victoria is the historical and spiritual heart of brewing in B.C. The province’s oldest brewpub and the oldest independent brewery still operate here. In the city that has been called “more English than England”, British style ale has long been the craft beer of choice.

My wife having borrowed the car to go shopping for the day, I was on foot and determined to visit as many breweries as time and shoe leather would allow. Luckily Victoria is a very compact city, and several breweries were only a 20-minute walk from our hotel. So right after breakfast, I headed out.

Front door

The highly polished front door, made out of… what else… driftwood.

My first stop was Driftwood Brewery, creator of one of my favourite IPAs, Fat Tug. (I also like walking into a bar and seeing Driftwood’s tap handles: uncarved and untreated pieces of actual driftwood that look like they have just been picked up off the beach. But I digress…)

Located in a an industrial area, Driftwood’s low-key warehouse seemed to be definitely focussed on making beer, not on entertaining visitors. This impression was further reinforced when I stepped through the front door and found myself in a small lobby, talking to the administrator through one of those sliding glass windows you used to see in dentists’ offices. Uh-oh. No sampling bar in sight, and it turns out, they are usually only open to the public in the afternoon.


Some of Driftwood’s many 130 hL fermenters, and a steel truck filled with spent grain

However, craft brewers are usually fairly flexible when someone wants to talk shop, and in short order I was chatting with Jason Meyer, who had co-founded Driftwood five years ago.

It was a brew day, and Jason took me in to see their 30 hL brewhouse. One of his assistants was busy cleaning spent grain out of the lauter tun into a steel truck, using a rake system they had developed themselves; the container of grain would later be driven out outside with a forklift and transferred to a dumpster in the parking lot.

Most breweries today have to watch how much organic material such as yeast, wort and grain gets dumped down the drain, due to the extra biochemical oxygen demand (B.O.D.) placed on municipal water treatment systems. I was interested to find out that Victoria breweries don’t have to worry about this, since Victoria’s liquid waste gets dumped, untreated, into the Pacific Ocean. (Apparently the sewage treatment thing is a fairly controversial issue in Victoria.)

Driftwood started with two 25-hL fermenters, but those very rapidly proved inadequate to meet demand and have been replaced by a legion of 130-hL (quad batch) FVs. (One of the 25 hL FVs stands empty, the other has been re-purposed as a glycol reservoir for the FV cooling system.)

I was also interested to see that, despite their high production volume, Driftwood brewers were still mashing in using 20-kilo (50-lb) bags of grain (probably 12-13 per batch) rather than using bulk grain from a silo. As someone who has hefted my share of 20-kilo bags, I’m sure that a grain silo is high up on the Driftwood brewers’ Christmas wish list.

This is the Pacific northwest, so it comes as no surprise that Driftwood’s signature labels are a crisp northwest pale ale and the aforementioned Fat Tug IPA — winner of the Canadian Brewing Awards Beer of the Year in 2011. What is a surprise is that they are also enjoying great success with Belgian style ales, including a spicy farmhouse saison flavoured with black pepper, a light-bodied thirst-quenching wit, a dubbel and a tripel. (They also make an alt, a porter, and — I wish I had an opportunity to try this — a barrel-aged sour cherry ale conditioned with wild yeast.)

Driftwood is pushing the boundaries in quiet Victoria, and I look forward to seeing (and tasting) some of their future developments.

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