West Coast Journey: Spinnaker’s Brewpub

After spending several hours walking from my Victoria hotel to four breweries and back again, I thought my day as a pedestrian was finished. However, as I arrived back at the hotel, I got a message from Elaine that shopping was taking longer than expected and she would be another hour.


Bakery in downtown Victoria has the craft brew vibe.

Another hour? Hmmm. A quick visit to the internet told me that I was a 20-minute walk from Spinnaker’s Gastro Brewpub. Twenty minutes there, twenty minutes to drink a pint, twenty minutes back, would be…. hey, exactly an hour.  The universe was displaying a synchronicity that I dared ignore only at my peril.

Back outside into the sun and down the street towards Victoria’s beautiful Inner Harbour. As I walked, I came across an amusing sidewalk sign outside a bakery that said much about how craft beer has entered B.C.’s culinary landscape: “White cheddar & beer muffins!”

I was so amused, I went inside and bought one. Who can resist the power of advertising?

Inner Harbour

Victoria’s Inner Harbour framed by the distant Olympic Mountains.

I reached the Inner Harbour and walked across the Johnson Street Bridge, a lift bridge built way back in 1924 that allows small boats access to the inner reaches of Victoria’s waterways. The view of the provincial legislature framed the white-capped peaks of Washington state’s distant Olympic Mountains tempted me to stop and gaze. However, the sun was hot and cold beer was calling so on I strolled.

Spinnaker's Gastro Brewpub, Victoria

Spinnaker’s Gastro Brewpub, Victoria

The internet proved to be right again — after twenty minutes, I was indeed standing outside the oldest brewpub in Canada,a friendly-looking place in a very pleasant upscale neighbourhood. When the hostess found out I was there for a pint, she suggested I head upstairs to the second-floor lounge, since they were just about to tap a special one-off cask of something called Choco-holic Porter to which Bailey’s Irish Cream had been added. Who could say no to that? I asked if I could speak, brewer to brewer, with someone regarding the brewhouse and she assured me she would try to find someone.


The upstairs lounge at Spinnaker’s: cool, dim, play-off hockey on the TV. Very civilized.

The upstairs lounge proved to be a wonderfully dim and cool refuge, its only nod to the modern world a flat screen TV. That was actually okay by me, since it was showing play-off hockey, and this is Canada, eh? (And I must say, I have come to appreciate the 3-hour time difference between here and central Canada — it means that evening games in the east are only late afternoon games here , a very civilized reason to take off from work early and head to the pub.)

Within minutes a cool pint of cask-conditioned Choco-holic Porter was sitting in front of me. Wow: chocolate, followed by more chocolate, with a chocolate finish. Well worth the walk.

A few sips in, Tommie Grant appeared at my elbow. Tommie is one of the brewers here — he started as a cellarman, and worked his way into the brewhouse. I offered to buy him a pint, but Tommie was a busy man. With B.C.’s recent surge in craft beer, the brewers at Spinnaker’s don’t have a lot of spare time. As  busy as he was, Tommie did have time to fill me in on the system.

Back in 1984, you couldn’t get a small brewing system manufactured in these parts, so the 8-hectolitre brewhouse was actually shipped all the way from Jolly Olde England. Over the years, of course, there have been upgrades and additions — especially more fermenters — but the basic layout remains the same. The system is electrically heated, with four open fermentation tanks, seven conditioning tanks and a legion of secondary conditioning and serving tanks. True to the British tradition, the secondary tanks are in a serving cellar underneath the bar, from whence the beer is hand-pumped up to daylight via “beer engines” (the long-handled bar pumps you see in old episodes of All Creatures Great and Small). Because Spinnaker’s doesn’t filter their beers, they use über-flocculating varieties of yeast that quickly fall to the bottom of the fermenter when they are finished their appointed rounds.

For many years, you had to come to Spinnaker’s to drink their beer — and from my vantage point in the second-floor lounge, looking across the Inner Habour, why wouldn’t you want to come for a pint? My beer was so good, I was seriously considering heading outside and looking around the neighbourhood for a house to buy. However, for those who might not live close enough to drink there all there time, Spinnaker’s added a 650 mL bottling line several years ago, a growler filler, and even a canning line. Amazing.

Tommie looked busy, so I thanked him for his time, and asked the server for my bill — I could just make it back to the hotel by my 60-minute deadline if I walked at a brisk clip. While I was waiting for my bill, someone else appeared at my elbow and introduced himself — it was the owner, Paul Hadfield, who got this whole thing going back in 1984. We chatted about the upcoming Canadian Brewing Awards, which were happening right there in Victoria in a few days. It sounded like Spinnaker’s was going to be the centre of the beer universe for a couple of days. Paul departed for a moment, and quickly returned bearing a few samples of various ales that were currently on tap.  Although unfiltered British-style ales are what Spinnaker’s has specialized in for the past 28 years, they have added a Belgian tripel and a kölsch to their regular line-up, as well as a lower strength sessionable IPA, several American-style northwest ales, a couple of stouts (including the Choco-holic I had just finished), and a Cascadian dark ale.

About this time, someone else showed up at my elbow — Paul’s daughter Kara, who is a brewer at the pub. They both confirmed the impression I’d gotten from Tommie — with the boom in craft beer sales, Spinnaker’s small brewery was going pretty well all day and night, and was probably closing in on its theoretical full annual production. (In 2012, they brewed 2500 hL — that’s six batches per week every week of the year.)  As well as upgrading the packaging line, Paul is also planning to open a larger brewery somewhere on the Island in the next year or so.

As I chatted to Kara for a few minutes, Paul returned with a sample of their dry-hopped IPA — ambrosia of the gods, really.  I wept silent tears of joy. (I had long ago given up on the whole 60-minute deadline thing.)

Kara had to get back to work, but she had only just left when Paul introduced me to John Rowling, a regular contributor to Celebrator Beer News. We chatted for a few minutes about the explosion of craft beer in B.C., and how the focus had changed from Victoria to Vancouver in the past few years.

When I finally did head back to my hotel it was perhaps not at the brisk pace I had envisioned, nor with the steadiest of gaits.Although I was late for dinner, my only regret was that I hadn’t spent more time at Spinnaker’s during my visit to Victoria. Vancouver might be the engine driving the craft beer boom now, but I sense that this particular brewpub is still the heart and soul of the B.C. beer scene.

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2 Comments on “West Coast Journey: Spinnaker’s Brewpub”

  1. I really enjoyed spinnakers when I was there a few years ago although I will have to get back now that I have the blog to check it out again. At least I can get bottles and cans in vancouver now!

  2. Tina M Says:

    What a great experience. Sometimes it’s good to be open to serendipity, although it can be hard for those of us who are pretty regimented. Glad you two had a wonderful time in BC.
    Congrats on the job, it sounds perfectly suited for you.

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