Chapters

There are many ‘Top 10’ year-in-review beer lists out there. This one is an altered beast. It’s not the ten best beers I drank in 2016, but the ten best times I drank beer in 2016.

Sure, I could go back through my Untappd check-ins and find 2016’s best of the best that dripped on these lips, but I’m more interested on where I was and who I was with. Here are my top 10 best drinking days of 2016 in chronological order.

February 10: First beer club meeting, Nanaimo

Trying to start a beer club had been nothing but talk for years. Ranks of bombers were building up in my garage. Lagers and IPAs were aging. Beer nerds just facepalmed upon reading that.

I don’t remember the tipping point, but suddenly, in February, there was a Facebook group created with a despicable nickname, populated by (mostly local) extremist beer nuts who were down with sharing the most creative of brews.

Our starting lineup included the MDB duo, a tour operator, a rogue’s gallery of graphic designers, a homebrewer, a lawyer, a beer writer, a landscaper, a bassist, a guitarist, a photographer. We’re basically a scummier version of your local CAMRA chapter, and with more musicians.

Only three of us could make that first February meeting: me, the tour operator, the lawyer. We met at the lawyer’s house, just up the hill from Newcastle Channel and the Nanaimo Marina, and while his wife and tenant imbibed in wine or something similarly gauche in the living room, we settled into the dining nook with seven wildly-different beers, a bowl of mixed nuts that looked like dry cat food, unleashed a tsunami of opinions on local politics, and felt relief to share craft beer with a couple of others who got it.

Since then, the group has expanded, and we meet one Wednesday per month. We argue, we laugh, we stink, we spill, we make questionable pizza choices and show off the fruits of our pursuits of the craziest beers. It’s great fun.

These meetings would probably make up 11 of my top beer drinking events of the year, but it wouldn’t make for a great essay.

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Where it all began.

Beer of Note: Eclipse Elijah Craig 12 Stout

April 8: Okanagan Fest of Ale & brewers party, Penticton

After costuming up and playing horn duets for years at the Great Canadian Beer Festival, my buddy Dave and I successfully applied to play these roles at the Okanagan Fest of Ale for the first time. It’s one of BC’s longest running beer festivals, though the entertainment has tended towards classic rock instead of giant muppets playing “Careless Whisper.”

Penticton is a great location–our motel faced the beaches of Okanagan Lake–and the festival crowds took to us pretty well. The overall atmosphere was celebratory but controlled on Friday, a nudge closer to a ruckus on Saturday. We loved it. A conference centre could be a pretty staid environment for a beer fest, but it was laid out well (very few lineups!) and flowed into a sunny outdoor patio with food trucks and a gregarious DJ. I chatted with a bari saxophonist from the local big band in the volunteers room. We met other travelling musicians, including Celeigh Cardinal and Farmer (the band). During the final hour, I dressed up as a sasquatch and was hugged and lifted off the ground by young men who couldn’t believe their life had brought them to this much great beer and this grand of a moment.

On the first night, Friday night–as guests of our local hombres from the Longwood Brewery–we tangoed into the brewers’ party at Cannery Brewing. There was food. You rarely experience true bliss until faced with a complimentary hot wurst after drinking all day. Acoustic music under coloured lights swirled from between the brewery tanks, and we cheersed and cheersed with BC beer royalty until we were cognisant of very little.

Beer of Note: some sort of one-off after-party apple beer at Cannery, who, it must be said, were stellar hosts

June 5: The Salt House, Galway, Ireland

That first pint of Guinness, after you land in Ireland, is pretty heavenly. But I was after the craft beer. On this Sunday afternoon, I found some of the best of it at the Salt House, steps back from the swans lounging in Galway Harbour.

It’s everything you want from a great pub: it’s packed with good people, tons of craft taps and bottles (Irish and otherwise, including Colorado’s Ska Brewing Co.), staff happy to engage with humour and recommend with authority, and six musicians around a table (instead of on a stage) strumming and picking and tapping traditional tunes. Over flights, I drummed on the bar and chatted with a gentleman who was planning to start his own brewery in southern Ireland, and I fully experienced and appreciated, for the first time, that the craft beer revolution really had expanded to this wonderful country.

I felt so bad about leaving that I went back for more that same evening.

Beer of Note: Galway Bay Brewing’s Solemn Black Double Black IPA

June 9: Bradford, UK

Via the Record Cafe (“Vinyl – Ale – Ham”), The Sparrow, and even Al’s Dime Bar–all on one city block–I drank some superb UK craft beer. (Yes, the revolution is happening there, too.) This was the backdrop of a final European show with my buddies Myc (guitar) and Anatol (violin), after a week of Ireland sessions, busks, and jams.

We had travelled throughout Ireland together and rejoined company in Bradford, but on the next day, Jocelyn and I were flying to Antwerp, Myc to Germany, Anatol to London. But for one last night, I warmed up the alto saxophone and we warmed up the Record Cafe with Myc’s songs and sailed a flow of IPAs and porters and supporters and a table of Canadian teachers who booed when we said we were from BC and Alberta instead of Upper Canada or the Maritimes.

Our guide through the evening, Melanie, the Record Cafe manager, I met when our vacations crossed paths in the courtyard of a small faux-train-car resort in the south of South Africa in 1997. Before she and her family left, she left me a letter, with a mailing address to a small town in the Western Cape. I never wrote her.

Fifteen years later, from back in our own homes, across the planet, we reconnected online, at a time where both of us were needing proof that long odds could be beaten. It’s not a fairy tale, but coming together all-those-years-later to share music and beer in a small town, almost midway between Cape Town and Vancouver, this was proof that every once in a while, this planet can be pretty fuckin’ small, and humans are pretty fuckin’ cool, and beer and music are the most magic of ingredients.

Beer of Note: The Wild Beer Co. Sourdough Berliner Weisse

June 10: Antwerp, Belgium

Take your eccentric uncle’s condominium, add a covered courtyard akin to a greenhouse but with brick walls and a clear ceiling, fill it all haphazardly with books and boxes and bottles and dim lighting and set a couple of cats free to run around.

This is the scene at Antwerp’s Cafe Kulminator, which some people have dubbed the best beer bar in the world.

I made it a required stop on this European trip, but it was never a sure thing. When it fills up, the elderly owners (Dirk and Leen) lock the front doors and only open them again when there is space. A small inconvenience if you are an Antwerpian, but downright stressful if visiting from a different hemisphere. I convinced Jocelyn to postpone dinner on this evening in order to give us the best odds to get in. The door opened. We got in and claimed the only empty table in the courtyard. A cat padded across the roof.

If ever a menu was a bible, this was it. I read descriptions of hundreds of Belgian beers–some vintages from the 1990s or older–and the prices were completely fair. Online reviews warned that if Dirk’s knee was acting up, he may not go into the cellar for the oldest vintages, but his wife Leen offered no objections as she took my order (on a beer coaster instead of a notepad), and broke into a huge smile when I told her we were visiting from Canada.

Jocelyn and I sipped trappist ales and fruit beers until far after the sun had set. The only restaurant still open for dinner on the walk back to our motel was McDonalds. It was worth it.

Beer of Note: Orval (2005)  

June 11: Koblenz, Germany

In Canada, our beer festivals are generally indoors or gated. Tasting glasses are 3-4oz. We must be ‘of age.’ Washroom access, however, is free.

The Bierboerse Festival is a travelling beer festival that sets up in a different Germany city every weekend in the spring/summer. Jocelyn and I attended one night in Koblenz, where the Moselle and Rhine rivers meet. And these rivers meet on the banks of a park, where this free open-air festival was held. Mothers pushed their children in strollers through the festival grounds and between beer huts. There were no beer tokens; you paid for your tasting glass (either 1/3 or 1/2 litre in size), received an actual glass, and paid a 2 euro deposit each time to ensure you returned it.  

Washroom access, however, costs 1 euro, unless someone distracted the security guard into leaving their post, which I benefitted from. (There’s something dangerously enthralling about rushing a block of toilets with a group of young men screaming and laughing in a language you don’t understand.)

There were no horn players dressed up as Sesame Street characters, but one brewery served out of a giant pirate ship, and a makeshift live karaoke band invited singers up to perform with them, though there was more giggling than singing. Later in the evening, a giant crowd exercised admirable focus on a giant screen which displayed the England-Russia game at Euro 2016.

Washrooms aside, it taught me how civilized a beer festival could be. It taught me how good lagers and hefeweizens could be. And it taught me that the Germans really, really know how to roast pork. On the shores of two German rivers, I became a currywurst fan for life.

Beer of Note: Maisel’s Weisse Original

July 25: Birthday, Nanaimo

Celebrated the beginning of my fourth decade by pulling a full shift at work before stretching out in the backyard with Chirpa the cat and July’s best sunshine.

Beer of Note: Driftwood Sartori IPA

September 9: Great Canadian Beer Festival, Victoria

I don’t think Dave or I washed our costumes after the Okanagan Fest of Ale, but we drank while dank as we have done for years at one of Canada’s top two-day beer festivals.

Here’s our GCBF routine: sign in at the entertainment desk, take over one of Royal Athletic Park’s dugouts. Dress up as Bert & Ernie, Skeletor & the Green Lantern, Zombie Hot Dog & Zombie Banana. Assemble trombone and baritone sax. Walk amongst the traditionally-dressed and serve up funk. Avoid the oompah band and other entertainers out of respect. Pose for a hundred selfies. Quick beer break. Repeat.

This year, some of our beer club crawled out from under that rock and attended GCBF for the first time. They chose to go on day #1–Friday–to ensure they could get their top beer choices. Every time I’d peek through Ernie’s gigantic mesh eyeball and catch one of them, they’d be marvelling at the local sour, or the crazy Vancouver cask, or these imaginative beers from Quebec. So it’s safe to say they were pretty giddy when the horn went to signal the end of day 1.

While the festival gates closed for the day, the floodgates remained open for the night. We found food–and more beers–at Canoe Club (where Dave and I jumped on stage wearing bathrobes to rock a couple of horn solos with the New Souls, a band I whole-heartedly recommend checking out).

We found more beers after that at Swans Brewpub.

We found our way back to Paul’s Motor Inn and cursed whoever planted Kokanee cans ’round the room.

We managed to get back into our costumes and do it all again on day 2.

Beer of Note: Moon Under Water Sang du Merle Sour

October 1: Fresh to Death / The Drake's Zwanze Day, Victoria

The fall homage to fresh-hopped beers is kind of like giving thanks to the almighty hop; the crew behind Victoria Beer Week do their version of a thanksgiving gathering by throwing Fresh to Death. It’s a mini-beer fest in a downtown plaza that features only fresh-hopped beers.

It’s the one beer event I went to by myself this year. This in itself isn’t really a highlight–beer is better with friends–but it did make it memorable. The beers were worth it, too; if Joe Wiebe puts his stamp on it, this thirsty writer knows it’s worth it to take part. It was also nice to try fresh-hop styles other than IPAs and pale ales at another beer fest that was short on lineups but big on quality.

By happy coincidence on that same day, The Drake Beer Parlour was full of kegs of sour and funky beers as part of their Cantillon Zwanze Day celebration. (Cantillon, a brewery in Brussels known for their spontaneously fermented beers, sends out special beers to select locations around the world for this one-day event. The Drake was one of only three locations to host a Zwanze event in Canada. Jocelyn and I visited Cantillon back in June. Convergence complete.)

I wasn’t intending to go to the Drake. But as I left Fresh to Death, intending to hit up the Joint for a slice of pizza pie or three, fellow beer nut Amber caught my eye through the Drake’s front window and hailed me in. She and her friends invited me to join their table, and we sampled and yakked about craft beer for a couple of hours. The official Zwanze Day event was over, but many of the beers were still available. The surprise beers and the surprise social time put an already great day over the top. 

Beer of Note: Yellow Dog Alpha Dog Fresh Hop Pale Ale

Oct 11: Hockey Pool Draft Day, Nanaimo

My dad has been a hockey pool champion ever since Gretzky’s points were divided between goals and assists. (You probably had to be alive in the 1980s to get that one.) We’re still in hockey pools today. He lives in the hamlet of Renfrew, Ontario, so if we’re participating in a hockey pool together, it’s of the online variety.

For further context: whenever we speak on the phone, we chat about the weather, other family members, local politics, and newspapers for about five minutes, followed by hockey talk for the rest of the hour.

So when he visited Nanaimo during the first week of the NHL’s regular season, it worked out to have our hockey pool draft together, in my living room, each of us with a mug of beer (new Ottawa Senators glassware!) and a laptop computer. It’s a far cry from the days where you entered the draft armed with a stenopad and a copy of last year’s stats in the Vancouver Sun. Let no one say we haven’t grown with the times.

At the time of writing, my dad is in second place in the 10-team league. (I’m in fifth.) And what I’m struck by, at time of writing, is when you live across such a large country from each other, and age–as humans do–these moments you spend together increase in value, even if you don’t talk about it at the time.

At 18, sharing a couch with your dad and the cat, debating the merits of Bure vs Mogilny, could be any day. At 40, sharing a couch with your dad and cat, debating the merits of Crosby vs McDavid…

That just might be the most memorable day of the year.

Beer of Note: Unibroue Ephemere Poire. But it could have been anything.

 

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