Touring the Sea-to-Sky highway | British Columbia | by Jan Zeschky
“You’ve got the same 10 guys who sit at the bar every day, but then the locals filter in throughout the day. We’ve always offered a local pint and it keeps those guys coming back all the time. They appreciate what we’ve done with the beer lineup.”
Despite the challenges, Whistler is at last catching up with the rest of BC’s vibrant beer scene. In fact, there’s a Sea-to-Sky network of craft breweries forming, from Squamish to the south of Whistler.
Whistler demands superlatives: biggest this, longest that, fastest, highest, strongest. It’s partly informed by its Olympic past, but mostly by the awe-inspiring geography that surrounds this mountain municipality: soaring peaks, barren ice fields, deep glacial lakes, and a blanketing cloak of aged Douglas fir, hemlock, and red cedar.
Located 125 kilometres north of Vancouver, this 670-metre-high pass in the Coast Mountains has long attracted big dreams – perhaps none more ambitious than the plan to build a ski resort from scratch to host the 1968 Winter Olympics. The Olympic bid failed but development on the resort continued and over the 51 years since Whistler Mountain’s runs first opened, it’s become one of the world’s principal sports resorts.
Like many, you’ll want to visit in the winter for the legendary runs of the Whistler-Blackcomb ski area. The powder is renowned, the bluebird days breathtakingly beautiful, the mile-high vertical and 8,000-plus acres of terrain too much to explore in a single visit. Lower down, cross-country trails abound and snowmobilers can drive into areas of stunning wilderness.
But the fun continues when the snow melts, as Whistler becomes one of the world’s foremost mountain biking destinations. Then there’s the hiking, climbing, rafting, fishing, ziplining… when it comes to outdoor activities, Whistler is 24/7, 365 with a 720˚ thrown in for good measure.
Such awe inspiring experiences demand an awesome après ski scene. Whistler Village has an incredible number of bars for its size. There are more than 120 liquor licences in the municipality, mostly divvied up between bars, pubs, and hotel lounges. In high season, hard partying is in order, with pitchers, shots, and shooters driving the long evenings.
There are also several more refined options that cater for the resorts’ many well heeled travellers and V.I.P. guests – after all, it’s a relatively short hop in the private jet up the coast for Hollywood stars seeking a different kind of powder. These venues include some of BC’s finest restaurants, including the Bearfoot Bistro, with its Ketel One Ice Room for tasting vodka (kept at Siberian-standard -32˚C), the locally, sustainably and ethically minded Alta Bistro, and Araxi Restaurant and Oyster House, which offers sublimely curated and assembled dishes. Expect extensive wine lists and innovative cocktails.
Between hard partying and high end, perhaps it’s understandable that craft beer has been slow to soak in here. What’s more, many of Whistler’s bars have long been in a macro stranglehold, as Labatt and Molson and their respective parent companies happily cover the premium to control some of the most desirable draught accounts in North America.
But craft beer has long had a toehold in this crack of the Coast Mountains. Only now is its influence starting to grow, thanks to a new wave of determined, passionate breweries and bars.
Whistler, in fact, has had its own eponymous brewery since 1989, though it’s had a bumpy history involving several owners. At one point, every drop of Whistler Brewing Company beer was brewed in Kamloops, 300 kilometres to the east.
Still part of the Kamloops-based NorthAm Group, Whistler Brewing re-established itself in its hometown in 2009 at a facility in Function Junction, a short drive south of the village, where it brews seasonal and limited-batch releases. Tours are available, as are tastings of the beer, which remains on the safer side of the beer spectrum. That said, seasonal brews like the Paradise Valley Grapefruit Ale have become hugely popular, while the brewery’s longest-serving beer, Black Tusk Ale – technically a strong mild at 5% abv – has become something of a Whistler classic.
The brewery’s return to Whistler just months before the 2010 Olympics is likely no coincidence. But as well as bringing in an Olympic-sized boost in confidence and tourist cash, 2010 also appears to mark a turning point in craft beer’s fortunes in Whistler.
For one, it was the year Derrick Franche began brewing there. Franche headed north from Vancouver up the Sea-to-Sky Highway after the closure of the celebrated DIX Brewpub to take over at another Mark James Group venture, the Brewhouse.
Contrasting Whistler Brewing’s flighty past, the Brewhouse has been a fixture of the Village since 1997. Though part of a chain, the Brewhouse has a kitschy identity all of its own, with a labyrinthine layout and cute details like the model railway that snakes around the pub above customers’ heads.
Doing business no small harm was the decision to site the Olympic Rings sculpture directly beside the Brewhouse patio. It’s a big draw for tourists who will have likely worked up a thirst following their stroll through the meandering, pedestrianized, store-lined streets of the Village. It’s also a great place for a leisurely brunch, lunch, or dinner, with freshly baked pizzas, ribs, and rotisserie being the stars.
But it’s not just Olympic fans who are seeking out the five rings. Since Franche began brewing here, the Brewhouse has been a destination for IPA lovers in the know who seek out his Five Rings IPA. Lavishly hopped with a Pliny-esque blend of Columbus, Amarillo and Cascade (and then warm dry-hopped) for a blast of classic citrus and pine flavours, and balanced out by some honey-caramel malt, there are arguably few better example of a West Coast IPA. BC Beer Awards judges have often agreed, naming Five Rings the province’s best IPA twice, and awarding it beer of the year in 2012.
For Franche, Five Rings has been a bellwether in terms of changing tastes in the Whistler beer scene. Back in 2010, he says, his IPA was the lowest selling of his four core beers, after lager, pale ale, and brown ale. Today, it’s close to outselling the lager.
“On a really busy weekend I can actually physically see the volume moving down the tank. It’s the reason I’ve got grey hair now, I tell you, because IPA is something that can just evaporate over the weekend,” he says.
Drinkers – both locals and tourists – are turning more toward flavour, Franche adds, meaning there’s little chance of his beer ever being packaged in anything other than growler fills.
“I’m really impressed with how far it’s come here. A lot of the international visitors we had seven or eight years ago were just fine having a Bud. But now people are becoming more educated about the type of food they eat and the type of beer they want to drink,” he says.
Whistler’s craft beer scene took another step forward in 2014 with the advent of the Whistler Village Beer Festival, which drew breweries from across the province to the mountains for a notoriously wild weekend that September. The festival has since expanded into several days of events, drawing upwards of 6,000 people to town.
It was the same year that the Beacon Pub & Eatery opened in the centre of the Village, taking over the well-worn space of Citta’ Bistro.
Although there were bars in town already serving craft beer – including venerable locations like the Dubh Linn Gate and Brickworks – the Beacon and its 12 taps was the first to offer a focus on BC beer. Perhaps it was for that reason that the Beacon – which is attached to the recently renovated Crystal Lodge & Suites, one of the Village’s original hotels – quickly became a favourite haunt for locals as well as tourists. (Caught in the Babel of Whistler’s myriad accents, sometimes it’s easy to forget that 10,000 people live here year round.)
“It’s almost turned into Cheers, everyone knows everybody,” says restaurant manager Jan Madsen with a chuckle. “You’ve got the same 10 guys who sit at the bar every day, but then the locals filter in throughout the day. We’ve always offered a local pint and it keeps those guys coming back all the time. They appreciate what we’ve done with the beer lineup.”
The kitchen, too, is greatly appreciated, with food sales often outpacing liquor sales, according to Madsen. Not to be missed is the Beacon Burger, a charred wagyu beef patty topped with aged white cheddar, pickled jalapenos, and onions braised in Steamworks Pale Ale.
Moving Whistler’s beer scene even further forward has been HandleBar, which opened in 2016 in the Upper Village, tantalizingly close to the Wizard Express chair up Blackcomb.
Owners Andre Charland and Jonny Law were frustrated by how static the Whistler scene was, and set out to bring a bit of Vancouver’s dynamism to the mountains. HandleBar’s eight taps and well curated bottle list rotate frequently, and there are regular events like tap takeovers, cask nights and rare beer nights. HandleBar doesn’t restrict itself solely to B.C. but remains a big local booster.
“We weren’t able to have the beer experience we were craving, that we wanted,” Law says. “… There are bars here that you can have a really good time at and you can find some good beer. But our excitement for beer and understanding how much great beer there is, we just felt that with a little more attention to that experience we could create something that’s really fun for locals and visitors.”
A couple of other factors set HandleBar apart. As the name suggests, it’s a bar with the mountain biker in mind, with plenty of rack space outside, durable rubber flooring and functional seating lacquered to near indesructability – so you don’t need to worry about being clumsy with your ski boots, either. Communal seating and a welcome absence of TVs encourage interaction.
The food, as well, has been well thought out, with German-themed dishes that are often cleverly adapted – think currywurst with an almost chutney-like sauce, a “schicken schnitzel schandwich” and pretzels with Nutella – and pair magnificently with the beer.
Also showing its pairing chops is Hunter Gather, in the Village, which emphasizes its local fresh beer as much as it emphasizes its local, fresh ingredients and smoking and roasting skills. (First bites of the smoked lamb shoulder sandwich have almost certainly caused swoons.) A mainstay on its tap list – and a growing number of tap lists across town – is Coast Mountain Brewing, Whistler’s first new brewery since WBC returned to the community.
Coast Mountain, which opened in late 2016, is the realization of an eight-year-long dream for owner Kevin Winter. The long-term Whistler resident left town to learn the brewing trade at Chicago’s Siebel Institute, then returned to B.C. to hone his chops at Mission Springs Brewing Company in the Fraser Valley and set up the Hearthstone Brewery in North Vancouver.
His ultimate goal? A destination brewery in a destination resort.
“We wanted to open what we call a boutique craft brewery, for Whistler only,” Winter says. “We don’t staff a sales rep. We flipped the industry on its head and suggested that you come to us to purchase the beer from us.”
Located just steps away from Whistler Brewing, where Winter once mopped the floors, Coast Mountain is one of the cosiest destination breweries in B.C., a homely wood-panelled room with a long bar and tables and a great line in conversation. Winter’s beer is excellent. The Forester Pale Ale, for one, pushes all the right buttons for full, rounded flavour and impeccable balance.
Winter is now moving Whistler’s beer scene forward with more diverse styles such as sours and farmhouse ales, which he admits were a hard sell at first.
“It took some good conversations with the restaurateurs up here to get the sours on tap – and then the summer hit and, boy oh boy, did they ever keep ordering,” Winter says with a smile.
Demand is now Coast Mountain’s biggest problem, with 30 accounts set up across town and six packs of lager regularly canned by the mobile West Coast Canning unit.
“Our growth will stay in Whistler. There’s a lot of room to grow,” Winter says, highlighting the number of drinking venues in town. “It’s a great community and we’ve seen a ton of support right across the sector to sell out of our product week after week. It’s everything we can do just to brew as fast as we can to hold on.”
Whistler has its particular challenges to setting up a beer-centric business. There’s the “Whistler tax” (as Winter calls it) of moving ingredients up the Sea-to-Sky Highway, and the cost to own and rent land here. But most problematic is keeping trained and dedicated staff season after season, and, moreover, those employees finding a place to live. Several Whistlerites interviewed acknowledged that the lack of housing is a huge and growing problem for the community.
Despite the challenges, Whistler is at last catching up with the rest of B.C.’s vibrant beer scene. In fact, there’s a Sea-to-Sky network of craft breweries forming, from Squamish to the south of Whistler, where three breweries now operate, and Pemberton in the north, where two are in the works.
It means that however you’re creating that adrenalin and endorphin rush – on the slopes, on the peaks, on the lake, or in the valley – there’ll always be a local après craft beer to top it off.