The two worlds of beer coexist quite nicely

by Jason Foster

breweriesThis past summer, I travelled to Britain and experienced their classic pub culture. I also hit a few spots in Canada, including B.C. — and (shockingly!) had a wide variety of beers in those places as well.

My travels were pretty much uniformly awesome, and they also reinforced one of the most amazing things about being a beer fan these days — the opportunity to experience two different beer worlds, the old and the new, at the same time.

There aren’t many industries out there where the old and the new can co-exist — either the new muscles out the old, leaving it dusty and unused, or the new gets too brash and is given a spanking by the geezers. But in the present world of beer, old approaches are flourishing right alongside the new upstarts who are attempting to redefine brewing.

Let’s start with the old.

In a recent column, I mentioned Caledonian Brewing, Edinburgh’s oldest surviving brewery. Their approach to beer hearkens directly back to the 19th century: old copper kettles of a design no brewer would use today; short, stout basins with copper lids designed as wings hovering over the wort; shallow, open fermenters (called Yorkshire Squares) that leave the young beer exposed to the air; and recipes that remain mostly unchanged in 150 years. They brew classic British bitters and Scottish dark ales that give you a sense of being in a pub 100 years ago.

Despite being bought out by global giant Heineken, Caledonian has steadfastly maintained their traditional approaches, including an absolute refusal to brew round-the-clock — a practice adopted by most commercial breweries. Instead they brew Monday through Wednesday, and package and clean on Thursday and Friday — and no one works on the weekend.

And in the new corner, please welcome Tofino Brewing.

Situated on the outskirts of Canada’s most hippy town on Vancouver Island’s west coast, this small brewery epitomizes the bold, carefree culture of new world brewing.

It’s a brewery of surfer dudes. Seriously.

In 2011, three friends who were hanging out in Tofino — mostly to experience its impressive waves — were chatting over a beer. One suggested they start their own brewery, and within a couple of hours all three were in. None of them knew anything about beer, but that obviously didn’t stop them.

They cobbled together some cash, hired a professional brewer and built a very small brewery in an industrial park on the Pacific Rim Highway just outside Tofino. (They also devoted a third of the brewery’s space to an indoor skateboard park for locals.)

The brewery has a chaotic, DIY vibe. The brewhouse itself is fully professional, but it uses the unusual heating method of electric infusion (most brewhouses are gas- or steam-fired). The rest of the space has a casual, homey feel that reminds you this brewery remains, at heart, all about three dudes’ labour of love. Despite their lack of experience (and complete ignorance on the somewhat important issue of how to actually sell beer), the brewery was an instant hit. People took to the idea of drinking a beer made locally, and soon they were selling beer to Victoria and Vancouver.

Tofino remains small by most standards — they expect to sell 1900 hectolitres this year (less than a third of what Paddock Wood, a small brewery itself, will produce), but they’ve quickly established themselves as local mainstays.

Their beer isn’t blowing up boundaries, but it definitely reflects a New World sentiment. Tofino’s anchor beer is a crispy blond ale called Reign In Blonde, and they also offer a fuller-bodied copper ale called Tuff Session Ale and a moderate IPA called Hoppin’ Cretin IPA. They also put out a range of seasonals, including a coffee porter, a hefeweizen and a spruce beer.

You’d never find a Tofino-style beer in Caledonia — or vice versa — because they come from completely different philosophies. The beauty is that both exist, and continue to thrive. (And that I got to tour both breweries in the space of a couple weeks. Sorry for bragging…)

The point is that the beer world, thankfully, doesn’t seem to be going the way of iPhone vs. Android (or for those of us with a few grey hairs, Beta vs. VHS). Beer fans don’t have to choose between the old and the new because both have a place, and that diversity only makes the world of beer better.

The only downside? Neither of these breweries sell their beers in Saskatchewan because neither is large enough to offer extensive distribution — and both have a laser-focus on providing a unique, local beer experience. But if you’re ever in either Edinburgh or Tofino, now you’ve got an excellent tour on your list of things to see — and an excellent beer or three to sample.