These Islands are Hopping
Until Great Britain took up mash paddles, brewing was a continental endeavor. But once it spread from ancient Sumer (present-day Iraq) to the lands of Bavaria and Bohemia, it didn’t take long for the know-how to leap across watery barriers to the United Kingdom and, obviously, the United States. When cold and rainy winter months call for us to make a hop to a welcoming island, why not make it one that has developed its own brewing scene?
Rum-based drinks are often the beverages of choice on islands, and tropical fruit garnishes with little paper parasols most certainly have their place, but beer remains the ultimate thirst quencher. And odds are pretty good you’ll find some brewed with indigenous fruit or other ingredients. Take Hawaii for example. Maui Brewing Co. makes Mana Wheat using local pineapples, and Kona Brewing Co. employs its famous local coffee beans in Da Grind Imperial Stout found at the brewpub.
US Virgin Islands
Only a handful of Caribbean islands allow you to leave your passport at home. And Puerto Rico doesn’t have much a craft beer scene yet. While the better beer culture in the Virgin Islands—consisting of St. John, St. Thomas, and St. Croix as well as teensier ones—isn’t huge, it is growing slowly. That’s fine, because in the time since the U.S. bought the islands from Denmark nearly a century ago, R&R on the islands has been more about soaking up UV than ABV. Virgin Islands National Park comprises two-thirds of St. John—over 7,000 square miles, making for superb hiking and diving.
To get a feel for who’s doing what down there, we checked in with Chirag “Cheech” Vyas, co-owner and brewer at St. John Brewers, located a stone’s throw from the park’s entrance. The former NASA scientist partnered with a fellow New Englander, Kevin Chipman, and started homebrewing for lack of good beer variety on the islands. Today their Tropical Mango Pale Ale can be found all over St. John and most likely anywhere you stay, dine or drink. Their large-scale bottling is contracted out to fellow New Englanders Shipyard Brewing but their Tap Room (Mongoose Junction mall in Cruz Bay on St. John, StJohnBrewers.com) serves 16 draft beers as well as freshly made sodas for those who (A) are traveling with kids or (B) want a great mixer for one of those rum drinks. Their ginger ale makes for a killer Dark and Stormy, and here R&R stands for Rum and Root Beer.
Bars throughout the islands are everywhere, including along the beach, but The Beach Bar (Wharfside Village in Cruz Bay on St. John, beachbarstjohn.com) is another place Vyas recommends for micro and Belgian brews. Of course, if you just want Red Stripe or something else that has been better branded as being tropical, you’ll find those here, too, but in what Vyas calls “a very cool island setting.” I’ll also mention that the Beach Bar food menu is slightly more extensive than at the Tap Room.
The entire island is only nine miles by five, and limited lodging options range from the ritzy Westin Hotel to camping on the beach, which works for me since isn’t that what heading to St. John is all about? More likely is staying on St. Thomas, though, which we’ll get to in a second.
Any trip to the USVI will entail some island hopping. St. Croix is two hours by ferry or by 20 minutes by seaplane, which Vyas recommends not just because it’s quicker but also because “it’s lots of fun to land in the ocean!” While there, stop in at the Fort Christiansted Brewpub (55 A&B King’s Alley in Christiansted; fortchristianbrewpub.com). The operators brew and serve their ales on premise, and Vyas assures that it’s not only popular among tourists but locals, too. As a full-service brewpub, it offers an extensive menu, from steaks to seafood, but the specialties are the Cajun items. Remember, it’s not a taste of New Orleans in the Caribbean; its cuisine originated here in “the West Indies.” So wash down that blackened catfish with the Blackbeard Ale it’s battered in, an English-style pale ale that tilts like a peg-legged pirate toward the malty side. The Jump Up Stout is a good accompaniment to the blackened ribeye.
Forty miles north of St. Croix and far closer to St. John—just a few miles away via a 20-minute ferry ride, departing hourly—is St. Thomas. Vyas compulsorily mentions the Virgin Islands Brewing Co., which, he says, “is technically located on St. Thomas. They have no formal brewery or home operation. Their one brand, Blackbeard Ale, was available years ago but now is only found in select locations now. They were somehow linked to the brewpub on St Croix, but that relationship is difficult to understand. It has changed ownership numerous times.”
One great source for equally great beer on this island that cannot be questioned is Pie Whole (24A Honduras in Frenchtown; piewholepizza.com). This new pizza restaurant focuses heavily on Belgian styles from lambics to Trappists. Keeping afloat with the pirate theme, look for Piraat Belgian IPA and Bière du Boucanier red ale from BrouwerijVan Steenberge.
One thing to keep in mind during your visit. The USVI’s sole airport, Cyril E. King (STT), is located on St. Thomas’ west end near the enticingly named Brewers Bay. But most of the high-end hotels are located on the far east end of the island. Reactions from locals and tourists are mixed.
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
A word about beer global beer consumption: Australia ranks sixth in per capita consumption. whereas the U.S. appears two spots below. And we’re not the only ones experiencing a revolution in craft brewing. To associate Australia with Foster’s is to do likewise stateside with Bud. Across the sunburned country, close to 150 microbreweries and brewpubs have sprung to life, mostly in the last decade. Sydney, as part of its effort to boost foodie tourism by stepping up its culinary game, lays claim to almost a dozen of them.
It’s a far cry better to visit for the beer than for the reason the original European settlers came. Originally a penal colony for British convicts in the 18th century—think Alcatraz but a whole lot bigger and with cuter accents—the colonized area is known today as Sydney’s suburb The Rocks. Expect to spend much of your time here central to landmarks such as the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, all made easily accessible by the Circular Quay transportation hub.
To guide us through The Rocks and beyond, Michael Vanderlaan, who covers the lowdown Down Under at the Aussie Beer Blog, advises starting at the Lord Nelson Hotel (corner of Kent and Argyle streets; LordNelsonBrewery.com). Entering into the most famous brewpub housed in a heritage-listed sandstone building, Vanderlaan says, “visitors step back to the time of tall ships and rum rebellions.” There are always six house beers served alongside classic English pub grub. “The Lord Nelson’s signature beer, Old Admiral, is a strong dark ale not for the faint-hearted, to be slowly sipped by the open fire.
Less than a kilometer and a half walk due south is the Redoak Boutique Beer Cafe (201 Clarence St., Redoak.com.au), what Vanderlaan calls “arguably Australia’s most successful small brewing company.” With over 50 beers to its credit, Redoak has a classic European look and feel. The real appeal for locals and visitors alike are the “tasting boards” that come in four themes: seafood, meat, vegetarian and cheese. Akin to a flight of four beers perfectly matched with four small plates, not only does the seafood one include Porter-marinated BBQ octopus paired with Redoak’s Irish Red, it also features Tasmanian smoked salmon mousse complemented by the house cider. Add in two more such duos and the whole board runs only $20 Australian.
Nearby is the renovated Harts Pub (176 Cumberland St.; hartspub.com.au), which houses Rocks Brewing. Essentially, expect four house beers such as Sail and Mermaid, an English-style bitter, next to eight taps that rotate among other New South Wales micros such as Stone and Wood Brewing from up in Byron Bay, which you’d never get to unless your trip also takes you to the gorgeous Gold Coast.
Conveniently, just a block away is the Australian Heritage Hotel (100 Cumberland St.; AustralianHeritageHotel.com), more often called The Australian, or simply the Aussie. Its ambitious beer program has 10 draught offerings and over 120 bottles (47 from Sydney), which, in Vanderlaan’s words, enable “the drinker to conduct a virtual beer tour of Australia.” I learned from Tara Blinkhorne, the hotel and pub’s office and marketing manager, that one of its must-order beers is Scharer’s Lager, the Aussie’s house beer named after Geoffrey Scharer, who used to own and run the pub as well as brew his own beer. She mentioned that October recently marked the Australian’s seventh annual Australian Beer Festival. “We invite brewers from all around Australia to come down and showcase their beers. …We generally have around 14,000 people through over the weekend as it’s the Official Beer Festival of the Sydney International Food Festival, which runs for the whole month of October.”
Perhaps because you can only get through a fraction of its beer menu, it’s best to crash here while you’re in town. Rooms at the B&B start at only $99 AUS and it’s central to soaking up the local flavor. The main attractions of the pub’s dining menu are the gourmet pizzas topped with local fauna: kangaroo, crocodile, emu and barramundi. Vanderlaan cracks that “not too many countries are willing to consume their coat-of-arms,” but adds that “kangaroo is delicious.” The meat on the ’roo ’za is marinated in roasted native capsicum and cranberries, and the recommended beer pairing is Boag’s Premium. If you order the one with saltwater croc (marinated in spicy coconut cream and Thai herbs), pair it with Gulf Brewery’s Humpback Pale Ale. No matter what the order, Blinkhorne says, the staff is always happy to suggest which beer would complement the dish.
One other place that Vanderlaan advises not to miss is the Local Taphouse (122 Flinders St., TheLocal.com.au), not far from The Rocks in Darlinghurst. There’s an even 20 taps. and you’re likely to find rarities from local brewers. Its simplicity and sincerity make many beer aficionados consider it the best beer bar in town.
If feasible, schedule your visit over Jan. 26, when Australians celebrate Australia Day. It commemorates the arrival of the First Fleet on Sydney’s shores back in 1788. Perhaps the voyagers intuited that the climate in nearby Tasmania was perfect for growing hops. Whatever the case, the penal colony established back then has flourished and matured just like the beer culture that is beginning to thrive today.
From there, a short stroll toward the peninsula leads you to the newly opened second location of Murray’s Craft Brewing Co. (murraysbrewingco.com.au/manly). Not only is the view of the coastline superb, but Vanderlaan insists the lineup of beers is quite worthwhile. “Murray’s is famous for unusual and ever-changing interpretations of classic styles, an approach that would be familiar to the American craft beer lover.” Perhaps he is refering to its 10 percent India Black Ale or the “forbidding” Heart of Darkness Belgio Imperial Stout.
Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
When thinking islands, rare is the person who envisions Canada. Furthermore, it may seem difficult to fathom a trip to the Great White North during wintertime, but Victoria is actually south of the main Washington-British Columbia national border, situated on the south end of Vancouver Island (some 100 kilometers from the city of Vancouver as well as Seattle across the Juan de Fuca Strait) and as such enjoys comparatively temperate weather.
Victoria is arguably home to Canada’s largest and richest brewing scene, with much of the rest of our northerly neighbors still catching up. If you’re traveling with offspring just shy of the U.S. legal drinking age, as my folks did with me many years ago, believe them when they point out the drinking age is 19 (and in three of the 13 provinces it’s 18), so in some ways they’re more advanced.
Victoria began as a British settlement, so it’s no surprise British styles still reign. It currently supports four breweries and an additional four brewpubs, with at least a ninth one on the way (courtesy of the Canoe Club’s departing brewmaster, Sean Hoyne). Huffing it to each of the brewing destinations on the Victoria Ale Trail is only three-and-a half-mile (five-and-a half-kilometer) walk. In other words, at least for the first six stops, the next brewery is sometimes mere meters away, never more than a 10-minute crawl. To explore them all, we tapped local beer blogger Dave Mitchell from BeerOnTheRock.com.
Beginning in the Design District near downtown, Canoe Brewpub and Restaurant (canoebrewpub.com; 450 Swift St.) is housed in a rustic building along the inner harbor’s waterfront. It’s a pleasant place to sip the housemade British-style beers (and one Czech lager). Many of the menu items from brunch to desserts are prepared with the beers and pair well. The eggs benedict comes with Ayrshire bacon and amber ale cheddar cheese; the poutine (a Montreal specialty that Mitchell has more to comment on later) is prepared with a brown ale demi-glace (and duck confit can be added). Still have room? The Brown Ale Chocolate Cake comes with vanilla whipped cream, cherry compote, almond brittle and fleur de sel.
Literally around the corner, still in historic Old Towne is Swans Suite Hotel and Brewpub (swanshotel.com; 506 Pandora Ave.). Enjoy one too many of the more than adozen beers on tap (the IPA gets mostly raves) while listening to live music and you can check yourself into the built-in hotel. Now that’s Canadian hospitality.
Traveling a few blocks north into the Rock Bay hood offers up three production breweries: Phillips (phillipsbeer.com), Vancouver Island (vancouverislandbrewery.com), and Driftwood (driftwoodbeer.com). Phillips is the largest and brewmaster Matt Phillips was perhaps the first to bottle what is known, in these parts, as a CDA (Cascadian Dark Ale), aka Black IPA. Originally called Black Toque, it is now Skookum Cascadian Brown Ale yet equally delicious for fans of both the hops and the dark-roasted malts. Two blocks away, still on Government Street, Vancouver Island Brewing (nee Island Pacific Brewery in 1985 but changed names in 1992) offers tours Saturdays only at 3 p.m. Make it to Victoria during the winter and enjoy Vancouver Island’s popular Hermannator Eisbock. Driftwood is quickly catching on with fans of “American-style” craft beer, so if you can find a bottle of Singularity, a barrel-aged Russian Imperial Stout, it’d make an excellent souvenir. Likewise, look for Fat Tug IPA on draft. Mitchell cautions that there aren’t too many proper beer bars in Victoria, but points to Christie’s (members.shaw.ca/christiespub/taps.html; 1739 Fort St., a couple of km east of downtown) and CrossRoads (1889 Island Highway, 10 km west in Colwood) as each having dozens of local taps along with great food menus. There’s another brewpub around the corner from Driftwood, Moon Under Water (moonunderwater.ca; 350B Bay St.) that specializes in low-alcohol session beers such as Blue Moon Bitter gently tipping the scales at 3.8 percent ABV.
Next, it’s an easy walk across the Bay Street Bridge into Vic West. Besides Lighthouse (lighthousebrewing.com)—purveyors of Race Rocks Amber—there’s another brewpub/hotel, Spinnakers (spinnakers.com; 308 Catherine St.). Mitchell notes that Spinnaker’s became Canada’s first proper brewpub in 1984 “and they’re still going strong.” Mitchell enthusiastically mentions that there’s always a cask-conditioned beer and that the brewers have been experimenting with infusing newfangled adjuncts, often various teas. Beyond the beers, the grounds covering the bistro and guesthouse are resplendent. But if you’d rather not enjoy your farm-to-table entrée paired with cask ale overlooking the harbor, they can be brought to your room. That’s northern hospitality.
To ensure sampling from so many breweries doesn’t wreak havoc on your beer trip, make your way to Mitchell’s greasy spoon of choice, The Marble Arch Fish & Chips (3468 Tillicum Road). Getting there is either a healthy walk or a ride on the northbound 50 bus. Once there, you’re treated to an off-the-beaten path “Chinese/Canadian hybrid joint,” that slings everything from fish’n’chips to sweet’n’sour pork to cheap’n’satisfying bacon’n’eggs. Another spot, John’s Place (johnsplace.ca; 723 Pandora Ave.), is a breakfast institution “insanely popular with locals” and the fresh-from-scratch eclectic and hearty fare will put you on the right path, especially if it’s the one that follows the ale trail. Lastly, La Belle Patate (1215 Esquimalt Rd. in Esquimalt) is Mitchell’s pick for the best poutine, calling it “authentic … and so damn good.” Consisting of hand-cut fries, cheese curds, and gravy with additional toppings of your choosing, it’s Montreal cuisine, but no trip to Canada is replete without it.
Brian Yaeger recently moved to Portland, OR, where he homebrews and is exploring the beers of the Pacific Northwest.