In my teen years living in Boise, ID, there was general agreement that it took fashion three years to arrive from California. (The more fashionable pegged the number at five years; while most said fashion never came to Idaho.) I am now a gray-whiskered man, but this wasn’t so long ago—the early craft brewing years, say midway through Reagan’s first term. The United States was a patchwork of cultural regions knitted together only at the fringes. The knowledge of what people in coastal cities were listening to and wearing seeped inward very slowly, like osmosis, to irrigate the cultural dry lands. There was no Internet and in 1980 cable TV had only 16 million subscribers. We lived in cultural islands with very few bridges or boats to connect us.
All that has changed and now people living in Paris wear Converse All-Stars and baseball caps. It would make sense, then, if we were settling into a kind of pan-continental mega culture—and there are certainly some examples of that. (Scratchy recordings reveal far more colorful accents were common 50 years ago and more.) But interestingly, the reverse is also happening: the crush of noise buzzing from every corner of the world has made us look inward. As the globe shrinks, we scratch around to see what makes our hometowns unique.
One area that phenomenon is most evident is in the way beer culture is developing. It’s possible to think your hometown is in step with larger trends—IPAs are popular everywhere, saisons and barrel-aged beers are reliable beer geek bait. But all it takes is a little travel to upset this sense of sameness. A couple weeks back, I spent the weekend in Victoria, BC, which is roughly as far from my home in Portland as Boston is from New York. In the West, that counts as neighbors. I ended up visiting six breweries while I was there, and by stop number four, I felt like I’d gone through the looking-glass: I was definitely not in Oregon anymore.
Victoria is located at the tip of Vancouver Island, a landmass that fits, like a shoulder’s ball and socket, into the notch of Northwest Washington state (it’s actually south of Bellingham). In the states, we consider the cities of Vancouver and Victoria to be part of what we call “the Pacific Northwest” or Cascadia, along with Portland and Seattle. Culturally there’s a lot of overlap—and Victoria has far more in common with Portland than it does Montreal. Built around a long, jaggedly curving harbor, it has spectacular views of both the ocean and the Olympic Mountains to the south (which are also visible from Seattle). Like much of the Pacific Northwest, it fairly hollers “quality of life.”
As befits a city in this region (which a Victoria brewer pointed out is considered the Southwest from their perspective), the beer scene is vibrant and growing. There are 10 breweries in Victoria, a city of 80,000 people, and several that have opened in the past few years. The city is compact and walkable, and you can spend a day strolling to a half dozen of them.
On my visit, I started at Canoe, known for its good menu, for lunch. The food was great, but the beer was a decidedly mixed bag. The ales seemed a bit over-hopped and had some problems with diacetyl. The one offering that really sang was a small little lager with a subtle but distinctive layer of Saaz hops. I wasn’t sure what I’d find elsewhere, so I put the memory of that lager (called, incidentally, Lager) where I could retrieve it easily once I’d been to a few other places.
The next stops included Driftwood Brewery and Hoyne Brewing Co., two newer breweries so close they literally share a parking lot. Driftwood is the hottest brewery in town, and its signature beer is an IPA. Hoyne has a diverse range, but specializes in lagers. Just down the road from these two is the well-regarded Moon Under Water Brewpub, known for experimentation. In that swirl of breweries, the looking-glass appeared.
It turns out that Victorians love their IPAs bitter. In Oregon, our pursuit of hop perfection has led us away from bitterness and toward flavor and aroma. Breweries are hop bursting their beers and backing dump trucks full of hops up to their whirlpools and hop backs—but they’re no longer adding a lot at the front end of the boil. I thought I’d found an Oregon-style IPA at Driftwood, when my nose lingered over Fat Tug IPA. It was intensely juicy and citrusy to smell, but once I took a sip the bitter charge exploded and made my eyes water.
I also kept finding those wonderful Saaz-hopped lagers like Canoe made. Hoyne and Moon both had them, and I would later find one at Swan’s. (Phillips and Lighthouse also make lagers, but I didn’t get to try them and find out whether Saaz were a part of the mix). They were built on the chassis of a German lager, with that refined graininess of Bavarian pilsner malt, but then infused with tangy Saaz. Unlike the IPAs, the hopping was all flavor and aroma and very little bitterness. Portland has finally started to embrace sessionable pale lagers, but every brewer makes them a little differently here—they use Cascade hops or leave the beer hazy and unfiltered or dry hop them. Anything to stand out in a crowd. But in Victoria, lagers have very similar contours.
The last quirks of the city were cask ales. My sense is that these beers are more the past than the future of Victoria, and yet they seem to be doing fine, thanks. Two breweries, Spinnakers and Swans, both specialize in cask ales (and English-style ales on draft). Spinnakers is so popular that by the end of the week they’re out of half their beer—and, when I visited, all their cask ale. People have tried at different times to make a go of cask ales in Portland, but they may be our city’s greatest failure. Absolutely nobody drinks them. In order to coax a drinker to try cask, brewers have to make sure it’s a beer style that overwhelms all the qualities that make cask a great presentation in the first place (booming stouts, strong ales, hoppy IPAs). In Victoria, they’re brewed as cask ales should be: with aromatic malts and delicate hops at a modest ABV.
Culture is most identifiable when it is invisible to locals. I kept asking people (brewers and regular drinkers) about my findings, and they looked at me with confusion. Bitter IPAs? You think so? They seem pretty normal to me. Lagers? I guess they’re popular. Saaz hops? I hadn’t really thought of it—that’s just what lagers are supposed to taste like. Cask ale? They’re great for a change of pace.
I had no success convincing anyone that these features were unusual—or at least why they were unusual through the eyes of a Portlander. It was just how beer was supposed to be. The example of Victoria is potent because it’s a city so near and so alike my own that the contrasts really stand out. But every city I’ve visited I’ve found culture at work.
The world may be getting smaller by the minute, but beer is local.
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Jeff Alworth is the author of the forthcoming book, The Beer Bible (Workman, 2015). Follow him on Twitter or find him at his blog, Beervana.