Ranking every brewery in Southwest British Columbia: Part 1

Introduction + The Mediocre Tier

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.

In 2016 and 2017 we ranked every brewery in the Vancouver area — first Metro Vancouver, then all of Southwest B.C. — for a few dumb important reasons.

First, it’s always fun to meet up with friends and have pointless arguments over what is better or not.

For another, while Vancouver’s beer scene was exploding, there was little assessment of what breweries were providing high-quality beer and which were merely doing a good advertising job.

And perhaps what made ranking breweries most interesting was how different breweries were, and how much the industry was growing: places would switch their focus from German beers to dank IPAs at the drop of a hat; a single company creating a good northeast IPA would set off a dozen imitators; every new tasting room had its own ethos; every region without a brewery saw their own mini-boom.

Now, however? The craft brewery boom in and around Vancouver has mostly settled.

Some of this is a product of the pandemic — the number of new openings has dramatically slowed in the last two years — but some of it is due to a saturation in the market: when there are 100 breweries within 100 kilometres of Vancouver, it becomes harder for any addition to change things dramatically.

And you can see that in where the energy is towards new beverages: new ciders and seltzers are getting nearly as much buzz as new breweries these days. After years of IPAs and sours dominating tap lists, there’s been a trend back towards pilsner and lagers and other options easier on the taste buds. And by and large, there’s greater unanimity over what the best breweries are; the market making things clear as the industry has evolved over the last decade.

Also, there’s simply too many places to keep track of now: our original ranking in 2016 had 42 breweries. Our 2018 update had 76 breweries. This one has 114. There’s only so much our stomachs can take, especially since some of our reviewers are now parents and the proprietor of this website is a lot busier than he was six years ago.

As a result, this update and addition to the brewery ranking will be our last. There are new things to rank explore and new debates to leverage into content have with friends.

But first, let’s rank every brewery in southwest B.C.

II: Wait, this is insane.

Yes. Yes it is.

III: Did you actually go to all of these breweries?

Yes! Well actually, I missed out on a couple of them, but our ranking team has gone to each of these breweries multiple times in the last five years.

All told, there were 16 people, other than Justin McElroy, that provided their learned knowledge to this project: Ricardo Bortolon, Laura Rodgers, Andrew Forshner, Mary Leong, Isabel Ferreras, Kaitlin Green, Layne Bruin, Samantha Bruin, Nick Rogers, Hans Seidemann, Gerald Deo, Steve Masuch, Matthew Naylor, Dani Fraser, Neal Yonson, and Bronwyn Guiton.

  • Occupations: A diverse group of middle-class Vancouverites in their 30s. The majority visited 40-70 breweries.
  • Expertise: Everyone in our group had their own developed craft beer tastes going in, and stopped drinking Molson non-ironically by the time they graduated university, but none could be considered experts/professionals/snobs in the realm of beer tasting.
  • Method: People would go a brewery, order a flight to their liking (confident that everything would be tried because of differing preferences in the group), and consider. The rating didn’t have to finalized right there, and people could consider other beers they had from the place in question when putting down their scores, but since the core of the project was “what’s the best place to grab a beer?”, these visits were the centrepiece of our analysis.

For the purposes of this project, “Southwest B.C.” is any place west of Hope, south of Lillooet, or east of Sechelt in the Lower Mainland, along with Greater Victoria, which has a dedicated tasting room (sorry Temporal Ales!). Mayne Island was excluded because its irregular hours, Flashback in Chilliwack was excluded because it was closed the two times we went to Chilliwack, and only places that were open by September 2022 were included.

IV: How did you score things?

People’s ratings are based on trips to the brewery where tasters are consumed, but can be modified after the fact. The five metrics are:

  • QUALITY — 20 points: how do the beers generally taste? If someone had their growler at a party, but you didn’t know the exact beer, would you mock them? (Under 10 points) Shrug your shoulders? (Exactly 10 points) Be generally positive? (Over 10 points) Endorse their choice? (Over 14 points) Try and steal something from their fridge? (Over 17 points)
  • STANDOUT — 5 points: Do you have a favourite beer from the brewery? Do you think it’s good enough to give it a few bonus points because otherwise the quality is inconsistent? Do you want to knock it down a peg because everything is good but nothing is memorable? Here was the place to do it.
  • DIVERSITY — 10 points: How many selections do they have in the tap room? Most places have a mix of IPAs/lagers/ales, with 2-4 seasonals and signature beers thrown in … how much deviation is there from that?
  • INNOVATION — 5 points: Do they put their own spin on beers? Have they been leaders or followers in local trends? What does the company do that is different (and valuable) than others in the market?
  • EXPERIENCE — 10 points: How did you feel coming away from the tasting room? Was it fun? Had thought been put into the design and overall branding? Was sitting at the bench and enjoying the atmosphere more worthwhile than grabbing a can and getting out of there?

Every place has been visited at least four people. Average of everyone’s score is the total. A score below 25 is bad. A score above 32 is good. A score above 36 is very good. A score above 39 is elite.

V: You ranked a brewery I enjoy much too low, this list is dumb

First of all, that’s not a question.

But if you think certain things in our rankings are stupid, that’s fine — we’re not going to accurately represent 114 different breweries in the exact way think about them, and while our group is certainly large, it’s not large enough to avoid some quirks that come with small sample sizes.

More importantly, you’re probably not upset with our ranking so much as you are with our rubric. If you think Steel and Oak should be higher because they make good beers, we’ll remind you that quality only counts for 40 per cent. If you think Main Street is too high, we’ll remind you that a great experience and making a wide variety of different beers each count for 20 per cent. If you think Central City/Howe Sound/R&B are too low because you’ve been drinking them forever and they’re great, we’ll remind you that this ranking is based on what breweries are doing relative to the competition today, not what they’ve accomplished in the past.

Ultimately, any list comes down to a question of values, and when we began this project, we collectively decided to value the following things:

  • Quality over one or two great beers: Having a standout beer that everyone loved was important, but more important to us, when considering a brewery as a whole, was whether you could try new beers and be regularly impressed, and whether you could fill up a flight reliably without encountering a dud.
  • Experimenting over typecasting: This was a tough call, because once a brewery is popular enough, they ultimately choose whether to expand their roster or not, whether to stick to one or two styles, or whether they try and appeal to a broader population. Still, we thought that given the previous bullet point, balancing out the value we gave consistency with how experimental they were would be fair. Many places can make good beer, many places can consistently innovate. The ones that do both? That’s what we want to reward.
  • Good tasting rooms, especially if they were unique: If you think the beer should be the only factor in rating a brewery, then bully for you. But we’re all human, and location and layout and design and branding and everything else psychologically impacts how enjoyable a drinking experience is, and we felt it was important to recognize that. Plus, people wanted a category where they could be a bit subjective, so you know.

Of course, this project has gone on over the course of six years. Our ratings can reflect nostalgia and faded quality in some cases, those we took pains to correct for that when possible, and will note in the write-ups where we feel that could be a significant factor.

Okay enough meaningless blather. Here’s the list of every brewery in the region ranked from worst to best.

114. Galaxie (19.93 Points)

Location: White Rock

Good for: Interesting space-theme decor; waterfront area of White Rock having a brewery

Quality: F

Diversity/Innovation: D

Experience: D

Look, somebody has to be last.

Galaxie has a fun gimmick, but at this point is still very much a work in progress. Many of the beers we had seemed unfinished, particularly the Black IPA. Like many new breweries, they’re trying to do a little of everything: beers AND pizzas AND snacks AND an events space, adding to a scattershot focus.

We hope it gets better over time! But at this point, there’s the least to recommend of any brewery in the region.

#113: Maple Meadows (21.00 Points)

Location: Maple Ridge

Good for: Having a traditional brewery in the heart of Maple Ridge

Quality: D

Diversity/Innovation: D

Experience: D

When one walks into the Maple Meadows tasting room, it appears to be a standard, if entirely boring, John Q Tasting Room that could have come flat-packed from IKEA for all the character and individuality it has.

It’s a rudimentary room and a rudimentary brewery, but not a place to actually recommend the beer, which is heavy on basic ales and IPAs.

The fact they’ve lasted seven years is a testament to a community they’ve created, and a small patio outside is nice on a hot day.

But unless you’re in Maple Ridge to begin with, it’s hard to say there’s anything worth searching out for.

#112: High Mountain (21.63 Points)

Location: Whistler

Good for: Having a mid-life crisis in Whistler

Quality: D

Diversity/Innovation: F

Experience: C+

Ah, High Mountain Brewing, inside the Brewhouse at Whistler, part of the Mark James Group. So many names, and yet so little to motivate us to drink there.

A hallmark of everything basic that the tourism trap part of Whistler represents — hard to put into words, but easy to picture. Then you would order your paddle of tasters — aptly named after various Whistler landmarks: Grizzly Brown, Lifty Lager, and drink them, and know they were dated, uninteresting and fairly unappetizing flavours.

High Mountain, just like Yaletown Brewing and Big Ridge Brewing, is a low-risk means to an end: in-house beer for a brewhouse that’s just enough better than Molson and Heineken, for customers that are there first and foremost to have a good time.

Which is fine, as far as a business model works. It’s just not where you should go for beer.

#111: Loudmouth (22.07 Points)

Location: Abbotsford

Good for: Solid sloppy food

Quality: D

Diversity/Innovation: D

Experience: C+

Look up the reviews of Loudmouth, and you’ll see virtually everyone talk about the food.

And let there be no doubt: the food is good, a mix of greasy burgers and brisket offerings. But when it comes to the beers, it’s a lot of throwing stuff at the wall (marshmallow stouts! cherry lime seltzers!) without much particularly hitting.

Regrettably, our ranking is likely skewed due to our food taking 45 minutes to arrive and the owner being a bit too much of a character for our group to enjoy.

Your experience may differ and there’s definitely a lot of heart and effort put into Loudmouth, but there wasn’t enough in this industrial area in west Abbotsford that merited a repeat visit.

#110: Boardwalk (22.07 Points)

Location: Port Coquitlam

Good for: Lovely high ceilings

Quality: D

Diversity/Innovation: D

Experience: C

A cavernous industrial space in a Port Coquitlam business park, the trek out to Boardwalk at this point is not particularly worth the effort.

It’s one of those newer breweries where you can see that plenty of money has been put into the operation, with a distinctive brand, huge space, and attempts at having decent food options as well.

But it all adds up to a fairly generic product without much differentiation at this point in Vancouver’s brewery evolution. The beers weren’t quite there yet when we visited — the Pear Saison being a prime example — and with only six options on the menu, you may feel limited.

Many breweries have growing pains in their first year only to improve as time goes on; we certainly hope Boardwalk is one of those.

#109: Northpaw (24.17 Points)

Location: Port Coquitlam

Good for: Being in a slightly better version of Boardwalk

Quality: D

Diversity/Innovation: C-

Experience: D

Northpaw is one of those suburban breweries where you can get food and watch the game that has carved out a large audience for themselves, and for that we salute it.

But if you’re going for a beer, in a brewery setting, there’s not a lot that’s unique or excellent.

Another business park starter pack brewery with high ceilings in east Port Coquitlam, Northpaw is probably best known for its C.R.E.A.M ales, which are mildly pleasant if a bit artificial seeming. There tends to be eight options on tap, usually pretty strong flavours (pilsners and lagers are not their passion).

Many communities have places like Northpaw, and they serve the community well. Just go in with proper expectations.

#108: Monkey Nine (24.58 Points)

Location: Richmond

Good for: Going bowling before or after

Quality: C

Diversity/Innovation: C-

Experience: D

There are a now a number of places in Metro Vancouver that brew beer without it being particularly evident *why* they brew beer, or what it adds to what they’re trying to do with their business.

Monkey Nine is likely at the top at that list.

In Richmond’s Riverport District, part of a complex that includes a bowling alley, Monkey Nine are the beers you can have while eating at a perfectly cromulent brewpub. There’s not a lot of distribution of them outside of that, and the beers themselves are fairly basic but inoffensive. They’re a slight step up from the worst on the list, even if you wouldn’t be necessarily motivated to buy a six-pack.

If you happen to be in the area for a movie or laser tag or the extreme air part, Monkey Nine works for getting a meal and a decent pint. But if you don’t find a way a way to get out there, you’re not particularly missing out.

#107: Hastings Mill (24.63 Points)

Location: Vancouver

Good for: Listening to some live music in a dive bar

Quality: D

Diversity/Innovation: F

Experience: B-

In any ranking of Vancouver breweries, someone necessarily has to fill the last-place spot for the city itself.

And that place is Pat’s Pub.

Which is a shame, because Pat’s Pub is at its heart, a brewery for the residents of Strathcona and the Downtown Eastside. When so many breweries in the ever-expanding district exploit the working class aesthetic of their residents while unavoidably being part of the Speed Mode Gentrification that is Vancouver in the 21st century, Pat’s is obviously authentic. The space is dark and windowless, with a bare-essentials approach to the furnishings, and relatively low prices for drinks of all sorts.

But both times we’ve gone, there have only been four beers on tap. And while they’re given in a giant blacksmith-esque contraption if you get a flight, they’re ultimately basic and uninspiring, passable but lacking any depth.

You can find all sorts of musical acts playing here — we’ve enjoyed both a jazz and punk show — and if you come in with the right expectations it can be a fun time at an authentic dive bar.

Just don’t expect the beers to be part of that.

#106: Off The Rail (24.9 Points)

Location: Vancouver

Good for: Starting your East Van beer crawl

Quality: C

Diversity/Innovation: D

Experience: C+

Off The Rail has now been around for seven years, and what you could say about them when they began is the same as what you could say now. Their Raj Mahal India Ale is well-liked. Their offerings are fairly plentiful. Their space is bright and Instagram-worthy.

And yet, they’ve been coasting on mostly average beer for pretty much forever: a collection of basic core groups, somewhat interesting but inconsistent rotational choices, in a pleasant but cramped tasting room.

Not everyone in Yeast Van can have the meteoric rise of Superflux or the consistency of Strange Fellows or the quirkiness of Callister, and yes, this city is incredibly spoiled for great places to drink, but concrete flooring, high wooden tables, and passable ales weren’t enough to impress anyone in 2017, and especially don’t in 2022.

#105: Big Ridge (25.33 Points)

Location: Surrey

Good for: Having a pint watching the game in Surrey

Quality: D

Diversity/Innovation: C-

Experience: C

In the course of our “research”, we went to many breweries outside of Vancouver we wouldn’t have otherwise sought out. Some were good and some were bad, but virtually all were memorable because they were trying unique things to stick out in their community, and for that we were grateful.

Big Ridge is not one of those places.

It’s a brewpub in a strip mall in the southern part of Surrey, and if you want a place that combines the dining atmosphere of a Brown’s with the beer quality of Granville Island, then this, good friend, is the place for you.

But Big Ridge does not aspire to be a beer snob mecca — it aspires to be a place where people can watch the Big Game, eat a burger and purchase an ever-so-slightly adventurous beer.

And in that, it succeeds. Aside from the good price and decent size of the tasters, there’s a pretty good mix of rotating options (we enjoyed the marzen and the weisse when here in the summer, but they do decent stouts as well), and one of their standbys, the Clover IPA, is hoppy yet accessible enough to enjoy as a full pint.

Let’s be clear: this is not great beer, or a great space, and there is no real need for anyone north of Newton or west of Scott Road to seek it out. There’s a reason it’s been around for more than two decades though.

#T-103: Granville Island (25.57 points)

Location: Vancouver

Good for: Pretending to be a tourist or that it’s 2006

Quality: C-

Diversity/Innovation: D

Experience: C+

Comparing the granddaddy of Vancouver craft brewing companies with places that have opened in the last decade is like judging Family Guy against Fleabag: one has been around forever, is passively known by millions and is a gateway drug to better beer, while the other is, you know, actually good.

And with Granville Island owned by a subsidiary of Molson, it’s questionable whether it should even be on this list — but let’s dive in anyway.

Comfortingly, the beer is exactly as you remember it: while the names have changed somewhat, it’s still somewhat flavourful, somewhat similar and the very definition of passable. The Winter Ale, like the Canucks, remains an institution you look forward to every year, and are inevitably disappointed by. The full list of taps, much like any glass tower built in Vancouver during the 1990s, is interesting at first glance but lacks depth. The tasting room is cavernous but otherwise nice.

In recent years, Granville Island has been promoting their small batch beer, which can be interesting, but those are a side experiment that’s a minuscule part of their overall operations and tasting room experience.

In short, the brewery you knew and enjoyed — relative to the competition that existed 15 years ago — hasn’t changed. Whether that’s a good thing is up to you.

#T-103: Electric Bicycle (25.57 Points)

Location: Vancouver

Good for: Chaotic Instagram times

Quality: D

Diversity/Innovation: D

Experience: B+

One doesn’t go to Electric Bicycle for the beer.

One goes to Electric Bicycle, the newest of the Mt. Pleasant area breweries, because it’s a vibe. The psychedelic colours, funhouse mirrors, weird art mixed with a 1950s diner aesthetic makes it a fun place to be, which is why it’s generally very packed inside a small but efficiently used space.

But the good times hide the fact that the beer is usually a bit aggressive in its fruit-forward tones and lacking in much depth, to say nothing of what is a fairly short tap list. Some people have sworn they’ve gotten better since their beginnings (as most breweries do) but we’ve given then a couple extra chances, and it’s still inconsistent, and a clear step down from R&B or Faculty, let alone some of the more prestigious places a few blocks further away.

Don’t let that stop you from grabbing a Fruit By The Foot and indulging in your inner child. But it’s ironic that this ties in our rankings with Granville Island — two places better known for their distinct identities than the beer itself.

#102: Yaletown (25.75 Points)

Location: Vancouver

Good for: Having a mid-life crisis in Yaletown

Quality: D

Diversity/Innovation: D

Experience: B-

Yaletown Brewing, the best of the three Mark James breweries occupying the lower rungs of our rankings, could be described as one of the most approachable breweries in town. At worst, the beer feels like an afterthought.

Unlike most of its competitors, it feels most appropriate to talk about the space Yaletown Brewing has created first and foremost. It dominates the corner of Mainland and Helmcken, boasting one of the city’s more popular patios, and the room itself is split into a sit-down dining area and a more open-concept bar with TV sports, pool, and booths to chill in with your buddies. Needless to say, it’s a fun place.

Now, the beer is a different story. They typically carry four regulars and four rotating taps, among which there are typically only one or two beers worth re-ordering. The flavours are flat and uninteresting: unanimously, their best beer at the time of review was the Tex Mex Lager, which gives an idea of what the rest must be like.

Above all, Yaletown Brewing knows what it is. It’s a bar first and a brewery second. Generally, their beer isn’t offensively bad, but in this city, there’s always something better available. The only place you should be drinking Yaletown beer is at Yaletown Brewing, but you’ll have a perfectly good time doing that.

#101: A-Frame (26.2 Points)

Location: Squamish

Good for: Having a perfectly fine beer if Backcountry is full

Quality: C

Diversity/Innovation: D

Experience: C+

Of all the breweries we reviewed, A-Frame would make the nicest daycare. It contains what can only be described as a nice play area, with a low table and nice wooden seats suitable for wee patrons. There are nice local wooden toys to buy. There are picnic tables outside for when the weather is nice, too.

It certainly is a nice place, and a visit in July, when the weather is warm and their patio surrounded by lavender, sound nice, doesn’t it?

But in our times here, we’ve found the beers fairly uninspiring. The focus is on approachable lighter flavours, with a fair amount of citrus, but we’ve had none that we’ve felt the need to bring home with us — and while we confess the pandemic means we’ve only done minimal checking up in the last year or two, we haven’t heard enough of a local buzz to go searching.

That might be a rough review, but it’s hard to deny that A-Frame is deliberately aiming for some pretty basic, albeit nice, notes: sessionable* beers, served in a kid-friendly* space, or taken home to a family BBQ.*

(Adjectives marked with an asterisk, by the way, are taken straight from their website.)

There is nothing particularly wrong with A-Frame. It serves nice new beers, in a nice new space, for nice new Squamish people. If you just moved to the area, you might love it. But there are better things to try than nice.

#100: Twa Dogs (26.5 Points)

Location: Saanich

Good for: Having average beer in a good distillery

Quality: C

Diversity/Innovation: D

Experience: B-

Usually if a brewery ranks low, our review might be a wee bit blunt and suggest they should stop making beer, either because they make bad beer (or at least, aggressively forgettable beer), and consider just being a bar that has a great space.

But Twa Dogs Brewery — formerly known as “Victoria Caledonian Brewery & Distillery” — already has a split focus, specifically with its single-malt whisky distillery operation within its complex.

And that seems to be the overriding passion: while the whisky has won international awards, the beer… well, the beer isn’t bad, but they don’t bring anything to the table except a basic definition of various style. They’ve done interesting saison and sours, but ultimately the vast majority of their offerings are as straightforward as they are forgettable.

But the space is welcoming (assuming you’re not put off by the quasi-Scottish kitschy gift shop), the staff are friendly, and the whisky is good. But this is a ranking of breweries, so the presence of solid whisky in house contributes to the experience only.

And it’s a neat experience! And wonderful whisky!

But the beer is just there.

Next: Part 2 — The Adequate Tier!

Categories: Brewery Rankings, Uncategorized

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