Island Breweries: A Brief History

Posted by Ann Brydle on
DipWSET, Certified Sommelier (CMS), Certified Sherry Professional, French Wine Scholar, Italian Wine Scholar

If you asked for a craft beer on Vancouver Island, or anywhere in BC, before the early 80's you would probably be met with a blank stare.


Prior to this time, the only beer you could get your hands on was mass-produced lager that didn’t offer up very much in terms of flavour, character, or variety. Beer was simply beer, and that was that.

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John Mitchell, 1982.
But a few pioneering brewers who were frustrated with this lack of decent beer decided to take matters (or malts?) into their own hands. John Mitchell, who managed the Troller Pub in Horseshoe Bay, began brewing beer for the pub with the help of Frank Appleton. These two cobbled together Canada’s first microbrewery in 1982 mainly with modified equipment from dairy farms. The beer was a hit and they struggled to fill kegs fast enough to slake the thirst of locals who embraced the new craft beer.

Frank Appleton went on to become a consultant Brew Master and was instrumental in opening several breweries across BC, including Victoria’s Swan’s Brewpub. He also taught many other brewers around the province, including Sean Hoyne (Hoyne Brewing).

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John Mitchell (right) and son, Edward, 1982.
Eventually, John Mitchell partnered with Paul Hadfield in Victoria and they opened Canada’s very first Brewpub, Spinnakers, in 1984. It is thanks to their efforts that laws were changed to allow for beer to be produced and sold under the same roof. It is also thanks to them that Victoria has become an integral hub of the craft beer boom. Spinnakers is still owned by the Hadfields and has since expanded their offerings to a wide range of beer, cider, and spirits.

In that same year, Island Pacific Brewing opened in Saanichton, though it would later change its name to Vancouver Island Brewing and move to its current downtown Victoria location. The first Brew Master here was Hermann Hoerterer, who was instrumental in developing some of the first recipes at Okanagan Springs Brewing and was a founding partner in Whistler Brewing.

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Island Pacific Brewing (1984)
After these two breweries opened, the demand for craft beers that offered a wider range of flavours and styles grew, and more breweries began popping up all over the island. North Island Brewing opened in Campbell River in 1986, though didn’t stay open long, and Swans Brewpub opened in 1989. At first, new breweries opened at a slow and steady pace, but this would eventually turn into a rapid onslaught of seemingly never-ending grand openings.

In 1992, members of CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale), founded the Great Canadian Beer Festival to celebrate the burgeoning craft beer industry, and they did not allow large-scale producers to participate. This signalled the start of rapid craft beer growth throughout the province for most of the 90’s and solidified Victoria’s position as a key player in the craft beer world. Canoe Brewpub, whose heritage building was initially built as the City Lights Building in 1894, brewed it’s first beer in 1996. Saltspring Island Ales and Lighthouse Brewing opened in 1998, followed by Longwood Brewpub in Nanaimo in 1999.


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Canoe Brewpub. Photo credit: Edible Vancouver Island.

The 2000s saw several popular Island breweries get their start: Phillips Brewing (2001), Driftwood (2008), Nanaimo’s Wolf Brewing (2010), then Hoyne, Moon Under Water, and Tofino Brewing in 2011.

In 2013, laws changed and tasting rooms in breweries were finally allowed. While this trend took a little bit of time to reach Victoria producers, the small tasting room model proved to be a popular choice for new breweries who wanted to offer a more versatile and rapidly rotating selection of brews that would keep guests coming back time and again.

The tasting room model allowed for breweries to open in smaller communities all over the island. Cumberland Brewing (2014), Gladstone (2015) in Courtenay, White Sails (2015) in Nanaimo, Beachfire Brewing (2016) in Campbell River, and Sooke Oceanside Brewing (2016) just to name a few.

And the trend doesn’t seem to be slowing down. New breweries continue to pop up all over, like Ucluelet Brewing (2020) or Victoria’s Ile Sauvage (2018). And while many of these smaller breweries aren’t available in stores yet, there’s certainly no shortage on our shelves when it comes to unique and tasty craft beers.

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Driftwood Arcus Pilsner

Driftwood Arcus Pilsner

A super refreshing German style Pilsner made with Tettnanger hops

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Hoyne Dark Matter

Hoyne Dark Matter

Not as roasty as a stout, not as sweet as a porter, but packed with chocolate and coffee flavours

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Spinnakers Nut Brown Ale

Spinnakers Nut Brown Ale

Light in body, but not in flavour! Nutty, malty, and delicious

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Phillips Glitterbomb Hazy Pale Ale

Phillips Glitterbomb Hazy Pale Ale

A juicy citrus-bomb of a hazy pale ale

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