at Spinnakers Brewpub
When I moved across Canada from southern Ontario to Victoria, British Columbia, in 1991, I was already familiar with microbrewing (we didn’t call it “craft beer” yet) — my coming of age coincided neatly with Ontario’s nascent microbrewery movement, so I’d already started developing a taste for real, flavourful beer. But I had no idea when I arrived in Victoria that I had actually moved to the very epicentre of the movement, the “cradle of the revolution” as I called it in my book more than 20 years later.
I moved into a little house my brother was renting near the western terminus of a then-new walkway that ran along the Inner Harbour all the way downtown. We could cycle or rollerblade downtown in 15 minutes or walk it in about 40, and we quickly discovered Spinnakers Brewpub, conveniently located at the halfway point. It was love at first sight. To me, a young dude who fancied himself a world traveller after backpacking around Europe for two months earlier that year, Spinnakers reminded me of the ancient pubs I’d visited in London or Dublin, but in fact it was less than a decade old at that point.
The story of Spinnakers’ origin begins in Horseshoe Bay, BC, a small town north of Vancouver best known for its ferry terminal from whence you can travel to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island or up to the Sunshine Coast. Horseshoe Bay was also where a pair of British ex-pats, Frank Appleton and John Mitchell, built Canada’s first microbrewery in 1982. The Horseshoe Bay Brewery was built to brew just one beer, Bay Ale, for the Troller Pub, which Mitchell managed. And though it garnered a lot of attention upon its completion, it was a makeshift operation and didn’t last long. Still, it kicked off the whole craft beer revolution in Canada.
Soon after Horseshoe Bay came online, however, Mitchell decided he wanted to build a proper English-style brewpub. He travelled to England that September, touring brewpubs as research, and returned with a suitcase full of British beer, which he brought to a meeting of beer lovers at the Pickled Onion, an unofficial pub someone had built in their converted basement garage in Vancouver.
A young architect named Paul Hadfield attended that meeting, and he recalls Mitchell brought a couple bottles each of 14 different UK brands.
“Working our way through the beers, discussing the merits of each and speculating on recipes, the group had a grand evening as we also tried another five or six North American bottled beers and finally settled into the draft canisters of home brew brought by a couple of the participants.”
Hadfield says the home brews were the best beers of the night, and s a lightbulb went off in his head: “It was evident that the technology was in the room and the task at hand was to find a location and set about the process of building Canada’s first in-house brewpub of the modern era.”
That location turned out to be an underserved area on Victoria’s harbourfront. At the time, it was considered the wrong side of the tracks, undesirable despite being on the waterfront. City councillors did not seem to know how to handle the zoning for a brewpub; on the Spinnakers’ website, Hadfield writes, “One councillor summed it up nicely by telling us to find a neighbourhood that did not exist so that there would be no pushback and that those who lived next to the proposed brewpub would be doing so out of their own volition.” Well, that’s essentially what they had found.
It took nearly two years for Spinnakers to open, but when it finally served its first beers on June 16, 1984, the tap list included Spinnakers Ale, Mt. Tolmie Dark, and Saanichton Bitter, initially named for a nearby suburban community.
Hadfield recalls that his brother-in-law wiped “Saanichton Bitter” off the chalkboard and replaced it with “Mitchell’s ESB,” which it has remained ever since.
Empress Stout was added to the lineup in the early fall of 1984 and was followed by a barley wine style Christmas Ale, tapped in December 1984. Later, John Mitchell went on to help build Howe Sound Brewing in Squamish, which serves another ESB he created. A curmudgeonly fellow, known to carry a thermometer in his pocket so he could tell when his beer had warmed to proper cellar temperature, Mitchell died in June, 2019, at age 89. On the day I heard, I rode my bike over to Spinnakers to raise a glass in his memory.
Mitchell’s ESB was modelled after Fuller’s London Pride, and though the recipe has been tweaked over the years, it remains faithful to that goal today. The brewery uses all Maris Otter malt with up to 5% crystal malt, classic English Ale yeast and mostly noble hops with a slight Northwest twist to give it some local character. The thing that puts it over the top, however, is that it is served cask-conditioned from Spinnakers’ cellar, with each cask given two to three weeks for secondary fermentation to develop the finely dissolved CO2 that results in its creamy mouth feel. They also serve a draught version, and they package it in cans, but it just isn’t as good that way.
I offer the same advice to any beer lover visiting Victoria for the first time: Pilgrim, take yourself to Spinnakers and order a pint of cask-conditioned Mitchell’s ESB. There are lots of more trendy, cutting-edge beers at other breweries in Victoria, or even at Spinnakers, but this is the original, and it is still a beautiful thing. And after you finish that delicious pint, don’t be surprised if you find yourself ordering a second one.
Flagship beers were chosen by the individual writers with no input from the #FlagshipFebruary partners or sponsor breweries.