11/11/2013 12:13 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Vancouver Craft Beer: Tasting Lounges To Give Brewers A Boost

VANCOUVER - About once a week, Scott Greff walks a block and a half from where he lives in Vancouver's trendy Main Street district, a large glass growler in hand, to a small brewery nestled between an otherwise unremarkable strip of offices, storage bays and autoshops.

Inside the three-month-old tasting room at 33 Acres Brewing Co., Greff can fill up his growler with about two litres of any of the microbrewery's three different varieties (his favourite is 33 Acres of Life, a hybrid between a lager and ale). If he isn't in a hurry, he can grab a glass of beer to stay, like he did on this recent fall evening.

Even on a weeknight, the brewery is teeming with people, either saddled up to the bar or huddled around several tables in a sparsely decorated white-coloured tasting room that has an almost rustic cafeteria feel. Outside, a popular food truck sells fish tacos, leaving an aroma of hops and salsa hanging in the air.

There are countless bars and restaurants just a few blocks away, but instead, Greff is here, sipping on a beer that was brewed in a large production room on the other side of the taps.

"It's a lot more casual," says Greff.

"It's between a coffee shop and a pub. ... And I love the idea of a growler, taking it and getting it to go."

33 Acres is one of a growing number of microbreweries and distilleries that have opened up in recent years as Vancouver undergoes something of a craft beer renaissance, with more than a dozen operations either open or expected to open soon, largely sprinkled throughout the rapidly gentrifying industrial areas that skirt the city's downtown core.

And the city's breweries — not to mention craft beer aficionados — are about to receive a boost, thanks to new liquor laws that will allow them to open full-scale lounges, serving more of their own products on site.

Up until this year, provincial and municipal liquor laws allowed breweries and distilleries to operate scaled-down tasting rooms that allowed customers to give products a try. They could give away all free samples they wanted, but could legally only sell each customer a single 12-ounce glass before cutting them off.

This past spring, the B.C. government updated its legislation to allow so-called tasting lounges, effectively lifting the 12-ounce cap. Municipal governments have been slowly updating their own bylaws to match, but many of the region's breweries expect to secure their updated liquor licences within the next few weeks or months.

The City of Vancouver, which finalized its updated bylaws in July, says it expects to eventually hand out at least 15 tasting lounge licences to local breweries and distillers. That total doesn't include similar operations in neighbouring communities such as North Vancouver and Surrey, which are also following suit.

Josh Michnik, one of the owners of 33 Acres, says there's something special about getting the beer directly from the people who make it.

"I think it's going that way in multiple industries, not just craft brewing, but also local foods and local craft distilleries and local clothing — local everything," he says.

"If people can get their products made by their neighbour, why wouldn't you?"

About four blocks from 33 Acres, right along Main Street, is Brassneck Brewery. Brassneck opened last month, brewing a collection of complex ales and porters, and its tasting room has been standing-room-only since it opened.

Other breweries such as Main Street Brewing Co. and Red Truck Beer, which is relocating to the area with a new brewery and diner, are expected to arrive in the area soon.

Another pocket of microbreweries has sprouted up on the north end of Commercial Drive in the city's east end, such as Storm Brewing, Parallel 49, Coal Harbour Brewing Co., and Powell Street Brewing, most of which already operate small tasting rooms and hope to take advantage of the new lounge rules. Another, Bomber Brewing, is also expected to open by the end of the year.

Across the water in North Vancouver sits Bridge Brewing Co., which styles itself as a nanobrewery, and Deep Cove Brewers and Distillers, which, as the name suggests, is about to add vodka to its repertoire of beers.

In Surrey, Central City Brewing, which makes the popular Red Racer IPA, recently opened a new 6,000-square-metre brewery and distillery.

The Vancouver-area's burgeoning craft beer industry has even sparked a new tour company, appropriately named Vancouver Brewery Tours, which organizes three-hour tours that hit up several breweries for $69.

Michael Tod, one of co-owners of Parallel 49, said beer drinkers in Vancouver no longer need to look enviously to cities with more established craft beer industries, such as Victoria, Seattle or Portland.

"It seems like they're popping up everywhere," says Tod.

"Five years ago, we were 15 years behind Portland, as far as our beer culture. Now, we've narrowed that gap considerably."

The region's updated liquor laws aren't just helping beer drinkers. The city also boasts several new distilleries that are making local vodkas, gins and whiskies, and they, too, are hoping to take advantage of the new tasting lounge rules.

One of them is Odd Society Spirits, also located in east Vancouver, which opened last month. Odd Society has enlisted the help of a nearby brewery to create the mash of malted barley and water needed to make hard liquor.

Right now, the distillery can only offer free samples of its vodka (and, eventually, gin and whisky), but Odd Society founder Gordon Glanz hopes to obtain the tasting lounge license next year, serving house-made martinis and cocktails in a room that sits just a few metres from two gorgeous copper stills.

"People come and see how you make the alcohol, but they're not allowed to sit down and drink it — it's just a step in the whole process that's missing," says Glanz.

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