50 Beers in 5 Days: Tall Sails to Ales Tour Explores West Coast Breweries

Beer lovers and sailing aficionados unite for five days of swilling by sea

Credit: Susan Hollis

Cracking a cold BC craft beer on a boat

The Tall Sails to Ales Tour steeps beer aficionados in five delicious days of visits to BC microbreweries by sail

Stepping aboard the Maple Leaf schooner in Sidney, BC, I was met with the most appealing reception.

“As you know, this is a beer tour so be prepared to get beer for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” said chef Drew Kennedy as I settled in with five other guests on the upper deck of the restored heritage sailboat. “We’re going to play with your taste buds until next Tuesday.”

Tall Sails to Ales Tour

A beer lover’s dream, the Tall Sails to Ales tour is a five-day, ale-inspired sailing trip around Vancouver Island’s south coast and Gulf Islands.

With an itinerary that includes sampling 10 to 12 fresh-from-the-brewery beers per day, private brewery tours, and a extensive menu of eats made with and for the beers, this signature expedition is a stroke of genius for anyone with an interest in craft beer.

Beer-infused Meals

After a cheeky talk and sampling selection customized by Spinnakers Gastro Brewpub owner and craft beer pioneer, Paul Hadfield, we set off for our first evening – an on-board dinner of oyster soup a la crème made with Driftwood Farmhand Ale, followed by spinach salad with Howe Sound Bitter-infused dressing and served with ship’s biscuits and a Flemish Beer Stew made with Beaver Brown Ale.

Dessert was a chocolate terrine served with Buckerfield’s Legacy, a barley wine made by Andrew Tessier, brew master at Swans Brewpub in Victoria.

West Coast Brewing History

Throughout the meal we were educated about the history of the west coast brewing industry by Greg Evans, the executive director of the Maritime Museum of BC, and one of the only individuals on the planet to hold a master’s degree in the economic history of the west coast’s microbrewery movement.  

A casual man in his early sixties, Evans is the expedition’s host, and his vast knowledge is punctuated by a pure and unadulterated love of all things beery.

“People have grown up with the notion that food pairing with wine, that’s the thing, but I tell you, the variety of beers we have available in British Columbia and in Western North America, is just off the charts,” he said. “It can’t be denied that the renaissance of craft beer can be completely attributed to the Pacific Coast, and only after that did it move east.”

Maple Leaf Adventures Breweries Tour

Run by Maple Leaf Adventures owners (and husband and wife team) Maureen Gordon and Kevin Smith, the Tall Sails to Ales expedition has been operating quietly out of Sidney Harbour for half a decade – with excellent results for patrons and local beer makers alike.

“We realized that people who appreciated fine craft beer would probably also like classic boats,” said Smith. “As far as we know, nobody else on earth is doing a beer tour by schooner.”

After a morning jaunt around Russell Island in Saltspring Island’s Fulford Harbour, we explored Nanaimo’s Fat Cat Brewery – one of North America’s smallest microbreweries.

The mom and pop show produces beer using all-natural malt and non-automated equipment. Levers and hand cranks, hoses, buckets and bottles are spread about the room in organized chaos.

We sample, swirl, admire and (somewhat glowingly) head to dinner at Nanaimo’s Longwood Inn. After a brewery tour and a number of samples, we sit down to a dinner that includes a coriander-crusted pork loin with chocolate porter jus, served with Scottish ale and followed by a Doppelbock chocolate mousse paired with barley wine.

As we eat, Hadfield’s opening words echo through every bite. “North America is the most fun place to brew beer in the world,” he had said, grinning like a Cheshire over his soon-to-be-released pumpkin ale. “We regard the UK as the guardian of traditions, but they don’t get to experiment because they hold this title. We can go over there, try what we like, get ideas, come home and make all the new flavours.”

With more than 1,200 microbreweries established across North America, a majority of which are located on the west coast, craft beer has moved from basements to beer stores.

As more consumers buy local and support regional producers, local breweries haven’t balked at the opportunity to gain a secure industry foothold, and everyone aboard the Tall Sails to Ales tour is behind them 100 per cent of the way.