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Craft Beer & Wilderness: A World-Class Experience in BC’s Own Backyard

This past June, I returned to Nootka Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island for a very special event: the second annual Craft Beer & Wilderness experience (CBW), hosted by Brad and Dennyse Harris. On a beautiful sunny morning in Comox, a group of avid beer and food lovers boarded a bus for a five-day adventure.

Brad and Dennyse’s passion for beer, food, adventure, and sharing life-changing experiences with others has led them down this path. Their goal is to offer something truly unique and intimate that is educational and recreational at the same time. A big part of the experience is the chance to meet and talk with leaders in the craft beer industry while relaxing on a floating resort in the middle of pristine wilderness.

As noted in my Fall 2018 article: if you were to search way back into the history of craft beer in British Columbia, you would find that the first European-style beer was brewed in Nootka Sound at Friendly Cove by Captain James Cook’s crew in 1778. The motivation was to combat scurvy that was being suffered by the crews after months on the open sea. By using Sitka Spruce needles for flavoring, which were full of vitamin C, they were able to get the crew healthy again. This will be of significance later in the story.

Meeting up in Comox at Land & Sea Brewing
Cicerone® Rob Mangelsdorf of The Growler

New at the event this year: a daily tasting session led by two Cicerones®. Day One’s session focused on pilsners and lagers: a very enjoyable way to get our feet wet. Most of the participants over 40 grew up on these styles of beers. After the hazy IPA trend, many craft beer artisans seem to be focusing on pilsners, Kolsch and lagers, which are a bit more challenging as they need to be fermented and aged at cool temperatures.

Day Two’s tasting was IPAs. Everyone has their favorite IPA and there is a lot of mainstream consumption of this style of ale. They’re higher in alcohol, and our host noticed the volume level of conversation in the room go up as the ales were consumed. Fortunately, lunch was served right after.

The next day, our tasting session focused on sours. I have liked them from the start, but many of my beer friends find them challenging. There seemed to be a few more fans of the style by the end of this educational tasting.

Each year, Brad invites three outstanding brewers to participate in the brewing of a Nootka beer. Local botanicals scavenged from nearby beaches and forests are used to create a unique brew that is later shared with all those who attended. All three brewers collaborate in the decision and Brad helps out with his ideas. This is really at the heart of this experience. The three craft breweries for 2019 were represented by Kent Courtice from Boombox, Tristan Stewart from Luppolo Brewing Company/Temporal Artisan Ales, and Brian MacIsaac and Lucas Parks from Crannóg Ales. Surprise guest: nano brewer Dave Paul from Love Shack Libations in Qualicum. All the brewers brought lots of their highly sought-after beers to share.

Famed brewers man the large brewing station
Guests get to participate in the brewing

After lunch each day, a group of guests boarded a sport fishing boat for a 30-minute high-speed trip to the entrance of Friendly Cove. Expectations were high, thanks to a local historian’s presentation on the layers of events that have shaped this area (and Canada’s landscape as a whole) over the last 230 years. You could see the excitement in everyone’s faces as the boats arrived in the beautiful bay. The beach was gorgeous, the water crystal-clear turquoise. 

In a small shack on the edge of the beach we met First Nations master carver Sanford Williams. Highly respected in the BC First Nations art community, Williams spends two months of the summer carving below his home near Yuquot Lighthouse.

The small shack on the edge of the beach, in the center of the bay below Sanford William’s home
Williams spends two months of the summer carving below his home near Yuquot Lighthouse.

At Friendly Cove, we visited a fallen totem, a church, a lighthouse and the open Pacific Ocean beaches. It was easy to imagine the Spanish fort in the entrance of the bay, and the Mowachaht/Muchalaht village of 1500 people that filled the cove back in 1778 when Captain James Cook brewed that first beer.

At Friendly Cove, we visited a fallen totem

The food pairing was ramped up for year two. Breakfast was traditional, but lunch and dinner were extravaganzas: ale cheeses, beer burgers, foie gras, lamb and elk. Not only did the kitchen work hard, but the smoker out on the deck produced the most delicious creations each day.

Our final night included an amazing dinner: each course paired with a beer presented by its brewer. It was about bringing together all elements into each meal.

Breathtaking food & views
Paddleboarding on the water
Yoga class
Massage on the dock

With the Brewers

I had a chance to sit down with each of the brewers and talk about their experiences at CBW 2019. Kent Courtice told me the brew day was fantastic and a lot of fun. “My passion has always been homebrewing,”, he related. “I like to see everyone’s setup. Everyone does something different, has different equipment, different techniques, but ultimately it makes a great beer, no matter how you do it.” He enjoyed seeing Brad’s setup.

Tristan Stewart talked about the food: “It has been unbelievably good. Everything has been spectacular on the food side of things. Talking to the guests about my food pairing and beer and the foie gras was exciting.”

Brian MacIsaac mentioned getting to experience Tristan’s complex beers, Kent’s from Boombox and Dave’s from Love Shack. “All these people coming together from different backgrounds. Feels like royalty.”

Brian MacIsaac of Crannóg Ales

Lucas Parks was blown away by the skills of the kitchen staff: “There was the Back Hand of God glaze on the lamb and the brown ale cheese on the IPA burgers. It was olfactory hedonism with local inspirations.”

Dave Paul really enjoyed the Friendly Cove excursion. “I didn’t know what to expect, but having the informative, historical talk in the morning, and then to go out and witness it and see Friendly Cove, that’s special. I am really glad I bought Sanford’s book. You can feel his wisdom, history, and inner calm as he sits there with the great view, doing his work.” Dave called the Nootka Sound Resort experience the next level of customer service and satisfaction. “Just to be able to have this much beer variety, in this setting; everything from ferrying around in boats, the food, the rooms are luxurious with the best view around. Staff is here for you 24/7 if you need something—it’s very impressive. I can’t wait for next year.”

Just a sample of the extensive beer menu

Brad told me the three brewers for CBW 2020 will be Julia Hanlon (Steamworks), Iain Hill (Strange Fellows) and Ben Love (Portland’s Gigantic Brewing). “There will be 20 taps of craft beer on tap all retreat long. For CBW3 we will have two chefs and a sous chef. As a bonus, Eric Pateman (Edible Canada) will be joining us.”

He continues, “There will be theme nights including Japanese-style pub and Texas-style smoked meat pit. The two Cicerones® will be Adam Henderson (Superflux) and Stephane Turcotte (Île Sauvage). Stephane is Vancouver Island’s only Advanced Cicerone®. We will also be cracking the Magnum of barrel-aged beer that has sat on the ocean floor for one year. Oh, and did I mention a full-time naturalist and two massage therapists?”

Dennyse tells me that early bird discount tickets are on sale through December 31, 2019. It sounds like an experience not to miss.

Memories of CBW 2019


Brian K. Smith

Brian K. Smith, MPA is an accredited member of the BC Association of Travel Writers. He is a member of Professional Photographers of Canada with a Master of Photographic Arts designation. Brian writes the Have Camera, Will Travel column and is Chief Photographer for What's Brewing.

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