Courtenay & Cumberland
Can craft beer change a community? The Comox Valley is proof positive that it can.
This community on the east coast of Vancouver Island, which includes the municipalities of Courtenay, Comox and Cumberland, has some enviable assets. Mount Washington Alpine Resort is a mere half hour’s drive from downtown and sits on the doorstep of BC’s first provincial park, Strathcona, a rugged wilderness of mountains, glacial lakes, alpine meadows and ancient forests. Clear rivers like the Puntledge, Browns and Tsolum meander from one swimming hole to the next through forest and farmland. And the deliciously diverse output of the local farming community is on full display at the Comox Valley Farmers’ Market from early spring to late fall. That’s where you can fill a basket with, among many other tasty edibles, Windhover Farm blueberries, farm-raised bison from Island Bison Ranch, Big D’s Honey, and fresh produce from Green Gate Farm, Heiwa Farm and dozens of other small-scale, family operations. An ever-expanding trail network has put the Comox Valley on the must-ride list for mountain bikers, hikers and active travellers from throughout BC and beyond, never mind the white sand beaches and islands that are a short boat trip from the Comox Marina.
However, for a long time there was something missing from this idyllic picture. It was like da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, but without the reticent smile. Though craft beers had started appearing on local taps some time ago, the cult of Lucky Lager still had roots as deep as an old growth cedar. Craft breweries and the convivial beer culture that surrounds them remained something mysterious and exotic, a phenomenon from distant lands. Six years ago, that changed. Today, if I wanted to, I could literally walk out my front door on a summer afternoon with an inner tube under my arm and five minutes later be floating down the Puntledge River. Then, a half hour or so after launching my tube, I would be flip-flopping my way to the Gladstone Brewing Company for a crisp Belgian Single on the outdoor patio. However, it’s February, not summertime, so I’ll drive to my first stop on a tour of the proliferating beer taps of the Comox Valley — a beer tourist in my hometown.
Daniel Sharratt, co-founder of Gladstone, was living on Gladstone Avenue in Victoria when he and his family uprooted to the Comox Valley with a business plan for a brewery in a town without one yet.
“We were driving down 4th Street and saw a For Lease sign in the window,” Sharratt says about the inviting and vacant space at the corner of 4th and Cliff Avenue that was an auto dealership, among many other things, in its former lives.
The corner lot building seemed tailor made for a brewery, with a solid concrete floor and tall ceilings. It also had the right dose of industrial chic, with an art deco touch of glass bricks in one corner and ample space for outdoor seating. Sharratt and his co-managing wife Alexandra Stephenson decided to stay true to the building’s history; old oil cans, filters and other automotive relics dominate the industrial décor.
I sidle up to the taps for a sleeve of Gladstone’s signature Belgian Single, an uncomplicated ale with a subtle floral hoppiness that is Sharratt’s personal recipe from the days when he was a home brewer by night and a white-collar government economist by day.
A splash of unexpected warm February sun has filled the patio with lunchtime patrons, noshing on burgers and mountainous plates of fries. Head brewer Tak Guenette, who’s been with Gladstone almost since the start, keeps their flagship beers, including Belgian Single, Pilsner and Hazy Pale Ale in the daily mix, while rotating in seasonally appropriate brews, with a refreshing kölsch in the summer season and Czech dark lager and porter for the colder months.
Almost as soon as Gladstone opened for biz in late 2014, they were slammed with patrons like a fast-moving tide in the Courtenay Estuary. It seemed all someone needed to do was brew some beer and hire a guy with a beard and tattoos to work the taps. Locals finally had a place with natural character to quench their thirst for locally brewed craft beers. In truth, Gladstone had been engaged in an informal race with the folks at Cumberland Brewing Company (CBC) to be the first craft brewery to plant their flag in the Comox Valley; Cumberland won the sprint by a mere couple of weeks.
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After a 10-minute winding drive up Cumberland Road toward the mountains, that’s my next stop. A small fortune in mountain bikes is padlocked to the fence outside the CBC patio. Craft beer and bikes seems to be a marriage made in heaven. A group of four women, faces speckled with mud from the trail, huddles beneath the heat lamps, raising post-ride pints and picking over a charcuterie platter. Though it’s early afternoon, a steady stream of mountain bikers rolls up to the complimentary bike wash station before entering the brewery. Like most entrepreneurs in Cumberland, which forms one C in the three C’s of the Comox Valley trio — Courtenay, Comox, Cumberland — lifestyle and not work drew CBC co-owner Darren Adam here. In 2014, while living on Royston Road near Cumberland, he was commuting in his private Cessna to and from jobs wrenching on airplanes.
“I sort of threw it out there that I was looking for something different,” recalls Adam, who is originally from Calgary.
Soon after he met Mike Tymchuk, an entrepreneur also from Calgary who years earlier had founded Wild Rose Brewery in his home city before moving to Vancouver Island. He and wife Caroline had opened Riders Pizza on Cumberland’s historic main street, Dunsmuir Avenue, and were incubating plans for a local brewery. CBC was born. When a suitable space became available next to Riders, they started swinging hammers. By December 2014, they were serving their first pints.
I sit with Adam at the bar and order pint of Forest Fog, a refreshing, citrusy American Pale Wheat Ale that is one of the bustling brewery’s more popular taps.
For every litre of Forest Fog sold, CBC donates 25¢ to the Cumberland Community Forest Society and the ongoing efforts to buy and preserve forestland around Cumberland. It’s another example of civic pride and community activism that defines Cumberland. There’s even a pay-it-forward board in the CBC bar where you can scribble the name of your sweetie or your favourite bike mechanic along with a pre-paid tab.
Instinct told the CBC founders that the village was ready for a drinking establishment like this, a social, community-minded brew pub without walls covered in television screens. They were right. CBC was just as instantly slammed by active-living hopheads as was Gladstone. Now, between Cumberland Brewing, Riders, and a small market garden in a vacant lot next to the pizzeria, this mini beer-based business empire employs some 70 full and part-time staff.
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You can’t talk food in the Comox Valley without walking through the door of Atlas Café. Long before the Comox Valley became the coveted piece of island real estate that it is today, restauranteur Sandra Viney and chef Trent McIntyre opened Atlas on 6th Street, introducing a globally inspired menu that ranges from Greek and Italian to Mexican and Japanese. With scuffed wooden floors in the main dining area, and an adjoining classy cocktail bar, the atmosphere, or “Atlas-sphere,” as Viney likes to call it, is cool and casual, underpinned with a commitment to quality cuisine and service that hasn’t wavered in the 25 years since opening. It’s the reason Atlas Café remains a favourite of locals and visitors both.
“We’re Atlas, we’re global, but we’ve always had an eye to sourcing local and the options have grown hugely since we opened,” says Viney, who is an active supporter of local food security efforts.
For lunch, I order the Spicy Tuna Belly Taco, with locally sourced albacore tuna prepared sashimi style, and served on Abuelo’s soft tacos, made fresh in a small kitchen in Merville north of Courtenay.
Every forkful is, as usual, a mouthwatering tribute to good local food. One thing that has changed over the years is the selection of beers on tap at Atlas. Today all five local breweries are represented, including Ace Brewing Company, which opened less than a year ago.
Ace is housed in a unique, octagonal, post-and-beam building that was a Toyota dealership in another life. With 180 degrees of floor-to-ceiling windows, afternoon sunlight floods the establishment. Being a former car lot, there’s plenty of parking, although since I visited some of the parking lot has been converted into a sunny patio. The brewery is also a few steps away from the paved walking, biking and jogging path that wraps around the Courtenay Airpark, a unique, volunteer-run urban airport that serves private airplane owners. Naturally, Ace adopted an aeronautical theme in name and décor.
“We really felt there was a need for something on the south end of town,” says owner Kent Landolt.
By “something” he means a neighbourhood craft brewery. Landolt took the backdoor, industrial entrance into the brewing business. As a metal fabricator by trade, he builds stainless steel brewery infrastructure. When it comes to beers, Kitty Hawk Cream Ale, a crisp, sessionable blonde ale with notes of honey, defines their approach.
“There are still a lot of hopheads out there and we’ll keep them happy, but I felt we needed to get back to the basics with beer,” Landholt tells me.
That’s his way of saying that if you’re looking for ales that are like liquified hops then perhaps Ace is not the place.
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That night I head to the Flying Canoe Pub in downtown Courtenay to see Celtic rockers Whiskeydicks, visiting the Comox Valley for a two-night stand. Just as the band takes the stage the server delivers a fire-baked Sicilian Pizza to our table. The Comox Valley punches way above its weight when it comes to live entertainment. Bands love to play here, whether it’s the Flying Canoe and the storied Sid Williams Theatre in Courtenay, or Cumberland’s Waverley Hotel, where the walls have witnessed a century’s worth of shenanigans and are papered with an impressive array of posters of touring bands from across Canada and the U.S. The Waverly used to be ground zero for Lucky Lager culture. Years ago Labatt’s even formally recognized Cumberland as the “Luckiest town in Canada,” for its nation-leading per capita consumption of this mass-produced lager. A dubious distinction, some might have said. Either way, times have changed.
The following day it’s time to leave Courtenay and cross the metaphorical train tracks to the other side — Comox.
For all its quaint seaside ambiance, Comox was for too long a bit of a (hmm … how should I put this?) quiet backwater when it comes to beer and après culture. A decade ago two classic bars burned down: first, the Edgewater Pub on the marina, and next, the gritty Lorne Hotel, at the time one of the oldest licensed establishments in BC. Thankfully, Comox’s happy hour landscape has shifted dramatically in the last few years with the opening of two breweries, Land & Sea and New Tradition, as well as the Church St. Taphouse.
I drive along scenic Dyke Road, which skirts the Courtenay Estuary. A blue heron methodically fishes the intertidal zone while a bald eagle surveys the scene from a regal perch atop a massive Cottonwood. Cyclists zip along the wide shoulder commuting between Courtenay and Comox. Afternoon sun glistens on the snowy summits of the Beaufort Range, backstopping the deep green forests of the Comox Valley. After passing the K’omoks First Nation longhouse and reserve, the Dyke Road angles upwards into the Town of Comox.
I hang a left on Anderton Road then, a kilometre or so later, another left on Guthrie. Soon I’m walking through the front door of Land & Sea Brewing Company, which has helped in a big way to turn this rather bland, suburban intersection of franchises into a happening food-and-beverage destination. I step through the door and am greeted by an astonishing metal sculpture of a snarling wolf, created by talented metal worker turned artist Ian Lowe.
Jason Walker, general manager and owner, was on a mission when he opened Land & Sea.
“I had an entrepreneurial itch to scratch, I love our community and I like craft beer,” the former marketing and business consultant tells me after serving a round of pints to some of his regulars. “We wanted to make Comox cool again.”
It was as tall order, but he tackled the mission with gusto. Lacking any formal or informal brewing experience, he assembled a team. Walker scored big when he landed Tessa Gabiniewicz, the talented head brewer at Land & Sea Brewing Co. This past February, she represented Canada at an elite annual gathering of brewers in Britain, hosted by JD Wetherspoon a company with a 40-year history in the food and beverage sector and a fleet of more than 900 pubs in the United Kingdom. This year JD Wetherspoon celebrated female brewers and Gabiniewicz was one of only five women to get the nod.
“I’m pretty floored,” Gabiniewicz says. “There’s such a rich history of brewing in the UK and I’m really proud of being part of it.”
Gabiniewicz brewed her signature Estuary Session Ale, accented with hand-harvested spruce tips that gives the 4.5 % ABV beer a light grapefruit and hoppy bitterness. It’s a mild citrusy brew that goes down as easy as a stroll along the beach at Goose Spit.
“I like session ales because I like to have a few,” Gabiniewicz tells me. That’s about as simple an argument for session ales as you can make.
Walker is excited to have one of their flagship session ales showcased on a big stage.
“We are super chuffed to have Land & Sea beer available across the UK,” Walker says. “It’s a big deal for us. We’re a little community-based brewery that celebrates where we live.”
One way he celebrates community is by incentivizing patrons to get out their cars and ride their bikes with the ABV (anything but vehicles) Club. People who pedal to Land & Sea are eligible to enter a draw for a monthly prize. And for every entry, the brewery donates a quarter to a select charity.
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Making Comox cool again has been a community entrepreneurial effort. Over on Church Street, near the intersection with Comox Avenue, there’s a mix of complementary businesses that proves there’s much more to Comox these days than golf and pickle ball.
In a trifecta of tastiness, you’ll find Coast Range Cannabis, Church Street Wood-fired Bakery, and Church St. Taphouse. That’s where I meet manager Nick Dobson, a transplant from Whistler who spent nearly 20 years in the F & B scene there, helping to open and manage popular watering holes like the Handlebar, before shifting gears and moving to the Comox Valley for a slower pace. However, it’s been anything but slow since the tap house opened last summer, when Dobson signed on as manager.
“I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and say, ‘Thanks so much, we needed this so bad in Comox,’” Dobson says with a laugh.
It was five years of jumping through permitting and financing hoops from the time when rumours of a tap house started circulating like a fall fever to when the doors finally opened last summer. For hopheads, it was similar to the faithful waiting for the completion of a Catholic cathedral in the Middle Ages — a test of patience to say the least.
From sour gose and bitters to Belgian tripels and British porters, Church St’s more than two dozen taps provide a sweeping snapshot of BC’s vibrant craft brew landscape. The list also includes a frequently revolving “charity tap,” the proceeds of which support an organization of the brewer’s choice. I opt for a taste of the Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue charity tap, Ace Brewing’s Drop Tank India Blonde Ale. At a hefty 6.7% and 40 IBU, this meal in a glass is the definition of a non-sessionable beer.
With its post-and-beam design, tall ceilings, big windows and spacious patio, this beer hall makes an impression. The aesthetic is self-described “industrial marine,” a nod to Comox’s close ties to the sea. Old prints of the late French underwater exploring legend Jacques Cousteau adorn the walls, along with a surrealistic print of a sheep in a submarine. In the men’s restroom there’s a beauty poster-sized print of an obscure photo showing John Denver strumming his guitar while busting his gut with laughter next to a coyly smiling Cousteau. The décor works, in an offbeat way. As the after-work crowd starts to fill the stools, I say farewell to Dobson.
On the way to New Tradition Brewing, the most recent addition to the Comox Valley beer scene, I swing past Comox Marina. It’s quiet. Fishermen putter on their boats, engaged in the endless toil of maintenance and upkeep before the next commercial opening. A gentle breeze makes the mast stays on sailboats whistle gently. My attention is drawn by a sign scrawled in black marker on a sheet of cardboard advertising albacore tuna for ale. I stroll down the dock and buy a couple of pieces for the BBQ later this evening.
Two minutes later, I park outside Comox Centre Mall. I’ll admit, the words “shopping mall” are not part of my regular vocab. In fact, I try to avoid them at all costs, but the Comox Mall, once a dated relic from the 1970s, has undergone a major facelift to the point where it might even qualify for some sort of extreme shopping mall makeover award. New Tradition, tucked into a corner across from Benino Gelato, is at the vanguard of this shopping mall re-imagination.
New Tradition is a family affair. Co-founded by friends Pat Savard and Tim Jolley, Savard is head brewer while wife Tammy Blair works the taps and handles the front-end serving staff. Savard’s cousin Ronnie helps scrub tanks, brew beer and serve pints in the cozy tasting room.
In 2017, Savard and Bair uprooted their young family from Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood with a percolating plan to open a brewery in their new home community of Comox. While in Vancouver, Savard was a longtime home brewer, but his bread-and-butter was construction and renovations. When the couple locked on the mall location, they bootstrapped and did virtually all the renovations themselves.
“We built the entire bar, and all the seats and tables with salvaged materials, “Savard says, taking a break from brewing a batch of Cure for the Common Kölsch, one of New Tradition’s stable beers, along with the equally cleverly named Liquid Tuxedo Dark Ale, Noon Patrol IPA and Ivan’s Red Ale. The custom finishing gives the brewery an immediately lived-in, welcome feel despite being open less than a year.
At New Tradition, Sunday is the day to nerd out on beer. Savard calls it “Small Batch Sunday,” a time for staff to get together to experiment with beer recipes. Blair pours me a sleeve of this week’s small batch, Ronnie’s Tartan Pale Ale, which they dubbed “Moving to the Country.”
“At the end of the day we’re here to make beer that tastes good,” Savard says.
And to help make a community cooler. I rest my case. The Comox Valley was already an enviable sea-to-sky playground of outdoor recreation, creativity, and soulful local food; now that the community-minded craft brew revolution has taken hold, the picture is complete.
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The Comox Valley is a place that inspires creativity, tempts the taste buds, soothes the soul and fires the imagination of adventurers and outdoor enthusiasts. Situated halfway up the east coast of Vancouver Island, this community faces the sea and embraces the mountains, has the charm of a small town but with a touch of urban sophistication and taste. Experience it all, from full on adventures to blissful relaxation. Blast down an alpine ski run with an ocean view, scuba dive in crystal clear water, mountain bike or hike along a glacier-fed river, dine on true farm to table fare, or get pampered at one of the popular spas. The choices are endless and it all starts now in the Comox Valley!