Nelson is pretty much the perfect walking town, particularly when you have four breweries to visit along the way.
The city, which is on the Kootenay Rockies West Ale Trail, is compact and the architecture is beautiful — the fact that the economy tanked here in the 1970s means it was saved from the architectural trends of the ’80s and ’90s.
Most of the homes were built in the first half of the 20th century, while the downtown buildings date back to the turn of the last century. It’s a town lost in time — even the Dairy Queen is straight out of the ’50s.
A steep climb to the source
Nelson is steeped in brewing history as well. It goes back to the late 1800s, when the original Nelson Brewing Company was started up.
Bought out and closed in the mid ’50s, the brewery was fired up again in the early ’90s, when the craft beer movement was young.
NBC is a good place to start a walking tour, and not just because of its history. It’s also situated five blocks up Ward Street from downtown, so it’s all downhill from here. Let gravity be your mate. Depending on your fitness level, you may want to take a cab up.
The brewery went fully organic about 10 years ago to set itself apart from the pack and has gone on to produce several award-winning beers, including Blackheart, a wonderful, rich, full-bodied oatmeal stout. The Hooligan Pilsner, meanwhile, is the definition of crisp, clean, easy drinking.
The new, recently opened tasting room is a nice evolution for the brewery.
Take a turn onto Backroads
Even with a couple of samples in your belly and some beer in your backpack, the walk down Ward Street to historic Baker Street takes less than 10 minutes.
Hang a left at Baker toward the recently renovated railway station that is home to the information centre. It’s a must-stop for tourists and locals alike, with its massive, lumbering train engines parked out front.
You might just have an original pressing of Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks to pair with your tasty beverage
Halfway down the block, you’ll run into Backroads Brewing Co.
Backroads is the newest player on the Nelson beer scene, but it also has some of the deepest roots in the craft.
Head brewer Mike Kelly (formerly head brewer at NBC) gives this upstart immediate credibility. Kelly has brewed for more than 20 years and has a boatload of awards under his belt.
Backroads’ brewing system size will likely mean that most of his beer will be kept as in-house exclusives, but a few packaged products are planned.
A healthy collection of vinyl is on hand in the tasting room, so you might just have an original pressing of Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks to pair with your tasty beverage.
The saison is a must. It’s slightly cloudy with a golden yellow hue, a floral nose and lovely fruity flavour. Kelly also has great respect for German styles and few people do a lager better.
From hippie catchers and Shambhala to the Savoy
In front of Backroads, there’s a lovely seating area that the locals often refer to as “hippie catchers”. From here, wander southwest down Baker toward the Savoy Hotel.
This business highlights the influence of the Shambhala Music Festival on little old Nelson. Every summer, about 15,000 festival-goers and volunteers descend on the Salmo Ranch about 45 minutes south of the city.
But festival mastermind Jimmy Bundschuh had another vision: brewing craft beer right in his hometown. So he set up the Savoy Brewery inside the hotel.
The beautiful custom-built system from Specific Mechanical in Victoria is probably the best-lit system in the country. (You’ll know what I mean when you see it.)
The nitro stout is rich and creamy; also pouring was a rhubarb-cucumber number. The slight bitterness of the rhubarb with the clean finish of the cucumber was an interesting and tasty combo.
Torchlight’s shiny new home
Back outside, cross the road and head back up Baker. You’ll pass Big Cranium, which is a great stop for locally made Nelson themed shirts, hats and what not.
Owner Paddy Duddy is the drummer for punk legends D.O.A., and if he’s not on tour he’s always up for putting his beard in a picture with you.
Hang a left at Ward Street, follow it onto Front Street until you reach Hall Street, and Torchlight Brewing Co.
When Torchlight first appeared on the scene in 2015, it was the epitome of nano — its system only produced 400 litres. But with that modest system they produced more than 50 styles.
Now the brewery is swinging for the fences with a brand new location, featuring a 2,000-litre system and a 40-person tasting room just a block from Kootenay Lake and the nicest off-leash dog park you may ever see.
The Noctus Kettle Sour recently made the list of top summer beers in BC.
Just one final pint
No beer tour of Nelson would be complete without a pint at the historic Hume Hotel, at the corner of Vernon and Ward streets.
The hotel’s three-level Mike’s Place Pub has been pouring NBC since day one and has some of BC’s best craft beers on tap. It’s won numerous awards for best pub in the Kootenays.
It’s a Nelson landmark, a staple for beer drinkers from all over and a great place for some shareables — because by now you need them.