Good things are brewing in Sooke

From mead to beer to spirits, region is becoming a libation sensation

Sooke is one of the fastest-growing areas on southern Vancouver Island, and with the jump in size and population comes the usual pressure on infrastructure and demand for housing.

But that growth has also added a new vibrancy, life and creativity to a town that has always boasted an eclectic mix of people and lifestyles. A shining example of the new creative vibe is playing out in the district’s burgeoning brewing and distilling sector.

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It might be young, evolving and growing, but a new batch of artisans has set up shop in the area along Highway 14 and drawn worldwide attention as they’ve done it.

Building on the back of the trailblazing Tugwell Creek Meadery, which started selling mead from its farm gate west of Sooke in 2003, the craft booze industry has taken to the area. And it’s sticking around.

The first brewer to open was Ryan Orr, who in 2016 established Sooke Oceanside Brewing in 1,200 square feet of space beside the Shell gas station just outside of Sooke.

At the time, the entire region had fewer than 10 brewers.

Now there are 18 in Greater Victoria, with Sooke boasting three of them — Oceanside, Sooke Brewing and Bad Dog Brewing — with a fourth expected to open this year.

“Little did I know that I would open, and a year and a couple of months into my business I would become Sooke’s oldest brewery,” Orr said with a laugh.

Orr said the expansion of the brewing industry and culture in the area proves he was right, that Sooke was ready and keen on craft beer.

“It proved my concept and showed I wasn’t out to lunch,” he said.

And Orr believes the growth is just the beginning, noting Sooke has never fully capitalized on tourist potential despite having a lot of the same assets as Tofino.

“I really think Sooke is on the cusp of really happening,” he said of the steady increase in population and the influx of producers and businesses to serve the area.

Sooke is now home to Sheringham Distillery, which made international headlines this year when its Seaside Gin, known for its fresh citrus flavour with a hint of the sea — one of the ingredients is hand-harvested winged kelp — was named the best contemporary gin at the 2019 World Gin Awards.

Sheringham, which was established in Shirley in 2015, moved 20 kilometres down the road to Sooke last summer, as it needed a larger production facility.

The move paid off for the company, the industry and the region.

“It’s been a wild four years,” said Sheringham co-founder Alayne MacIsaac, who noted the world’s-best award put both the company and Sooke on the map.

It felt like a win for her and husband/distiller Jason, their friends and people who had discovered their gin four years ago, she said.

She said their plan is not to rest on their laurels but to continue to develop their line of spirits and create new products.

“We’ll keep doing what we’re doing and see where it goes from here,” she said.

Jason MacIsaac, who worked as a chef for 23 years before turning his hand to distilling, said the area is as much a part of their success as anything, such as his desire to capture the essence and taste of a walk along French Beach in a gin.

And he points out Sooke has always been on the cutting edge of innovation in the culinary world.

“The Sooke Harbour House was an inspiration from the early days. They pioneered the 100-mile, farm-to-table concept in Canada,” he said. “That was a big inspiration.”

Alayne said it seems the region’s stunning natural setting — the inspiration for their spirits — has drawn others to the area.

According to census data, Sooke’s population increased 13.7 per cent to 13,000 between 2011 and 2016, after having increased 17.9 per cent between 2006 and 2011.

The Capital Regional District estimates Sooke’s population has since grown to 14,298.

“It’s so close to the mountains, beaches and forests, yet it’s close enough to Victoria that you get a lot of people moving here,” she said. “There’s been an insurgence of young, creative people coming here because it has the best of all worlds.”

Bob Liptrot, owner of Tugwell Creek Honey Farm and Meadery, said they have never been busier.

“We’ve certainly seen the increase in the number of people visiting,” he said. “It’s been noticeable, there are a number of people now travelling around specifically for the reason of sampling all the breweries and the distillery.”

Liptrot said having a critical mass of companies all working in the same field has made a huge difference, and has established the area as a destination.

“There’s been an emphasis on that instead of people out going for a hike or trolling for salmon out here,” he said with a laugh.

Kris Schill, the general manager at Sooke Brewing, has lived in the area for 12 years and has seen the town grow while watching a strong collaborative vibe take hold among the creative businesses such as the brewers and distillers.

“It’s been really neat, we all work fairly closely together on some things,” she said. “There’s a real community feel developing around here.”

Sooke Brewing, which opened its doors in the late fall of 2017, might be new, but it has already landed a shelf full of awards and plenty of respect from the industry.

The brewery won four awards for its beer, the Rookie of the Year award and an award for Best Tasting Room at the annual B.C. Beer Awards last fall.

At the same competition, Oceanside won first-place awards for two of its brews and a third-place award for another.

The awards drew increased attention to Sooke as a brewing region and it has become something of a destination for those who seek out quality craft beer.

“It’s been really busy, and we’re just trying to plan for what will be a crazy summer,” said Schill. “Compared to last year, it’s been phenomenal. We’ve had a lot of visitors from Victoria, and it’s hard to get visitors from Victoria.”

Part of the appeal is each brewery or distillery is now part of a creative cluster of producers, each with a unique way of creating and presenting their wares.

“Sooke has definitely become a destination for craft beer and spirit lovers,” said Schill. “It’s great for us when others win awards because it brings people to the neighbourhood, it brings people here to spend tourist dollars and this year has been remarkable for Sooke in that regard.”

Joe Wiebe, beer expert and content director for the B.C. Ale Trail, said Sooke has developed into a nice eclectic cluster of brewers.

“I am assuming the average Sooke resident is now a lot more aware of craft beer now than they were two years ago,” he said. “When you have this whole brewing community, you see people start to embrace it. That’s been the story of craft beer all over B.C. — it’s that local connection, people support it because it’s local and then they realize it tastes great.”

That support led John Lyle to establish Bad Dog Brewing last year as the newest kid on the brewing block in Sooke.

Lyle said his opening might have timed things perfectly, given Sooke’s growth.

“I’m amazed at it. Fourteen years ago when we moved back to Sooke, you could always tell a tourist because you didn’t recognize the face. Now you don’t recognize anyone at the grocery store,” he said.

Lyle said he’s still blown away by how busy his brewery gets on the weekends and just how many people will make the drive out from Victoria.

“I think for a lot of people, Sooke may be becoming more of a destination. People recognize that it’s kind of fun to come on out here,” he said.

That fun extends to the breweries, which, like all craft brewers, like to experiment with local ingredients in their beers — Lyle uses squid ink in his stout, while Oceanside opts for wild blackberries in its saison.

The increased demand for these kinds of brews has Orr at Sooke Oceanside Brewing expanding.

Orr is establishing a second location in the heart of the town that will be used as a manufacturing facility to allow him to quadruple his production.

“The demand is definitely there. I am turning down accounts because I can’t fill orders,” he said.

It’s also the next step toward his ultimate goal of establishing an oceanfront brewpub.

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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