It can sometimes be easy to forget that long before our provincial capital was located across the Straight in Victoria, it was situated on the north bank of the Fraser River in New Westminster. As a bustling centre of trade, commerce and government, Western Canada’s oldest city was, not surprisingly, home to a number of BC ‘firsts’, including BC’s first brewery, which opened in 1879. Over the years, the Sapperton Brewery changed hands, names and configurations a number of times, but when Labatt’s (which was located on the site of the original brewery) finally closed its doors in 2005, New West’s long brewing history went quiet. Until now. After a whole lot of hard work, some excellent test batches, and an impressive social media campaign, Steel & Oak Brewing Co., the Royal City’s first new brewery in decades, opened its doors on June 24th. I had the pleasure of popping by that day to try a few of their offerings, have a peek at their brilliant new space, and catch up with one of their founders, Jorden Foss. Check out a picture of the tasting room here.
I first met Jorden and his business partner, James Garbutt, early last winter when I stopped in on a dark Friday afternoon to check out the progress of the brewery and sample the first test batch of their red pilsner. At the time, the space was pretty bare, but as Jorden and James gave me a tour and shared their vision for Steel & Oak, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the project that they were building, their passion for the history, tradition and craft of making great beer, and their interest in the role that craft breweries can play in building community. Both Jorden and James are well aware of New West’s storied brewing history, and as proud local residents, they’re really excited to be a part of that history by creating something their community can share, enjoy and be proud of.
The return of breweries to cities like New Westminster is part of a larger trend that is reshaping communities across our province and beyond. When small businesses run by passionate entrepreneurs take a chance on out-of-the-way, neglected, or mixed-use/industrial neighbourhoods, people who want to live in the walkable, urban communities that these businesses help create will invariably follow. In the beer context, this process has been referred to as ‘craft beer urbanism’, and it’s something that’s happening all over North America, bringing jobs, families, and civic pride back to countless cities and neighborhoods. I’ve definitely seen it happen in my neighbourhood, and Steel & Oak looks to be part of the same movement in New West.
As you can see in the picture above, Steel & Oak’s tasting room looks fantastic, and strikes a nice balance between the warm, reclaimed wood motif that you’ll find at Brassneck, and the clean, modern aesthetic at 33 Acres. The splashes of red in the bar stools are a great touch, as is the record player in the tasting room, (which made me want to stick around a little longer to find out what was coming up next on the ‘hi-fi’). In the back, Steel & Oak are running a 17 hectolitre brew system with four 34 hectolitre fermenters. Like a few of BC’s other newest breweries, Jorden & James made sure to lease a space that would meet their needs for several years to come, so they gave themselves ample room to grow. Anticipating the huge demand that has materialized since they opened their doors, they ordered two additional 51 hectolitre fermenters which are currently in transit. Plans for bottling 650 ml bombers and for a barrel program are in the works, and Steel & Oak have already landed a number of accounts at pubs in New West (the Paddlewheeler & the Terminal Pub) and in Vancouver, including one of my locals, St. Augustine’s on Commercial Drive.
The man behind the beer at Steel & Oak is Peter Schulz, a local brewmaster who apprenticed in Germany, where he also completed a master’s degree in brewing. Not surprisingly, Steel & Oak have come out with a few excellent Germanic styles, including the aforementioned red pilsner, and a smoked hefferveisen (which was on many people’s ‘best in show’ lists at the VCBW closing festival - including mine). On opening day, Steel & Oak were offering a west coast ESB, the hefferveisen, and the red pilsner, which could seriously become my beer of the summer.
Steel & Oak’s red pilsner pours a brilliant copper and amber colour, and displays a fluffy white head that holds well and dissipates to leave some nice lacing on the glass. It has a toasty, nutty maltiness on the nose, where it also displays mild, aromatic traces of spice and orange. With a full, rich mouthfeel, and nice conditioning, the first impression on the palate is of caramel, butterscotch and cereal, followed by pronounced flavours of doughy, bready malts that are perfectly balanced with a bright, crisp, hoppy bitterness. Finishing with a mild tartness characterized by hints of grapefruit and pine, Steel & Oak’s red pilsner is an absolutely gorgeous beer, and based on their opening lineup, I think that the fine people of New Westminster are in very good hands, indeed.
For those of us who happen to live outside of the Royal City, I’d say that it’s well worth the short SkyTrain ride out to the tasting room for a flight and a growler fill. I know that I’ll be back again this summer, and when I do I’ll be sure to bring a larger bag with me - my briefcase can only hold three growlers, and I have a feeling that the next time I pop by Steel & Oak, three just won’t be enough.