John Lee revisits his student daze in Canada

It's two decades since I arrived at the University of Victoria — on the outskirts of British Columbia's island-bound capital — as a wide-eyed foreign student from England. And although I eventually stayed in Canada (in mainland Vancouver, to be precise), one issue was almost an emigration deal breaker: locating good beer here seemed harder than finding imported cheese and onion crisps.

At the time, most Victorians contentedly quaffed pallid factory-made brews by Labatt or Molson and the only tipple worth drinking was Hermann's Dark Lager from tiny Vancouver Island Brewery.

Fast-forward to now and everything has changed. Dozens more BC microbreweries have popped up, making the West Coast province arguably Canada's top craft beer region. And although bigger city Vancouver has more bars, waterfront Victoria is where many of the best ales are made, in a generous round of breweries and brewpubs.

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Back in my university city for a visit, I launched a giddy mid-afternoon crawl through Victoria's homegrown best.

First stop? The wood-panelled Bard & Banker for its Two Mile Beer Diet: a four-glass flight of local brews. There was own-brand Service 1904, a slightly fruity ale made by Phillips; mild and smooth Sea Dog Amber Ale from Vancouver Island Brewery; Lighthouse Brewing Lager, a light summer quaff; and the winning Driftwood Ale, its spiky hops rounded by malty notes.

Ten minutes later, I was on a creaky stool at Swans, a flower-decked former grain warehouse that's been a chatty, wood-beamed brewpub for years. Made on site, its top beers include Arctic Ale — an easy-to-drink bitter — and Swans Extra IPA, a lip-puckering brew with a hoppy kick.

Tempted by Swans' remaining nine beers — especially its Double Chocolate Porter — I peeled away to Canoe Brewpub on the edge of Chinatown. Colonising an old coal-powered electricity substation, its brick interior is perfect for rainy-day hunkering, and its marina-front patio is a great summertime hangout.

Perched at the bar, my tasting flight included light Honey Wheat Ale and crisp Red Canoe Lager. But it was the Beaver Brown Ale, with its nutty java flavour, that won. I almost ordered a pint, before remembering that I was about to need my sea legs.

Victoria's waterfront is dotted with bathtub-sized Harbour Ferry water taxis and I rode one from the little jetty outside to BC's oldest brewpub.

Clinging to the shoreline since 1984, Spinnakers is a wood-gabled gastropub with 10 own-brewed beers and a freshly tapped cask every weekday. And although 20 years ago its beverages were nothing to write home about, it's since seriously ramped up its quality.

Pairing my four-flight taster with a smoked tuna sandwich, I sampled an excellent pilsner-style Kolsch, mild Nut Brown Ale, piquant Hoptoria and my server's recommendation: a heady, 7.75 per cent Tsarist Stout that threatened to put hairs on every chest within a five-mile radius.

Now bleary-eyed, I rode the next water taxi downtown where I weaved towards the day's final spot.

Cook Street Village's Beagle pub is an unpretentious 1980s-style neighbourhood bar. And although it used to serve boring brews and chicken wings when I was a student, its transformed menu epitomises the sudsy sea change in Victoria's beer scene.

I perused a 15-draft chalkboard of the city's tastiest craft beers, selecting a pair of intriguing brews to try. Driftwood's Fat Tug IPA is a hop-forward yet perfectly balanced American-style India pale ale. And Hoyne's Dark Matter is a rich, porter-like beer with a toasted malt finish.

With my hotel bed now calling and a tricky nightcap decision still to make, I reflected on the lame beverages of my student days. The city's quality beer list has grown beyond recognition. In fact, I might not have finished my degree if there'd been this much choice back then.

CHECKLIST

Getting there:

flies direct to Vancouver from Auckland.

The pubs:
Irish Times, 1200 Government Street
Bard & Banker, 1022 Government Street
Swans, 506 Pandora Avenue
Canoe Brewpub, 450 Swift Street
Spinnakers, 308 Catherine Street
Big Bad John's, 919 Douglas Street
The Beagle, 301 Cook Street