Some people say the ascent is complete once the summit is reached; I say it’s not until the first post-adventure beer is cracked.
This makes me at once a guy with a problem and a guy with a lot in common with his fellow countrymen and women. Let’s face it, Canadians love their outdoor sports and beer. It’s a pairing as natural as bagpipes and kilts. Recently, a Kiwi friend of mine observed how Canadians can’t seem to click into skis or bike pedals, paddle a surfboard or a kayak, or climb a cliff face without beer being part of the après equation. (A comment about consumption from a native of such an accomplished beer-drinking nation as New Zealand is worthy of attention.)
This national obsession with hoppy beverages came into clear focus for me on a recent winter adventure in Norway. I was there with photographer Steve Ogle, exploring ski terrain with some free-heeling locals in the gorgeous and remote northern territory of Finnmark that butts up against the Barents Sea. We were staying in a farmhouse owned by Tore Karlstrom, a hospitable dairy farmer and ski guide who was happy to share his little slice of wilderness above the Arctic Circle. There are fewer and fewer places like this, little Nirvanas of adventure that I cherish in a rapidly shrinking world. A Nirvana of beer culture, however, Norway is not. One day, after we plucked a tasty first descent with Tore, Ogle and I headed to the largest community in the area, Alta, in search of a social pint or two. Wishful thinking. We scoured the main and side streets, but came up empty handed. A mild panic set in. We defaulted to plan B; we’d find a grocery store, purchase some off sales and head back to Tore’s farm, which sits at the foot of some beautiful Finnmark peaks. Oops, too late. When we arrived at the Super Prix, the minute hand had marched past 8:00 p.m.—meaning the blanket had been dropped (literally), obscuring the modest shelves of $40 per six-pack beer on offer. Probably a good thing—I would have had to mortgage my second-born to maintain my normal rate of post-activity beer consumption in this affluent Nordic nation, awash in oil and gas revenues thanks to a non-Albertan (meaning far sighted) approach to developing their bounty of fossil fuels. Panic morphed into a commitment to change our return flight tickets and bail on this conservative country. OK, we got over it quickly, but suffice to say the ski trip had a missing component—easily available ales over which to make up stories, embellish the day’s exploits and maybe meet some locals.
Most of my experiential field research in this area of interest has been conducted in Vancouver Island’s Comox Valley, where I have been based for almost two decades. To my surprise, Canada ranks in the middle of the pack of the top 50 beer-consuming nations. On average, in 2012, Canadians drank 66.9 litres of beer per capita, putting us in the number 25 spot, right behind countries like Brazil and Spain and two spots ahead of New Zealand. The Czech Republic, the leader at 148.6 litres, more than doubles our consumption, leading a clean sweep of the top five spots by Central European nations. I’m surprised by Canada’s modest performance on the world beer stage, but it’s probably because my sample population—my riding, climbing and skiing buddies—are not truly representative. They tend to skew my perception of national consumption to the upper end.
I’m not trumpeting beer drinking as a point of pride, rather as fact. In my adopted hometown, days have never been brighter for lovers of ales, ESBs, porters, stouts and Belgians. The craft brewing revolution that has swept North America from coast to coast was slow to catch on in the Comox Valley, even though we’re a mere three hours’ drive from Victoria, the sacred birthplace of craft brew culture in British Columbia. The Comox Valley was for a very long time Lucky Lager central. In the late 1990s Labatt even honoured—I use that term lightly—Cumberland as the “Luckiest” town in Canada, meaning this old coal mining burg consumed more of this tepid lager than any other town in Canada. (Some locals still think Lucky was brewed in Cumberland, even though it comes from a Labatt factory somewhere far away.)
How times have changed. That so-called honour would be a mark of shame in today’s diverse and colourful ecosystem of quality small-batch beers. In the past year, three new craft breweries have opened in the Comox Valley: the Cumberland Brewing Company, Gladstone Brewery and Forbidden Brewing Company. In your quiver of outdoor equipment, you must now include the growler. These days, it’s common to see people cuddling these brown glass (or stainless steel) bottles as they would an infant child and commuting on cruiser bikes to the local brewery for a refill. Liquor laws once puritanical to the extreme, have relaxed substantially, meaning you can now bring your children into some enlightened pubs after a day at the ski hill or bike park and have a civilized beer. Europe understood this a long time ago. Pretending to hide alcohol consumption from children does little to engender a responsible attitude toward the stuff.
I’m quite excited about my little community’s arrival, late as we are to the parade, into the mature world of craft brew pubs. Which is why I found it a mild shock to step back into the dark ages of an almost prohibitionist mindset. Norway does a lot of things right, but fostering convivial places in which to share an affordable post-adventure pint or two is not one of them.
Ogle and I returned to the farmhouse empty handed. The metaphorical summit had not been reached. Alas, when we got back to the farmhouse, we were surprised by Bjarte Hollevik, founder of Moonlight Mountain Gear and the entrepreneurial guy responsible for tapping Norway’s public funds and getting us up to this mountain paradise. Turns out his brother, who lives in Bergen, is also a bit of a beer nerd and brews IPAs in his basement. Saved. We poured a few ales out of two-litre Coke bottles and listened to the light breeze and the sound of water dripping from gutters. It was unseasonably warm for March above the Arctic Circle. The next morning we woke to blue skies and firm snow. We skinned up a thinly forested slope from a nearby valley to the summit of a wide gulley that had been skied only once before. It was corned up perfectly by the time we dropped in, this time assured that the summit would be complete with a glass of craft brewed ale awaiting us back at the farmhouse. Love of outdoor sports binds people across cultures; turns out so does an appreciation for fine beer.
This article originally appeared in our Summer 2015 issue.