#389 A porous potpourri of 85 pubs
Amber River: A Guide to Unique Pubs of Vancouver Island and the Salish Sea
by Glen Cowley
Surrey: Hancock House, 2018
$24.95 / 9780888390752
Reviewed by Ian J.M. Kennedy
I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy of Amber River: A Guide to Unique Pubs of Vancouver Island and the Salish Sea to see how author Glen Cowley tackled the growing challenge of covering the increasing number of beer drinking establishments on Vancouver Island. When I did get the book, I immediately looked through the list of the 85 pubs Cowley has chosen to include in his guide and discovered that I have already visited over fifty of them since I co-authored the first B.C. pub guides back in the 1980s (For details see Ian Kennedy’s biographical note below – Ed.).
People think writing pub guides is a “piece of cake.” A writer travels round the countryside drinking beer, having a good time, doing a short write-up on the pubs visited and ends up with a best seller. Not so. Such guides, if they are to carry any authority, require the author to explain clearly how and why he or she chooses to feature various establishments, and what criteria come into play in assessing these places.
To write a good pub guide, one is best advised to follow the lead of Hungarian-born Egon Ronay who wrote the classic Egon Ronay’s Pub Guide: A Selection of 600 Pubs Including some on the Continent. Editions of this book sold tens of thousands of copies in the British Isles between the 1960s and 1980s, setting the gold standard, for me and for countless others, on how to review pubs.
When writing his books, Ronay visited all of the pubs anonymously and “never even accepted a glass of brandy” without paying, lest the integrity of his guide be compromised. I’m not convinced author Glen Cowley followed Ronay’s advice because he never tells us the modus operandi he followed when writing this book. He writes only that his “…guidebook isn’t designed to rate various pubs, but rather to recognize the unique elements that make certain pubs especially worthy of a visit. Some pubs we visited weren’t that appealing, others did not want to be in the book.” This fuzzy explanation raises uneasy questions. Why would a pub not want free publicity by being in a pub guide, and why were some given the opportunity to opt out if the author followed Ronay’s advice and remained anonymous in the first instance?
The book’s catchy cover features a happy looking dog named Brew, the mascot at the Moon Under Water pub in Victoria, wearing sunglasses with a beer on a table in front of him. Inside, the guide provides a map showing the location of all 85 pubs covered in the book and offers a couple of sentences at the beginning of each pub write-up describing how to get to the pub. Cowley gives the address and phone number of each pub, its web site — if it has one — and the services it provides such as wifi, wheelchair access, and the like. Each entry also has a heading called, “What makes this pub unique,” covering various elements such as history, view, architecture, setting, gardens, deck, décor, haunted, brewpub, and theme.
Following each description of a pub, Cowley includes a section called “Earning your beer,” pointing out things one can do to work up a thirst before visiting the pub, such as hiking, kayaking, biking, shopping, double-decker sightseeing tours, and the like. I didn’t realize one had to “earn” one’s beer, let alone work up a sweat to drink a few! It is, however, a useful addition to know what’s around these places. He also furnishes a little box at the top of each write-up where one can place a souvenir endorsement to prove one visited the pub.
Cowley’s subtitle, A Guide to Unique Pubs of Vancouver Island and the Salish Sea, is highly misleading and it needs dissecting. He uses the word “guide,” which implies that the reader could reasonably expect to find a thorough listing of all of the pubs in the area he has selected — Vancouver Island and the Salish Sea. This is not the case. Cowley omits a great many good pubs and does not attempt, or include, a comprehensive list.
Cowley uses the word “unique” in his title to describe the pubs he writes about; however, I would argue, in correct pedantic fashion, that all pubs are unique in their own way, so using this term is not remotely helpful to the reader. Then we come to the word “pub,” a term implying that the book will point readers to watering holes that are gathering places for people who like to drink beer, locations where serving, drinking, and in some cases brewing beer is the prime reason the places exist. However, Cowley reveals in his introduction that his book is a guidebook to 85 pubs “…and pub-style restaurants.”
This raises, and again does not answer, another uneasy question. When is a pub a restaurant and when is a restaurant a pub? Most pubs serve food and lots of restaurants have a selection of beers on tap. But how can he possibly include Tofino’s Wolf in the Fog in a pub guide when it is widely known as an exceptional restaurant, which by Cowley’s own admission was “…listed as #1 in the top-ten new restaurants in Canada by Air Canada’s in-flight magazine EnRoute.” Yes, the place has a little holding bar and serves good beer, but it’s not a place one can walk into on any given night around dinner time, when people are lining up to eat, and ask to stand at the bar with some friends and have some beers.
Cowley’s title implies that his guide will point readers to pubs on Vancouver Island and the Salish Sea. His omissions are glaring. Let’s consider Vancouver Island first. Where is the Scarlet Ibis, a grand little pub in Holberg and the most northerly drinking establishment on Vancouver Island, or the Ridge Roadhouse in Gold River, one of the most westerly pubs on Vancouver Island?
Living as I do in the Comox Valley, I looked closely at how Cowley covered my area. He begins in the south with the Fanny Bay Inn; no complaints there, the FBI is historic and popular. Moving north, he omits the Highwayman, an old historic establishment in Union Bay — and the only pub there — that has been revived after a spell in the doldrums. At Royston, just up the road, he ignores the Roy’s Towne Pub, which has fifteen beers on tap, a comprehensive food menu, a pleasant, welcoming atmosphere and even, on request, uniquely drives patrons home after a night’s drinking.
He then moves inland to Cumberland where he writes up the Waverley Hotel, but omits the Cumberland Hotel a block down the street and includes Cumberland Brewing at the end of that block. Why leave out the Cumberland Hotel? As one truly interested in pubs and pub guides, I need to know Cowley’s criteria.
In Courtenay, he ignores the Whistle Stop pub, historically significant in that it sits on the right of way of the old Comox Logging railway that used to carry logs from farther up the valley to its booming ground in Royston. Like the Waverley in Cumberland (which Cowley includes), the Whistle Stop, which features ten taps, has a respected musical tradition featuring some quality local performers and sometimes brings in top talent. I once spent a memorable evening there listening to the late, great Long John Baldry belt out his famous blues numbers.
Cowley excludes Forbidden Brewing, a mini-brewery that has won numerous awards for its beers, and the Avalanche, Flying Canoe, and High Tide pubs. Even if a pub guide writer doesn’t have room in his book to write up every pub and give them the full treatment, he or she should at least list them at the end of the chapter and let readers choose for themselves whether to visit them or not.
As for Cowley’s inclusion of pubs on the Salish Sea — again, this is problematic. The term Salish Sea, or the Strait of Georgia as it used to be called, stretches from the Gulf Islands to the Discovery Islands up near Campbell River. Cowley covers many pubs on the east side of Vancouver Island bordering the Salish Sea, and three pubs on the west side of the Sea near Powell River, but chooses to omit all of the establishments on the entire Sunshine Coast, some of which are outstanding.
How can a guide book that promises to cover pubs on the Salish Sea leave out award winning Persephone Brewing in Gibsons, one of B.C.’s finest mini-breweries, or the 101 Brewhouse and Distillery, or the Gibsons Tapworks, or the stately Blackfish Pub just up the road, or not mention Gramma’s waterfront pub in Gibsons, or the Garden Bay Pub near Pender Harbour, which possesses one of the most enjoyable decks to imbibe on in B.C.?
Curiously, this guidebook does not provide any indication of the food each pub serves with the author writing this disclaimer in his introduction: “… food has become a major part of pub operations these days, in some cases taking precedence over the serving of alcohol. Not being endowed with the requisite skills to assess cuisine, I leave such to the experts…” Which begs the question, if food has “…become a major part of pub operations these days…” why would you not mention it?
Let’s consider some of the unique food choices offered by some establishments. The Cumberland Brewery serves killer tapas; the Gladstone offers tasty tacos and burritos; the Crow and Gate is renowned for its English-style ploughman lunches, steak and kidney pies, and crab cakes; what’s not to like about the Shepherd’s Pie or the Bangers and Mash at the Penny Farthing, or to sit on the deck of the Breakwater Pub in Lund on a summer evening looking out at Savary and Hernando Islands in the distance and eating the pub’s fish and chips while watching float planes, pleasure boats, yachts, kayaks, and water taxis come and go from the harbour. This is a B.C. summer treat not to be missed. Readers of a pub guide need to know what food they can look forward to as many pubs have now become meccas for the lunchtime crowd or those eating dinner out!
Cowley offers that by providing the phone number and web sites of each pub he covers, the reader can check before going to each to be aware of changes. Good idea. However a good guide should provide all the information needed, otherwise why buy the book in the first place. If you are thinking of going to the Riggers pub-style restaurant on Savary Island you had better make a phone call because this establishment is only open for eight weeks a year — a rather important fact not mentioned in the book.
Our remarkable range of pubs on this coast deserves better.
Born in County Donegal, Ireland, Ian J.M. Kennedy came to Canada in 1954 where he attended Burnaby North High School and earned a B.A. from UBC. Later he did post-graduate work at Queen’s University, Belfast, and on his return to Canada taught geography and history at Steveston Secondary School for thirty years. Following his retirement in 1999, he moved to Comox and became a rugby journalist, travelling the world and writing about a game he never played very well. Widely published in many magazines, his journalism also includes numerous articles about history, travel, motorcycling, cottage living, and pubs. His books include Guide to the Neighbourhood Pubs of the Lower Mainland (Gordon Soules, 1982), The Pick of the Pubs of B.C. (Heritage House, 1986), Sunny Sandy Savary: A History of Savary Island 1792-1992 (Kennell, 1992), The Life and Times of Joe McPhee, Courtenay’s Founding Father (Kennell, 2010), and Tofino and Clayoquot Sound: A History (Harbour, 2014), co-authored with Margaret Horsfield.
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