- Story and photography by Don Denton
Brewer Dan Van Netten likes to “keep it unpredictable,” and the ever-changing beer list at Howl Brewing confirms that. Howl, a nano-brewery (in laymen’s terms, “very small”), may not produce a lot of beer in a year but what it makes is inventive.
The brewery, located on Mills Road in North Saanich, next door to the Fickle Fig and just across the street from Victoria International Airport, has been brewing since June of 2018. Dan and partner and co-owner Alayna Briemon have been very happy with the location and the fact their Fickle Fig neighbours agree the two businesses bring in a slightly different clientele—all of whom benefit from having a brewery next door to a farmer’s market, bistro and bakery.
The brewery is tiny with just enough room at the back to hold the brewing equipment. Customers coming in to fill up a growler step through the door and are immediately at the counter. Outside, though, there is a large patio with plenty of room to sit and enjoy a drink.
Dan, a longtime bartender at Spinnakers—Victoria’s first micro-brewery—comes by his interest in brewing naturally. His father made wine and brewed beer in their Ruskin, BC (near Mission) home, enlisting young Dan’s help in the process. Dan’s father made use of everyday foodstuffs as a way to prevent waste. Originally from the Netherlands, Dan’s dad also helped spark an interest in European brews.
Dan’s years at Spinnakers also showed him the importance of supporting local growers for supplies and to respect the ideology of farm to table.
Brewing smaller batches of beer, only 280 litres at a time, allows Dan to experiment, giving him “lots of room to play,” as he says. He can change his plans on a moment’s notice; for example, if a local resident brings in a small harvest of hops or fruit from a tree they can’t utilize, he can change up what he’s doing and incorporate the new product into the current brew. He also works with Victoria’s LifeCycles Project, which harvests unwanted fruit, buying local fruit from them. This ability to pivot plays to Dan’s joy in keeping it unpredictable. A friend jokingly suggested he use“inconsistency is our motto” for the brewery.
This means that the brewery, for the most part, does not have a signature beer, although Howl does have a Vienna lager that Dan brews most often.
To discover Dan’s other passion, ask him about historical beer—those beers brewed centuries ago and forgotten except in historical texts. He researches ancient brewing techniques using old books, the internet and various historians around the world, especially one friend in Germany. Dan says that “it’s good to bring back forgotten styles. Even if they don’t work out, it’s an educational experience.”
His most interesting historical-beer discovery was Purl, an English beer from the 1700s. Its ingredients include wormwood, horseradish and black pepper, resulting in a very bitter brew—a tonic for workers of the time who often had poor access to potable drinking water. Purl is mentioned, he says, in The Merry Wives of Windsor by Shakespeare and Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop. Dan laughs, noting that Purl was his most unpopular beer ever, although he liked it himself, since it was so different.
Dan has also created a Virginia Spruce Ale, incorporating sarsaparilla, ginger and spruce tips, an 1800s drink that he found in a copy of the Virginia Good Housekeeping Cookbook. An even older recipe utilizing spruce tips came from Quebec in the 1700s, and featured molasses as well as the spruce. Spruce tips were introduced to European settlers by Indigenous residents, and used to help stave off scurvy.
So what can a visitor to Howl this coming year look for on the menu?
Dan has a Horner bier planned. This is an 1800s-era oat beer that was a favourite of the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who said, “In the heat of the summer it’s for me.” The oat beer has a tart taste. In Dan’s other oat beer, a Kottbusser, he adds molasses to the mix. He also plans to brew up a banana beer from Rwanda.
The test for anyone writing about beer is in the tasting, of course, and so I tried three of Howl Brewing’s recent offerings:
Sarsaparilla Ale. The name takes me back to childhood westerns, where a white-hatted cowboy would slide up to the bar and ask for a Sarsaparilla. Sarsaparilla is one of the ingredients used to flavour root beer, and Dan uses the roots and bark of the plant for his brewing process. He describes it as a “fun” beer with notes of root beer and vanilla.
The beer is surprisingly dark in colour but isn’t heavy; it would be perfect on a hot summer day.
Chaga Spruce Tip Ale. Spruce trips, sourced by forager Ben Patarin at Forest For Dinner in Qualicum, and Sasquatch wild hops (which only grow in BC) are a big part of the brew. But the unique ingredient is chaga, a mushroom that sprouts in the northern boreal forest on birch trees, creating a complete forest-to-table brew. chaga was originally used for medicinal purposes by Indigenous tribes and the mushroom gives the beer its amber hue. Dan says to expect just a mild lager taste.
I’m a touch cautious with unknown ingredients in my beer and so was uncertain about the chaga flavour. I’ve had spruce-tip beer in the past and it tended to overpower the brew. Not the case here, though. I actually found it hard to pick out the spruce tip flavour, and enjoyed the overall lightly earthy (in a very good way) taste.
Juleøl, a Norwegian winter solstice beer. This brew, fuelled by Dan’s historical interests, was a Viking-era beer. He says it was traditionally brewed in hollowed-out logs; the mash was heated with hot stones and the liquid was filtered through juniper branches. It was also brewed by women only. Dan’s version is made by lining the mash tun with juniper branches. He describes it as one of Howl’s stronger beers, with an earthiness and gin-like characteristics from the juniper. No hops are used for Juleøl, making it a darker beer, perfect for a warm day.
I’m a fan of dark beers and this certainly looked dark. Dark beers are often heavy, but this was light and fresh. I had to search for the hint of juniper but, overall, this was my favourite of my brief sampling of Howl products.
Howl Brewing is the region’s most unique brewery, and its small size gives it the ability to produce a constantly changing array of brews, all with a story behind them. Check them out at1780 Mills Road, North Saanich or online at howlbrewing.ca.
Can’t make it to the brewery? The Brentwood Bay Resort has Howl on tap or ask at your local liquor store.
If you are interested in finding other products from Howl Brewing’s spruce-tip supplier, Forest For Dinner, closer to home, check at the Fickle Fig, the North Saanich Farm Market or online at forestfordinner.com.
This story originally appeared in PEARL magazine.