RIOT BREWING: A Brewery with a Big Heart in a Small Town

Written on 06/19/2021
Rowan Brunet

Vancouver Island is home to great craft breweries. One of them has won international awards, fashioned a skater-style vibe, become a community sensation, and has named a beer after a drag queen. How about a pint of Jimbo boysenberry blackberry sour? Named after, you got it, Victoria-based drag queen, Jimbo.

Riot Brewing celebrates Canada Drag Race's top-four finisher with a maroon-pink-coloured beer complete with a rainbow label. The seasonal beer is in production now and will be available by the end of June. Last year Jimbo sold out in two hours flat, so this year they are ramping up production to meet the demand. Jimbo, the drag queen, was totally into the idea when Riot approached her a year ago. This year, proceeds from the sale of the beer are going to Rainbow Railroad.

Riot Brewing is a full-scale production brewery located in the town of Chemainus. Owners Aly Tomlin and Ralf Rosenke opened the doors in 2016 and established Riot as a fun, punked-out, going concern. Their sense of humour and skater style is front and center in all they do, from their beer names to the gnarly artwork and their merch. One of their best-selling stickers states, "Riot Brewing, keeping the anus in Chemainus."

Tomlin says they've been boring during the pandemic, but they are thrilled to be starting events again this week. She said, "We want to be fun again." Trivia is up this Saturday, and then on June 26th, the Cowichan-based duo Lawson Kelly will perform live on the patio.

The brewery's tasting room is a must-do destination. They have a lounge and gorgeous outdoor patio where your kids and your dog are welcome too. You can order a flight and sample some of their stellar lineups. They will start offering pizza soon and expect to have events three to five times a week. (on the patio for now, in keeping with Covid guidelines)

Riot stands out as a unique presence in the craft beer world and has been a runaway success. Their Working Class Hero Dark Mild won the 2018 World Beer Cup Gold Award in the "English-Style Dark Mild Ale" category. Riot was the only Vancouver Island brewery to win two awards at the World Beer Cup in 2018, Gold for the Working Class Hero and Bronze for their limited-edition collaboration with Drumroaster Brewing, the Breakfast of Champions Coffee Lager.

Their success, however, has come with enormous challenges. They faced insolvency in 2019, got out of that and went right into the pandemic. Tomlin says the insolvency was not because of a lack of sales but rather too much growth too fast. "We were the hot thing, and we imploded." The owners were so busy that the Wall Street Journal called for an interview at one point, and they didn't have the time to take the call.

Tomlin said, "the community rallied behind us and raised $100,000. We ended up finding an investor." During the insolvency, they didn't have extra money for their patio. So the community came together with plants and flowers for their signature yellow flower boxes. The extent of the community's support amazed them. "It was a humbling experience."

The names of the beers showcase the fun vibe of the brewery, and the artwork on the labels and cans highlights their skater style. You can order a Sorry We Took So Long Saison, LipSlide Lager, or a Junk Punch IPA, for example.

Tomlin is passionate about welcoming everyone. "We are inclusive to everyone. We're a safe spot for everybody. That's who we are." The Riot crew will kick out any client who is not respectful and inclusive, and they have done this on occasion.

Want to check them out? Go to and visit the brewery at 3055 Oak Street in Chemainus. Riot is doing a tap takeover at Virtuous Pie in Victoria on July 3rd and has many events all summer.

Rowan Brunet (she/they), who identifies as genderqueer, is a writer based on Vancouver Island. Rowan writes a blog called All Kinds of Mischief.