The Kootenay region of British Columbia, Canada, was not the first place I thought to visit when I weighed my options for a weeklong road trip to check out some craft breweries.
This stretch of the Rockies in southeastern British Columbia is known for incredible powder in the winter and a wealth of activities in the summer. Unknown to many though, the region is actually steeped in brewing history, dating back to 1898. That’s when Fort Steele Brewery (now Creston-based Columbia Brewery) was founded; the brewery remained independent until 1974 when it was purchased by Labatt. Now, microbreweries are taking up the cause of bringing independently-brewed, full-flavored beer back to the Kootenay region.
Driving through the mist-covered mountains, I wondered if these new craft breweries would offer anything different from the American breweries I was so used to visiting. One thing I’d already noticed was that in Canada, it seems that there aren’t as many brewpubs opening as there are breweries with tasting rooms. Fernie Brewing, which opened in its namesake town back in 2003, is an example of the latter, and was the first stop on my Kootenay brewery tour.
Pulling into Fernie, a town of 5,000 surrounded by the Canadian Rockies, made me feel as though I had stepped back in time. Charming brick buildings line the downtown strip, stores close up shop for an hour lunch break, and people here still greet each other by first name. Fernie Brewing fits right in. The brewery is family owned and operated, and it feels equal parts mountain chalet and barn (the latter perhaps a throwback to the original brewery which was, in fact, built in the family’s barn). To live up to its slogan—“Good Beer in a Good Town”—Fernie doesn’t use fillers, adjuncts, or preservatives in its beer, and focuses on speciality beers and revamped recipes. Their lineup includes award-winning beers like First Trax Brown Ale, Project 9 Pilsner, and Lone Wolf IPA. Pulling up a stool to the tasting bar, it wasn’t long before my idea of the quiet, humble Canadian was turned on its head, especially when head of production sat down beside me—turns out, Canadians love to boast about their beer.
After Fernie, I took off toward the town of Kimberley to visit a brewery in the process of opening, Over Time Beer Works. I sat down with owner Kenneth “Kenny” Dodd, who gave me a taste of what it’s like to open a brewery in Canada. Looking like a typical brewery owner, complete with a rich brown beard, I quickly learned that Dodd chooses his words carefully and eloquently—a change from some of the rougher, tougher men in the business I’ve met. Over Time has been a 10-year dream of Dodd’s; he was a homebrewer who worked hard to learn what it takes to make a great beer. Now, with a brewing team behind him, Dodd is making consistency his brewery’s top-priority—which is the reason he’d just purchased new equipment. Actually, he purchased more than he needs at this point. “Running out of beer isn’t an option for us,” Dodd says. “The last thing you want to do is be able to get into the market only to not keep up with demand.”
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Dodd says that for the past 10 years smaller breweries have welcomed him into their operations, answering his questions and giving him advise. Even so, the process of opening a brewery in Canada was still a challenge. “The paperwork is a nightmare,” he says. In fact, the legal hurdles in opening a brewery in Canada are very similar to those in the United States.
“You need to become an expert in building code; federal, provincial, and municipal regulatory frameworks; TSSA [Technical Standards & Safety Authority] industrial regulations; workplace safety; insurance; leasing and property rights; legal agreements of all types; and local politics, for starters,” he says. “There are rules about being located to close to schools, churches, playgrounds, etc. The liquor primary licences are heavily regulated and you need more than just one or two licences to operate. Essentially, get ready to throw down a million or two dollars, along with a ton of paperwork and order your equipment at least six months in advance.”
Although beer fans will have to wait until summer 2016 for Over Time Beer Works to open, there are many other breweries to visit in the Kootenay region in the meantime. There’s Arrowhead Brewery in Invemere, with its bright blue interior and rockabilly vibe, complete with vinyl records, old road signs, and huge posters featuring 1950s pin-up girls. It feels like an American brewpub, from its beer—from IPAs to ESBs, ruby red ryes to coffee stouts—to its snacks. (Hint: Try the sauces for the pretzels, the brewmaster has created them himself.) Get ready to be cozy with your taproom neighbors, too, as this place is always bustling.
Other notable breweries in the region include Mt. Begbie Brewing, in Revelstoke, where the head brewer also happens to be a nuclear physicist, and Rossland Beer Company, one of the newest breweries in the region, and which has already won honors in the 2015 Canadian Brewing Awards.
Winding my way through the towering mountains and ski towns, stopping in to sample beers and chat with brewers, it became quite clear that the Kootenay region is indeed a hot spot for craft beer lovers. Whether you are looking to experience some down-home Canadian hospitality or spend nights sipping pints and listening to vinyl records, it’s all there, just waiting for you to join in.