At the Wheel:  Prince Rupert gets a brewery

Photo Credit: Arianne Loranger-Saindon

At the Wheel:  Prince Rupert gets a brewery

👤Matt J. Simmons 🕔May 30, 2013

Prince Rupert gets a bad rap for its weather. The North Coast town is like the geeky kid in a schoolyard—often overlooked. But, also like that geeky kid, the town is full of hidden talents. When you look beyond its weather, Rupert is a truly spectacular place. Its air is fresh, clean, and invigorating—even breathing here feels good. Its water is clean and tasty, too, though its tannic colouring might suggest otherwise. And its people—those residents who choose to call Rupert home—are among the friendliest, happiest, and most welcoming people around. Three of those people are now poised to do something that will go down in Rupert history: they’re going to open a brewery.

“Wheelhouse Brewing was born not only out of a desire to introduce new beer to the North Coast, but also to explore our excitement for brewing in a different way,” says James Witzke. Witzke and his cohorts Kent Orton and Craig Outhet are working hard to pull together all the elements needed to open their doors this summer. They’re not alone. “You can’t swing a dead cat by the tail and not hit a brewery that’s being opened in BC,” deadpans Outhet. “We were in a couple of articles previewing all the breweries opening this year and I think it’s up to nine. ‘Booming’ is an understatement.” The craft beer industry has seen an astonishing increase over the past few years and Wheelhouse Brewing is set to join the ranks of young breweries making their mark on the craft beer scene.

The three entrepreneurs came together initially as home-brewers. “We were tired of the same old selection we got in beer stores in the north,” says Witzke. “Also, we wanted to explore the idea of making a beer that may have some health qualities to it, that may interact with your body for health benefits.”

Orton’s day-job is traditional Chinese medicine, so brewing a healthy beer was a logical step; his homebrewed concoctions sometimes sound more like medicinal tonics than beer. His inspiration comes directly from the Rupert landscape. “We all appreciate that we live in this resource-rich environment,” he says. “It has some of the best fishing in the world, some of the best water in the world—soft and peat-filtered—great people, great wood. We want to make something that’s stable and feeds the community using natural resources.

“We have a great spruce-tip recipe,” he continues. “We’re using some of the herbs from the mountains around here, which would be a really great way to raise the profile and appreciation of Prince Rupert for people who want to stick around.”

Drawing both inspiration and actual ingredients from their surroundings, the trio experimented for a few years before taking the next step. Witzke recalls the moment. “One day we said, ‘Hey, why don’t we take this to the next level—take those same things that are important to us and share them with our friends in the North?’”

Community minded

So what is important to them? Well, apart from good beer, these are community-minded guys who share a vision for improving the quality of life in the town where they live. They want to give Prince Rupert the good reputation it deserves.

“Part of what we want to do in this brewery is be more than just a place to drink beer or buy beer,” explains Witzke. “We also want to be an active part of the community. That’s why we came up with ‘Wheelhouse Brewing’, wheelhouse being a tribute to the coast and the place we live, and the Skeena too, where paddle-wheelers shipped up and down the river. It’s way more than the beer,” he continues. “We don’t just want to sell somebody some beer and say, ‘Have a nice life,’ we also want to be part of the things that make us strong as a community: the public celebrations, parades, Seafest, Riverboat Days, even up at Smithers’ Midsummer Festival.”

Their start-up saga has seen ups and downs over the past couple years. Launching a business is never easy, but brewing a brewery sometimes seems impossible. “Shout-out to Plan B and all the help they gave us, all the advice,” says Orton, speaking of the recently closed Plan B Brewery in Smithers. “Mark Gillis and Glen Ingram were the pioneers for the North, and we’re stepping on the backs of our predecessors to make this a go.”

Even with advice from the region’s first nano-brewery and numerous craft breweries in Vancouver, their path has been long and challenging. There are plenty of legal hoops to jump through, and countless details to consider. Even just finding a suitable space took months. But find it they did, and they’ve been getting ready for production the past six months.

“It’s a pretty neat space,” says Orton. “It’s right in Cow Bay, overlooking the ocean; the sunset shines in the front doors when you open them. It’s got a real northwest coast feel to it.”

Tournament nights

A significant part of their vision centres on the space itself. They’re even working with the North Pacific Cannery National Historic Site to display historic artifacts. “In the dead of winter when the rain has been pouring down for weeks and weeks out here and it’s been snowing for days and days up the road, we want to have a place where people can come and have a good pint of beer, but with some meaningful activity,” says Witzke. “We’ve talked about hosting small tournaments, like dominoes for instance, where people can just sit around and enjoy a pint of beer and each other’s company when there might not be another venue.”

When the Wheelhouse doors open this summer (check their website or facebook page for updates), they’ll kick things off with two beers. “We’ll be offering two mainstays,” says Witzke. “One of our beers is going to be a West Coast pale ale. The three of us are ale fans, in particular ales with a robust flavour. Our beer is a hoppier version of the pale ale, hopped with hops from the west coast.” The other mainstay will be more approachable to customers less familiar with craft beer, either a golden or blonde ale.

These two beers will be sold in kegs and six-packs, but they’ll also sell sessional or seasonal beers in 650-mL bottles. “Those will be our version of what you might expect from a craft brewery—porters, stouts, amber ales, brown ales, IPAs and so on,” says Witzke. “And hopefully we’ll be able to explore natural ingredients such as salmonberries, spruce tips, or even cedar.”

The rest of the province is already paying attention to the town at the end of the highway because of these brewers. Wheelhouse has received attention from craft-beer aficionados, other breweries, and even a company working on microbrewery-focused cruises.

But while the rest of the province is already queuing up for Prince Rupert beer, the Wheelhouse team is clear on its priorities. “Sharing something that we love with the people that we love, with the community that we love, and the region that we love,” says Witzke.

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