Photo Credit: Kelly Bergman
Drinking in the North: A celebration of northern libations
Raise a glass to the little guys. Over the past few decades, the number of small-scale producers of beer and wine in BC has grown dramatically. In the lower mainland, it seems like a new craft brewery opens every month. Up here in the North, it’s been a slower process, but with Plan B Brewing in Smithers (R.I.P.) paving the way a few years ago, the revolution has now made its way to our fair region. It’s not only our northern location that sets them apart from their southern cousins, it’s also an underlying sense of community—not money—that motivates and drives these liquid-loving companies to do what they do.
Prince Rupert: Wheelhouse
At the end of the Yellowhead Highway, the small port city of Prince Rupert has a big heart. Playing a growing role in the community’s identity is the brewery founded almost two years ago by partners James Witzke, Kent Orton, and Craig Outhet. The three beer-lovers, whose vision of creating a product and space that Rupertites could call their own, came together and launched Wheelhouse Brewing. Since opening its doors, Wheelhouse has surpassed anything the owners had imagined. Support from the community, partnerships and collaboration with other breweries, showcasing local and regional music, and turning out a consistently tasty selection of beers has been the Wheelhouse story thus far.
“Without the unique set of skills we each bring to the brewery, there’s no way we could do all that we’ve done,” says Witzke. He talks about Outhet’s talent for brewing in almost reverential tones, a talent that speaks for itself when you sample any of their beers. Orton, says Witzke, has a knack for handling the business side of the brewery. Any liquor producer not up to the task of keeping on top of the complex and convoluted regulations set out by the BC Liquor Control and Licensing Branch are quickly swallowed up in the bureaucratic machine.
And Witzke himself, put simply, loves people and is driven by a desire to give back to the place he calls home. The success story of Wheelhouse has been measured by the passion and dedication of its three founders and by the contribution of volunteers and overwhelming support of the community.
Wheelhouse brews can be found throughout Prince Rupert and at locations in Terrace, Smithers and Prince George. Check their web presence at wheelhousebrewing.com or find them on social media. They are located at 217 1st Ave East in Rupert’s Cow Bay district.
Terrace: Sherwood Mountain
“I’m 44, so it was kind of now or never,” says Darryl Tucker, Sherwood Mountain’s brewer and co-owner. Tucker has been actively engaged in the Terrace community for many years. Previously Hawkair’s marketing manager and fundamentally involved in getting My Mountain Co-op at Shames Mountain up-and-running, Tucker loves where he lives and is driven to make it a better place.
When Darryl’s long-time friend and business partner Linda Parker told him he should go to Germany to study the art of brewing, he trusted her. He travelled to Berlin, where he set up shop for the next six months, taking the VLB Certified Brewmaster program. “I’ve never really enjoyed micro-biology or chemistry and all that stuff,” he says, “but when it was shown in a practical, applicable sense, I actually learned!”
After completing the course he went to Ontario—his home province—and truly learned to brew under the tutelage of old friends who have a brewery there. Eventually, though, he felt the pull of BC’s mountains and returned west. “I bombed across the country, stopping of course at all the breweries on the way.”
After Tucker and Parker completed their business plan and bought all the equipment, getting started was daunting. “I was a little overwhelmed when I looked at all this stuff,” he says. “I was, like, ‘What the hell have I got myself into?’” But with the help of friends, Tucker tackled the task of getting to know the equipment and producing a beer he could be proud of.
Now, after nine months of operation, Sherwood Mountain is doing great. “People are enjoying the beer and the space is cool. I’m starting to feel pretty comfortable with everything, so it’s time to start reaching out.” Tucker plans to take part in this year’s Oktoberfest in Terrace as well as future events throughout the region.
You can find Sherwood beers in many pubs and restaurants in Terrace, cold beer and wine stores across the region, and select locations in Rupert, Kitimat, and Smithers. For more info, go to sherwoodmountain.beer. The brewery is at 4816 Highway 16 in Terrace.
Prince George: Northern Lights Estate
Wine in BC is usually associated with the Okanagan region, a semi-arid part of the province that produces vast quantities of grapes and tree fruit. Although northern BC is characterized by a short but bountiful growing season, Prince George isn’t where you’d expect to find a winery.
Coming at the idea from a different perspective, Northern Lights Estate Winery specializes in fruit wines. “Everyone has a grandparent who used to make wine from berries,” says Doug Bell, operating partner. Bell has lived in Prince George since 1988 and is firmly invested in the community. “We want to enhance our culture up here, showcasing our beautiful city, the river, and everything we have,” he says. “Starting the winery made good sense.”
“Prince George has always been rich in agricultural history. We really feel this is an opportunity to start a new industry and develop and support agriculture in the region, as well as making value-added products right here.” As for the short growing season, he says they’re doing just fine. “We’re right on the Nechako River, where the soil is rich and we have a breeze that holds off frost a bit longer than other areas.” He also tips his hat to their farm manager, agriculturalist Noemie Touchette. “She is fabulous.”
Using varieties of berries and other fruit means the winery can produce three times a year. There’s a thirst for local product growing throughout northern BC. “We made a ‘seduction wine’,” says Bell, “a blend of rhubarb and strawberry that makes a blush wine that’s sweet and easy-drinking. It sold out within two weeks.” They’re also using local apples, haskap berries, goji berries and gooseberries.
“One-hundred percent of our fruit comes from BC,” says Bell, citing partnerships with local and regional orchards as the most exciting part of developing the winery. “People want to buy local,” he says. “I see the northern region as one entity. We are a winery built in the North, for the North.”
Currently, Northern Lights Estate wines can only be found in Prince George with the exception of the tasting lounge at Three Ranges Brewing in Valemount, but plans to expand are in the works for 2016. Find them online at northernlightswinery.ca.
Further afield, Barkerville Brewing in Quesnel (barkervillebeer.com) has been consistently putting out a solid product, available in cold beer and wine stores across the north. Further still, Valemount’s Three Ranges Brewing (threeranges.com) is making a splash in its small community and across the province.
And of course, how could we forget one of BC’s oldest breweries, Pacific Western (pwbrewing.net). Located in Prince George since 1957, PWB produces a wide variety of beers including the Cariboo line, Scandal organic beers and Canterbury, among others.
Chances are high that these producers won’t be the only ones in northern BC for long, with a thirsty population eager to drink local.