Northern nano:

🕔Sep 27, 2010

Both Glen Ingram and Mark Gillis had been hobby brewers for years, but only in the last year did they agree to do what their friends had been encouraging them to do for years: open a little brewery right in their town of Smithers. And so was born the tiny but mighty Plan B Brewery.

In separate towns many years ago, both Ingram and Gillis first turned to home brewing for the same reasons: it was a way to drink beer and save money. Sure they made some of the usual home-brewers’ beginner mistakes, with flat beer and strange flavours, but through experimentation and perseverance they soon found they were brewing really tasty and unique beers whose type and flavour couldn’t be found in stores. “That’s when the real creativity happened,” says Ingram.

The night that Ingram first met Gillis in Smithers, he apologized for rushing away but said he had to go home and start a batch of beer. As a fellow hobby brewer, Gillis immediately quizzed Ingram on his ingredients and methods.

Now, these many years later, their Plan B Brewery crafts five types of excellent beer with very interesting names: Bitter Bob Bitter; Idiot Rock India Pale Ale; McHugh’s Oatmeal Stout; Revenge of the Pine Pale Ale; and Half Cracked, a nut-brown ale.

Once they’d agreed to take on the brewery project, both Gillis and Ingram wanted to open Plan B properly. Since a northern BC micro-brewery had never been tried before, the learning curve for both the proprietors and the permitting and licensing agencies was steep. After months of steady applications, renovations and inspections, Plan B poured its first glass of beer in the fall of 2009. Since then they have brewed quality beer and experienced sell-out success.

Beer crafting
In their 800-square-foot brewery the two men brew Mondays and Tuesdays and open their doors Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. In addition to other employment and families, they each manage to do their former hobby as a business while still enjoying the process and retaining passion for the end product.

Tuesday—brew day—I drop in to see Mark Gillis at work beside three large, shiny kettles. There are heating elements going underneath the kettles with exhaust fans blowing and Mark is in a particularly busy time in the process moving amongst the hoses and gauges like a whirling dervish. Mark explains his brew day starts at 6 am, cracking grain and getting the temperature up in the kettles. The three vats produce the wort needed to make their five varieties of ale. Later in the day Mark will transfer the wort from the kettles into large conical fermenters inside a temperature-controlled room. Still later the beer is moved into kegs and finally into coolers for carbonation. The whole procedure takes three weeks.

On a Friday I visit the brewery during open hours and Glen is at work behind the small tasting-bar. I listen as he passionately describes Plan B’s five beers to potential customers perched on the stools before him. He talks about their hoppiness, their full body, their clean finish, their hints of citrus or degrees of sweetness. This man really knows his product.

Ingram uses the term craft beer to describe Plan B’s product. “If you enjoy the process of brewing, use quality ingredients and have a passion for the end product, then you have a craft beer,” he says. Both he and Gillis enjoy the step-by-step brewing process and no doubt love the end product. So much so that when I asked Ingram which of their beers is his favourite, he replied quickly that he couldn’t choose one; it would be like a parent choosing his favourite child. His passion is echoed by Gillis who named McHugh’s Oatmeal Stout after his wife, Tamara Gillis née McHugh.

As for the ingredients, Gillis explains that they use the freshest ingredients possible, buying locally as much as they can, with most of the grain in their all-grain batches being organic.

The nanobrewery
Ingram explains that Plan B is much smaller than most microbreweries; Plan B brews about one-seventh the volume of a typical microbrewery. As for the size of Plan B, “it is probably the smallest microbrewery in BC, and possibly Canada,” says Gillis. (He clarifies that there are brew pubs that are similar size, but for breweries that package beer they are one of the smallest.)

A term that beer enthusiasts and beer bloggers use to describe a brewery the size of Plan B is ‘nanobrewery.’ And there are a growing number of fans of the smaller-than-micro nanobrewery. Plan B has been written up on several beer blogs and brewing websites and, even at its very young age, has already become an intentional stopover for travelling beer connoisseurs. “We are providing another reason for people to stop here” says Ingram.

As their beer is only available at the storefront and in two Smithers restaurants (the Aspen Riverhouse and Luftikus), anyone who wants to purchase Plan B beer has to come to Smithers. Ingram compares it to travelling in Europe: if you want a particular type of cheese you have to go to the one town where it is made.

While the majority of the population does not drink craft beer, the founders of Plan B do not think it a risk to set up such a specialized business. Plan B’s patrons are often repeat customers who care about the quality of beer they drink or who want to support a local brewery.

“To go this small in a community this size really has its benefits,” says Ingram, explaining that the feedback has been exceptional and the residents are excited about seeing a new economy in Smithers.

“Even though our brewery is really small, our impact on craft beer in BC goes far beyond the actual reach of our beer,” adds Gillis.

Both Gillis and Ingram want their beer to be a part of the local economy and an extension of the local culture. Plan B has local art on the walls, handcrafted wooden furniture made by Telkwa’s Colin MacLeod, concrete countertops by Ken Bibby, and decorative security window-coverings made by local welder Austin Currah.

Gillis states that what truly makes their bottles unique are the labels designed by local artist Facundo Gastiazoro. “The artwork has proven to be extremely well liked,” says Gillis. “So much so, in fact, that when we were at a beer festival in Penticton we had a large framed poster of our ‘Revenge of the Pine’ label stolen from our booth.”

Run by two entrepreneurs who want to make a more beer-savvy northern BC, Plan B’s local-focused, nano-sized craft beer brewery is turning out to be a big hit locally, and making waves in the pool of beer brewers across the province. In their own words, they take pride in crafting an exceptional beer for an exceptional community.