Craft Beer in the Heart of Wine Country

Cowboys, rattlesnakes, sagebrush, dramatic mountain cutaways where millennia old glacial trails can be traced: these have been the trademarks of the Okanagan Valley for more than a century. Then, only a few decades ago, wine was brought into the fold as vinous aficionados searched for opportunities in the ‘new world.’ Craft beer is still stumbling to find its foothold here, but not without a tenacious few that believe there’s room enough for both types of beverages.

Although I grew up here, I’ve never done a wine tour, and if you had told me ten years ago that cans of Bud Light were steadily being replaced by bomber bottles of fruity beer, I would have laughed in disbelief. In a time and place where ‘tasting’ was code for conveniently not keeping track of how much was going down the hatch, it seemed what little craft beer offerings the valley had when I left seven years ago merely served the same purpose. Needless to say, this past weekend you could have found me eating more than just my words.

On the last weekend in April, I ventured to the South Okanagan for the Third Annual Osoyoos Oyster Festival. What three craft beer lovers could expect from a region where it seems like there are more wineries than full-time residents was anyone’s guess, and so, joined by the illustrious CAMRA BC – Vancouver Branch President, Adam Chatburn and the charming CAMRA BC – South Fraser Branch Community Liaison, Rhandi Plowright, I proceeded into the desert with little more than the knowledge that there wasn’t a single brewery in our destination town.

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Early on we learned that the only local beer producer, Ridge Brewpub, had shut down in recent years. There was, however, a small start-up brewery of some repute about 20 km north in Oliver.

A father-son operation, Firehall Brewery produces three palatablebrews: Holy Smoke Stout, Stoked Ember (Amber) Ale, and Backdraft Blonde Ale. Generous portions were served in their quaint little pub above the brewery, where Québécois fruit-pickers killed time with fervent joie de vivre as they waited for the season to begin. Although the brewery is currently for sale, Firehall has become the de facto meeting place for beer lovers throughout the South Okanagan, and hopefully that won’t change when the new owners step in.

With that visit, all craft beer destinations within a 60 km radius of Osoyoos (this side of the border) had been ticked off so we headed back to the Spirit Ridge Resort for a hot tub while Adam prepared his palate for the following day’s craft beer and oyster pairing judging. By his account, no less than 60 brews (and nearly as many oysters) were submitted to be judged—proof enough that if Okanagan residents aren’t keen to produce craft beer themselves, the coastal breweries sure want to bring it to them.

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For the first year of pairing craft beer with oysters at the Osooyos Oyster Fest, beer offerings were available from Cannery, Firehall, Moon Under Water and Tin Whistle, plus there was the Red Truck porter the CAMRA BC info table took to pouring. Spartan by most Vancouverites’ accounts, yet ample for the local crowd, the samples were complimented by locally made meatballs, ribs, sausages and, of course, plenty of oysters to be washed down with not only local beer, but the many types of spirits Okanagan Spirits had on offer as well as an excellent cider from Rustic Roots Winery in Cawston worth keeping an eye out for.

Over the course of the evening, I had the pleasure of meeting Martin Lewis, whom Adam had met earlier that day as a fellow judge. Owner of Kettle Valley Station Pub and the soon-to-be-open Bad Tattoo Brewing (both in Penticton), Martin quickly became our beacon of brews in a valley of vintners.

Through the noise of the stage band and the numerous visitors at our table, an impromptu meeting to further discuss CAMRA BC was quickly setup for the next day at Martin’s pub in Penticton. We three CAMRA representatives sat down with Ron Dyck, owner of Cannery Brewing, Lorraine Nagy, owner of Tin Whistle and, of course, Martin to determine whether opening a branch in the Okanagan would be a feasible opportunity. The three owners were excited at the prospect and we hope we will be able to announce a new branch in the region soon!

On our way back to Vancouver via Highway 3, I was surprised to see a pub had closed its doors on the edge of Princeton. “I’ll bet it’s just closed for the season,” Adam remarked. “You know, until the tourists come out.

On that note we left the arid interior with not only a sun tan, but a sense of opportunity.

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Thanks to Cassandra Anderton, April Goldade, Jon Crofts, all the volunteers, chefs and everyone involved in this festival and made it a huge success!

–CAMRA BC Communications Coordinator
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