It’s not just about getting drunk anymore.
According to the four breweries now operating in Nelson’s downtown core, B.C.’s booming craft beer industry has a lot to do with the consumer — and people are getting pickier. It’s not enough anymore to churn out the same old favourites. These days beer enthusiasts are looking for innovative new flavours.
Until recently Nelson Brewing Company had a monopoly in town, but since 2013 they’ve seen an influx of competition: Torchlight recently moved into the former Sears location on Front Street, Backroads Brewery has opened up a tap room on Baker Street, and the Savoy Hotel has a small operation out of the Falls Music Lounge.
And as far as everyone in the local industry’s concerned, the more the merrier. Rather than seeing it as fighting over the same piece of pie, these local entrepreneurs have embraced the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats.
Backroads hits the main drag
Backroads owner Brent Malysh was an anticipating a rush when they opened their doors a few weeks ago, but the first day nearly overwhelmed him as a parade of residents sidled up to the bar.
“I was pouring so many beers, and there were so many happy people, that we didn’t really have time to think about the fact that it took us nearly two years to reach opening day,” he told the Star.
And he was stoked to see other people in the industry, including representatives from NBC and Torchlight, all of them clinking glasses and congratulating one another.
“That’s a real hallmark of the craft beer industry is that we’re all in this together against the big breweries, and that spirit really comes through. That’s one of the fun things about this industry is we get to work closely with our so-called competitors.”
He’s thrilled with the team he’s put together, which includes former NBC brewer Mike Kelly and co-owner Tracy Brown.
“We want all craft beer to be high quality so people are attracted to craft beer in general. It’s really important we all work together, and that’s one of the things that attracted me to this industry 23 years ago,” said Kelly.
“There’s a fraternity amongst brewers. We’re here to help each other out.”
And the unique element they bring to the local scene is the tasting room, which features work by local photographers on the walls. The Backroads team plans to source as many products locally as possible and to be an active part of the Nelson community.
“You can walk in off the street and try local beer made by local people, and it’s made right there in the back,” said Malysh.
“That was always our vision.”
Torchlight expands its offerings
The crazier the beer, the more popular it is.
That’s the lesson the Torchlight team has learned since opening its doors a few years ago, and now they’re betting the farm on a huge expansion and a brand new space. They will offer soft drinks, wine and a full kitchen.
“It’s going to be pretty crazy. It’s a big move,” owner Josh Secord told the Star.
“It’s nerve-wracking because we’re still right in the middle of it, but it’s extremely exciting. We just want to be one of the best places in town to go and get great beer.”
Secord has teamed up with brewmaster Craig Swendson and manager Robert George on the endeavour, and they’ve invested in a much larger brewing system than they had previously.
“We’re going to have bottled products and draft beer all across B.C. Just as of this year we’ve become province-wide,” Swendson said.
“And once the new system is online we’ll be able to flood smaller markets and have a lot more beer in a lot more places.”
George said it’s been fascinating to watch the Nelson scene evolve.
“I brewed my first batch in 1973, and I’ve seen a lot go on in this industry. People are drinking for different reasons these days, for taste sensations and for the enjoyment of a new experience, not necessarily just to get drunk — especially in the Kootenays.”
NBC plays the game
NBC’s brewmaster Jerry Grant is happy to have company.
“We’ve been alone in the sandbox for too long. It’s about time some more people showed up to play. Nelson is a perfect spot to be a centre for craft beer in B.C,” he said.
“We’re a tourist town, we have lots of visitors winter and summer, so the more the merrier. It’s going to attract people just for the beer scene, to come for beer-cations, so they can spend the weekend and tour all the local spots, and it’s really happening —finally.”
He said what’s happening in the U.S. is finally crossing the border.
“There’s over 5,300 breweries in the U.S. There’s never been more breweries ever. It’s sort of like the foodies of the beer world, all these people that have become really into craft beer since the mid-to-late 80s.”
Owners Matt and Kate Walker are investing in new equipment so they can expand their offerings, and Matt feels that will give his staff more room to innovate.
“We’re going to allow our brewers to play more, to be more creative instead of just pumping out our core products. Now we get to do more one-offs, play the game and have fun.”
Savoy tries new things
Art Abrahams has been working for the Shambhala Music Festival and the Savoy for years, and he jumped at the chance to help owner Jimmy Bundschuh with brewing.
“I can get pretty nerdy with it, for sure,” Abrahams said.
“I’m constantly learning, drilling down and doing personal experiments. I home-brewed quite enthusiastically for a number of years.”
So he will actually take hops home, steep them like tea, then sip them to get a better sense of how the beer will ultimately turn out.
“I want to learn exactly what my ingredients are doing when they go into my beer. It’s been really exciting. I came in at about our 10th brew, and we just finished our 30th the other day.”
He figures they’re still at their “fledgling state” but the community response has been great.
“We’ve got customers coming in now just for the beer. People come in and that obligatory chat with the brewmaster happens. I tell them each brew is kind of like watching your kid grow up.”
Abrahams is stoked other breweries are popping up.
“I want to see more variety. One thing I’ve noticed bouncing around communities in the Kootenays is that Nelson is very much a hop-centric town, but that is starting to change. People are much more adventurous these days.”