Owner Dave Harris (left) and brewmaster Jeff Harrop pictured at the Bulkley Valley Brewery’s bar. (Contributed photo)

A tale of two breweries: How Smithers got its brew back

How two different breweries stepped in to fill the void for one thirsty mountain town

There are few things better after a long day in some sparkly, fresh powder than the hoppy kiss of a fresh pint.

For three years, between late 2009 and the end of 2012, this dream became realized in Smithers when local sudtrepreneur Mark Gillis decided to open up Plan B brewing.

The small nanobrewery (a term which refers to brewing systems which brew less than 470 litres at a time) produced artisan craft suds at a time where the market was just beginning to boom in Canada, let alone rural B.C.

But despite winning the Best Nanobrewery award from Northwest Brewing News just a month prior, the brewery sold its last beer on New Year’s Eve in 2012 and shut its doors for good.

At that point, the taps dried up.

Not literally, of course. There were other places you could go for a beer, perhaps even get a bottle or can from one of the various breweries throughout the Lower Mainland, but many still wanted a more casual environment offered by a brewery.

One such individual was Dave Harris who, at the time of Plan B’s closing owned his own outdoor gear shop in Smithers.

He said he would frequently have get togethers with customers and friends in the shop after work, routinely going into the middle of the night on the weekends.

“It became a thing, you know, 4 o’ clock on Fridays and Saturdays people would be hanging out in the ski shop drinking and just socializing until like midnight,” he said.

This was an eyeopener to Harris, relatively new to town, who said he felt Smithers was looking to fill the void left by it’s only brewery closing.

“Obviously Smithers needed something that was different than a restaurant to go and drink, just more of a casual, sitdown hangout,” he said.

Over the years, Harris began to seriously entertain the idea of trying to fill that vacancy noting that, unlike a lot of snowboard or ski gear, it’s easy to sell beer year round.

“I didn’t have a niche in the summertime,” he explained. “So it was kind of like my winter profits were paying for my ability to be open in the summer.”

Initially he was thinking about starting up a bike shop, however when he had his friend back in Ontario look at the numbers, they gave him a different suggestion.

“He looked at them and he said these are really great numbers and it’s a good business but you could start a microbrewery for less, and that would be a better business.”

That’s exactly what Harris did, closing his outdoor shop of seven years and opening up the Bulkley Valley Brewery (BVB) on Mar. 25, 2018 along with Brewmaster Jeff Harrop.

READ MORE: Bulkley Valley Brewery grand opening

But good things come to those who wait, and Smithers had been more than patient.

Enter Smithereen and craft beer lover Blaine Estby who, after 18 years away from home after spending his childhood and teenage years in Smithers, found himself returning home for good.

But there was a problem.

“I came back to not having a brewery,” said Estby. He added that for him the choice was obvious: he had to make his own.

After connecting with lifelong friend Adin Bennett the two met up with local entrepreneurs Sascha Hillebrand and Jeremy Roth. The duo offered up an empty lot on 3rd Avenue and by September 2017 construction had began. Add in a chance encounter with Cam McKeigan, who was working as both a school teacher and brewer in Prince Rupert, and the team had their head brewer.

The team officially opened up Smithers Brewing Company (SBC) on June 27, 2018.

READ MORE: Smithers Brewing Company grand opening

Discussing the void filled by the businesses both Estby and Harris expressed a desire to create the casual atmosphere that a bar offers while also providing a gathering spot for everything from stand-up comedy to live vinyl sets to weekly board game nights.

Both locations offer a number of weekly and one-off events, including a recent live performance of Alex Cuba’s latest album at BVB and launch of a four-beer collaborative seasonal series between Hazelton artist Roy Henry Vickers and SBC at the brewery.

Harris said he is a big fan of live music and supporting local artists having spent a good time in both Toronto and Edmonton’s music scenes and missing it after initially moving to Smithers.

“I really tried to make that happen,” he said.

But beyond just hosting local events, both owners also expressed a desire to support local businesses, with both breweries using a wide variety of locally-sourced ingredients in their brews when possible.

Harris recently released a beer made with locally-sourced haskap berries which he said they hope to do again this spring.

The brewery also uses locally-sourced honey in a number of brews, with Harris adding he has hopes to try a beer made specifically with clover honey in the future.

Similarly, Estby says the brewery uses locally-sourced coffee from Chicken Creek in their nitro coffee lager and they also have plans for a haskap-based sour in the future made with berries from Living Roots Family Farm in Smithers.

“We ended up buying like the last 400 pounds from them,” Estby said. “It was pretty massive, it took like four or five hours just to get them all into the tank.”

Both individuals expressed a gratitude for living in a region which, although might not be as well known for its fruit as the Okanagan, contains a number of unique and interesting ingredients that present a nearly-endless range of fermentable feasabilities.

“As people want to shop more local and support local it’s really cool that we have these really awesome enclosed systems,” said Harris.

“We can buy local ingredients and make the beer here locally and give our byproduct to local farmers who then give it to make meat for the Sausage Factory or any of the local butchers around here and it’s just this awesome enclosed cycle.”

As for the future, both said they are focused on one thing: making good beer.

So far, it’s looking good, with the the BC Ale Trail featuring Smithers in their interactive guide highlighting a number of B.C.’s craft breweries. Both Estby and Harris say they feel lucky to have become such an integral part of a tight-knit community like Smithers.

“We’ve made so many friends,” said Estby. “We initially looked at this as sort of being a production brewery first with distribution and having a small tap room that we’d have open at certain hours … but as we opened we sort of saw that there was that need to fill that like afternoon sort of après-work, après-ski, après-bike [period] into the evening and later.”

Harris agreed.

“Five years ago, come 6 o’clock at night there was nothing going on. Now, especially in the wintertime, you see people out and about on Mondays and Tuesdays and it’s great.”

He said one thing is for sure: in the world of craft suds, Smithers is on the rise like so much fermented beer yeast.

“When people are looking at that Ale Trail map and they see two breweries in Smithers — that’s a definitive stop.”



trevor.hewitt@interior-news.com

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