Craft beer has exploded in recent years and some Kelowna breweries are riding the wave of success.

Craft beer has exploded in recent years and some Kelowna breweries are riding the wave of success.

Kelowna brewery ready for when hops got hip

“When I started Tree Brewing in 1997 the industry was on an uptick. Craft beer was cool and the number of breweries was growing.”

Brewer David Gokiert hit his stride years ago.

Now there are a lot of people relishing the opportunity to catch up, one sip at a time.

“It’s funny, when I started here (at Tree Brewing) in 1997 the industry was on an uptick,” he said. “Craft beer was cool and the number of breweries was growing.”

Then there was an industry slump that lasted from 2000 to 2007.

Tree Brewing slogged through the worst of times, but managed to be in the privileged position of being the only craft brewery in Kelowna when interest again picked up.

“Now the craft beer movement is bigger than the first time around. It’s a lot more widespread and there’s a lot more interest,” Gokiert said.

The Liquor Distribution Branch in British Columbia has the figures to back that statement up.

In a recent report, it said craft beer sales have increased 38 per cent over the past year. Craft beer now accounts for six per cent of the national beer market, while sales for large domestic brewers have fizzled.

Some have struggled to make sense of the table turning trend—especially big breweries that are losing ground—but Gokiert thinks the cause is pretty simple.

“People want to drink local and they want to support a small business. It’s a lot like what you see in the restaurant industry,” he said.

“There are a lot of small places that make interesting food, where they only want to seat 10 to 12 people, and the same thing is happening with beer.”

Tree Brewing isn’t the smallest craft beer maker, though. It sends cases of its popular brews far and wide. Its Hop Head beer, for example, has been around with the exact same recipe since 1999. It’s popular and stable.

So, it’s small batch brewing where Gokier gets the opportunity to be even more flexible and meet the needs of those who want to experiment with flavour, while learning about the process of beer-making.

That’s where the Tree Brewing Institute, which opened on Water Street in September, comes in.

“When you come in here, you sit at the bar with myself and the other beer geeks and you can smell (the beer), taste it, move it around in your mouth and learn how to relate more to what the brewmaster is trying to get across to you,” Gokier said.

“We want people to get excited about beer and educate them. When a person leaves this place I want them to love Tree, but I really want them to enjoy craft beer.”

Tod Melnyk, dreamed up the idea of the institute years ago.

“The space preceded the idea for the institute,” he said.

“We used to go there for lunch when it was DJ’s, and when it became available I thought, ‘I could really do something with this.’”

And he has. From top to bottom, the space on Water Street is completely fresh and beer oriented.

“We used almost all local materials and the smallest local tradesmen we could find,” he said, noting that a significant wood slab used for one table actually came from Vancouver.

But the rest? Totally local.

“That, to me, is really cool,” he said.

There are a lot of cool things happening in the space.

When you walk through the doors you’re immediately greeted by one of their beer-aficionados.

You could order some pizza made from the spent grain from the beer, or a pint from them, then head to a counter or table to imbibe, maybe even play one of the games set out in the corner.

Better yet, sidle up to the bar and strike up a conversation with whoever is there about what you’re sipping on.

They may direct you to the bags of malts stacked in the corner. They’re there to smell, feel and aid a deeper understanding of what goes in to crafting a great beer.

Or head upstairs, where there are malts growing in an outdoor beer garden space that overlooks Water Street.

Eventually beer school will be held up there.

“Malt is like coffee beans,” Melnyk said.

“The lighter the malt, the lighter the beer. Then the hops are like spices.”

How the brewmaster blends the two, and a few other technical details, is where the magic in beer is made.

Melnyk is clearly excited about that process, and when you consider how long he’s been wading through suds, it’s remarkable.

He bought into Tree in 2008, but before that he had 18 years of experience, with the most recent position being with Labatt.

He had the type of job that offered a salary few would walk away from, but Melnyk has “always been entrepreneurial” and saw potential in the craft beer market. That, and he loves a good brew.

“You’ve got to do what you love and love what you do,” he said.

And, the reasons to love beer are plenty.

“It’s the simplicity of it,” he said. “It’s a simple beverage, but complex. Great for socializing and relaxing. It’s just a great beverage that transcends many experiences.”

And, he said, it’s best served fresh. Craft beer can be in a cask, keg, bottled or canned, but the pre-packaged versions are different than what’s offered at the institute and a growing number of brew pubs.

Unfiltered beer is on tap, making for more flavour, and the occasional floatie.

Those who want to take it home can buy a ‘growler,’ which is filled with the equivalent of a six-pack of beer.

Once it’s drained, bring it back in for a refill with any of the beers on tap.

What they’re offering is also sparking creativity in the foodie community.

The Salted Brick has partnered with Tree Brewing to make a beer infused pepperoni.

Sandrines has made some bonbons with Tree beer and Gio Bean espresso is a key ingredient to a beer that’s coming out soon.

All in all, Tree Brewing is tapping into a global trend that’s growing by leaps and bounds.

And they’re not alone.

Surf and Bone Beer are small Kelowna breweries also catering to a niche market.

Last year there was a brewery proposed for the North End, on the BC Tree Fruit site, although it appears now to be in limbo.

Chico’s Eatery and Brew Company, is planning to open a two-storey, 8,000-square foot brewpub at 1850 Ellis St. The building was originally constructed by the British North American Tobacco Company in the early 1900s, and has original wood floors, heavy interior timbers, and extensive brickwork.

Its proponents are hoping to be open for May of next year.

Craft breweries and a brewpubs are all over Vancouver.

At last count, there were 80, but some have estimated that number will double within the next year.

It’s unlikely breweries will overcome the wine industry in the hub of wine country.

But there will definitely be more variety in the years to come, and that competition to brewmaster Gokiert is great news.

“If a guy goes into a brewpub and has a craft beer and thinks, ‘Hey, that’s good,’ he may come to us,” he said.

“There will be a snowball effect. And there’s enough people in Kelowna to keep us all happy.”


Kelowna Capital News

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