The West Kootenay region has long been a tourist destination thanks to its spectacular natural setting and world-class ski resorts. And, despite being smack dab in the middle of nowhere, it somehow manages to feel both vibrant and culturally progressive.
The West Kootenays’ unique history is likely the reason. Thanks to the mining industry and the waves of American draft dodgers that moved there in the ’60s and ’70s, the area is simultaneously blue collar and hippie green.
Perhaps, then, it should come as no surprise that the West Kootenays are going crazy for craft beer. Nelson, a town of less than 10,000 people, is now home to four breweries (all within walking distance). Breweries have popped up in Rossland and Trail, and even tiny Kaslo has one in the works.
This isn’t a new phenomenon, either. Nelson Brewing Company has been making award-winning craft beers since 1991, and has been all-organic since 2006.
In recent months, two new craft breweries have opened – Backroads Brewing Company in Nelson and Trail Beer Refinery in Trail – and they are helping to make the case that the West Kootenays region is a legit beer destination.
I talked to Brent Malysh of Backroads Brewing Company and Mike Konklin of Trail Beer Refinery about what it’s like brewing in paradise.
The Growler: First off, congrats on opening! Tell me a bit about the process that led you to where you are now.
Brent Malysh: It’s been a whirl-wind of an opening for sure. For me personally, it’s been just shy of a two-year process from when I began researching the market in earnest to opening the doors. The project started as part of my commerce degree from Royal Roads University. My final term project was to write an investor-ready business plan. So, about six months researching and writing the plan, six more months to find the right building and find business partners/financing, and then about nine months to design, construct, and get our approvals in place. We started brewing in February and opened on March 24.
Mike Konkin: This project has been incredible. You would not believe that [the process] from idea to full-scale production brewery and awesome taproom happened in less than a year. This included a full reno of an old Sears building, getting permits, building a business plan and gathering the “dream team” of partners. We had the vision to make a special place for the residents of Trail. During one of our first meetings we made our mission/vision statement to Build a brewery that makes Trail proud. I think we have done it.
Why beer? What got you interested in craft beer enough to open your own brewery?
Malysh: I’ve always been fascinated by beer; especially the branding and marketing of it. My previous career was in ski resort management, and the après-ski part of my job always focused around beer. In the early 2000s I lived in Switzerland, working in the ski industry, and had the opportunity to visit many breweries throughout Germany, the Czech Republic and Belgium. But what really cemented it was seeing a couple small brewpubs in my favourite European ski towns and realizing that it was totally possible to be part of both the ski industry and the brewing industry.
Konklin: The beer industry in BC has exploded in the last few years and, after touring some amazing places around the province, we figured we could make a brewery “Trail” style, meaning; industrial, blue collar and really classy. We want to bring a great craft beer experience to our local residents and hope that they fully embrace our high quality product.
The West Kootenays is quickly becoming a craft beer destination. What makes it a good place to brew?
Malysh: Nelson was a totally under-served market. It’s been well established as a tourism town since the mid-late ’80s and it’s a much more sophisticated urban centre than the rest of the Kootenay towns. It has a long-standing history of a vibrant arts, culture, and food scene – all great things to go with beer. Plus, people just seem to go out more here; probably something to do with how much cash is on hand from production of our other famous BC crop [wink].
Konklin: The West Kootenays is a really special place. There are not too many places where you can ski in the morning and then golf in the afternoon. It is an outdoor paradise and beer fits nicely into this equation. It’s a great place to take a vacation, especially with so many awesome breweries in the area. Our next-door neighbor up the mountain is Rossland Beer Company and they are really great. There are also multiple breweries in Nelson, a one-hour drive away. It makes this area an epic destination.
What beers will you be offering?
Malysh: We’ve got a pretty broad range; so far we’ve brewed things like Munich helles, smoked Baltic porter, IPA, saison, Belgain IPA, so really all over the map. This summer, we’re looking at ideas like fruit wits and Czech-style lager. No matter what we offer, you can be sure that our co-owner and brewmaster Mike Kelly will make his beers with an eye for tradition, while keeping our offerings interesting and diverse.
Konklin: Our flagship beers are our Trail Ale, an easy-drinking amber ale with a medium-to-high maltiness and a medium-to-low caramel character, and our Silver City Lager, an American pale lager that is light in body and crisp and refreshing. Think blue-collar craft. Another hit has been our Silver City Ice, which was a mistake that proved to be game changing for us. We brewed our first lager batch and had a misstep with our fermenter temperature control, and we ended up freezing about 2,000 litres of beer. The good news was the beer that was left was super smooth and still light. The ABV shot up from 5% to 7%, but the result is great. We are also intending to experiment with other styles over the next year.
What makes your brewery unique?
Malysh: Right now our really standout feature is our consistently good beer being consumed in a vibrant, welcoming taproom. Our aim right from the start was to really focus on those two aspects. Having [former Nelson Brewing Company brewmaster] Mike Kelly come on board as an owner has been the first step – not too many breweries get to start out with a super experienced, award-winning brewer. And we’ve built a taproom that is completely different from every other place in town – its unique and really fits into what was a hole in the Nelson entertainment and dining scene.
Konklin: The Trail Beer Refinery is named after the places that our local residents are very familiar with. The major employer in town, Teck has a silver and lead refinery. We figured that a beer refinery would be even better. Our brewery is completely open to the tap room with only a pony wall separating it. You can sample our product right next to the massive, shiny, stainless steel tanks.