The Okanagan may be wine country, but craft beer has arrived in a major way in Kelowna. In the past three years, five new breweries have opened in the city, with another seven on the way. There are even hopyards popping up along Highway 97, as local farmers take advantage of that warm Okanagan sun and rich soil.
So forget about all that sunshine, the glorious lake, the sandy beaches, the world-class food and wine—Kelowna is a craft beer destination now, and the time is right for a summer road trip.
If you’re staying in Kelowna, chances are you’re staying downtown, or close to it. After all, that’s where the action is: the beaches, the restaurants, the hordes of sunburnt Albertans.
Craft Beer Market opened up in the former Paramount Theatre on Bernard Avenue last year and is a good place to get your bearings downtown. With more than 100 beers on tap, nearly all of Kelowna’s breweries are represented here.
Heading north on Water Street, you’ll find the Tree Brewing Beer Institute, which operates independently from the now Big Rock-owned and Vancouver-brewed Tree Brewing. This bright and friendly tasting room features a glass wall separating the bar from the brewery, offering beer nerds a front row seat to the action.
A block up and a block over, and you’ll find yourself at what might be the most fun craft brewery in the whole province. BNA Brewing Co. is located in the historic Old Cannery Building, and the former massive brick warehouse has been converted into a Pee-Wee’s Playhouse of cool shit to do while drinking. There’s a bowling alley upstairs, an indoor bocce ball court, a vintage arcade, a food truck located inside, a bar/nightclub downstairs, and if you’re just looking to grab some beers, there’s a separate tasting room and growler fill station so you don’t have to brave the lineup to get your hands on a bottle of Tennessee Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Milk Stout. And rest assured, if it’s a Friday or Saturday night, there will be a lineup.
Historically, Kelowna’s North End has been home to the city’s many fruit canning plants, and it’s where companies like Sun-Rype Products and B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association are located today. While the canning industry declined with the advent of refrigeration, it left behind a vast industrial neighbourhood with properties ripe for the picking for craft breweries. Tree Brewing’s original brewery was the first to move to Richter Street back in the 1990s, and for decades was the only brewery in the area. That brewery may be gone, but in its place has grown a veritable ecosystem of craft beer, all within walking distance.
Kettle River Brewing Co. opened up in 2016 with just a tiny homemade brewhouse that would have been undersized for most nanobreweries, let alone a 42-seat tasting room. It’s been punching above its weight ever since, and with a new 600-litre brewhouse, a lounge licence, a bumping patio and new brewer in Wilson Watson, Kettle River has really come into its own. The atmosphere is lively and welcoming and it’s easy to lose an entire afternoon there, especially with a pint of English Subtitles ESB—which won gold at the recent Okanagan Fest of Ale—in your hand.
Since opening, Kettle River has been joined by Red Bird Brewing and Vice and Virtue Brewing Co. just a few metres away, with three more breweries in the neighbourhood set to open by the end of the year.
“It’s pretty exciting to see all the growth in the industry up here happening so fast,” says Kettle River co-owner Chris Dedinsky. “I do think the wine culture in Kelowna helped bump the enthusiasm around craft beer in the Okanagan generally. Especially with restaurants and bars. Most places around town have had a good local selection of wine and are transitioning quickly into having a great selection of local and local-ish beer on tap as well.”
Right around the corner—quite literally—is Red Bird Brewing. With space for maybe 20 people, the tasting room is cosy and rustic, with a half dozen takes on classic West Coast craft styles on tap. While most of the beer is currently brewed offsite, a new brewery with a 10 hL brewhouse is in the works just down the street.
Vice and Virtue Brewing Co. is the new kid on the block, having opened up last year, but it’s already earned a loyal following thanks to its hip décor, cutting edge beers, and simply phenomenal food. The chicken liver paté (a.k.a. the foie gras of the working class) is rich and velvety, while the charcuterie and smoked meats are all done in house. If you’re looking for a Brut Champale or a Mango Milkshake IPA, this is the place. The vibe is a little more restaurant than craft brewery tasting room, but it’s a must-visit.
Not to be confused with the North End, the city’s other industrial neighbourhood lies north of Rutland next to UBC Okanagan and the airport. Here, a growing number of breweries are serving the thirsty masses on the outskirts of the city. Though not walkable from downtown, it’s definitely worth taking the 15-minute drive to see what’s brewing.
The tasting room at Boundary Brewing Co. is tiny and always packed, so expect to make new friends. Boundary’s approach is unique among B.C. breweries, with it’s über-traditional take on classic German beers all made in its wooden brewhouse—the only one in Canada as far as I can tell. Make sure to try owner/brewer Oliver Gläser’s altbier, one of the best takes on the Düsseldorf style.
Just a short walk south is a brewery that couldn’t be anymore different. The aptly named Wild Ambition Brewing is the passion project of unabashed beer nerds Mitchell Kehoe and Theresa Cashen. While the tasting room may be sparse, things really get wild in the back, where they barrel age and bottle condition their mixed fermentation sours and farmhouse ales. While they’ve only been up and running for six months now, beers like Imaginal Phase Rye Saison—with its subtle spice, balanced tartness and clean, dry finish—are proof that this is a brewery to keep an eye on.
The new kid on the block is Kelowna Brewing Co., located right next to the UBC Okanagan campus. With an extensive food menu, dozens of guest taps and a handful of beers brewed in house, this brewery is more of a college bar that happens to make its own beer.
Closer to town, Freddy’s Brewpub keeps it simple with its selection of approachable craft beers, the quality of which has improved a great deal over the past couple of years. In addition to the attached bowling alley (hence the Big Lebowski theme throughout the bar—and, yes, you can get a White Russian if you’re taking a break from craft beer), Freddy’s also regularly hosts live comedy nights.
On the horizon
Kelowna might have more new craft breweries in the works than any municipality in the province—by my count there are no less than seven currently in the works. In the North End, there’s Rustic Reel Brewing, Jackknife Brewing and Red Bird’s new brewery on the way, while on the south side of the city, there’s Barn Owl Brewing and Shoreline Brewing. Meanwhile, Copper Brewing is moving in to the Landmark neighbourhood, east of downtown. All the more reason to come back next year, too!