by Joe Wiebe (thirstywriter.com) | July/August 2012
The Okanagan is a popular and well-known destination for wine lovers, but maybe my column has been getting you more and more interested in craft beer. So, the next time you’re headed to the Okanagan, why not try some beer and spirits in wine country? From Sorrento to Osoyoos, there are six breweries, five distilleries and four brewpubs to visit, each with its own unique style and flavour.
What’s more, the region hosts the annual Okanagan Fest-of-Ale, a two-day beer festival held in Penticton every April. Penticton sits at the base of Okanagan Lake with Skaha Lake to the south, nestled comfortably between the valley’s glacial slopes that have proven to be ideal for orchards and vineyards. The city of about 33,000 also has a long, sandy beach that runs along most of its northern edge and a quaint downtown with a fair sampling of well-maintained architecture from the 1950s and ’60s.
One of the older buildings downtown is a converted cannery that now houses over 30 businesses, including Cannery Brewing. Owned by Ron & Patt Dyck, Cannery Brewing has established itself as one of the Okanagan’s premier craft breweries. Cannery’s diverse range of nearly a dozen beers includes some standouts: Anarchist Amber Ale, Naramata Nut Brown Ale, Apricot Wheat Ale, Blackberry Porter and Squire Scotch Ale. Visit the brewery for a tour and tasting, and then pick up a growler (1.89-L refillable jug), bomber (650-ml bottle) or six-pack of your favourite style.
On the west side of Penticton is Tin Whistle Brewing, which brews Killer Bee Dark Honey Ale, Black Widow Dark Ale and Peach Cream Ale, among others. All of these brews are sold in 650-ml bottles.
For a change of pace from craft beer, visit Maple Leaf Spirits. When Jorg Engel moved to Penticton from Germany, he was amazed at all the fruit left on the trees or ground to rot after harvest. Back in Germany, there are thousands of small distilleries that turn leftover fruit into fruit schnapps or liqueurs. He was inspired to start his own fruit distillery in 2006, and within two years, he was winning major awards at international competitions. Engel has an incredible variety of products made from pears, cherries, grapes, nectarines and plums. He even has a maple liqueur that will knock your socks off.
The town of Oliver, about 45 minutes south of Penticton, calls itself the Wine Capital of Canada. However, among all those vineyards and wineries is one of BC’s newest breweries: Firehall Brewing. Based in the cellar of an old fire hall with a pub upstairs, the tiny microbrewery is run by a 20-something local musician named Sid Ruhland, whose enthusiasm and dedication, so obvious in person, is evident in the quality of his products.
Kelowna (which is about an hour north of Penticton) is also a great craft beer and spirits destination, either on its own or as part of an overall Okanagan trip. With over 117,000 residents, it is by far the largest city in the Okanagan. Surprisingly, given its size, Kelowna has only one craft brewery (Tree Brewing) and two micro-distilleries (Okanagan Spirits and Urban Distilleries).
Tree’s brewmaster Stefan Buhl was born in Germany and studied his craft at a brewing university there before moving to Canada in 1996. He has been with Tree since 2000 and has developed a reputation as one of BC’s premier brewers. He also gives a great tour, so call ahead to see if he is available. Tree produces a wide range of beers, including Thirsty Beaver Amber Ale, Kelowna Pilsner, Hop Head IPA, Hefeweizen and their newest brew, Madcap Belgian White Ale. Look for their amped-up seasonals, such as Captivator Doppelbock, Hop Head Double and Black IPA, where Buhl really gets to show off.
Urban Distilleries draws its name from owner Mike Urban, but the products and style of the tasting room itself definitely also have an urban vibe. The distillery makes a wide variety of spirits, including Spirit Bear Vodka and Gin, and Urban Single-Malt Whisky and Rum. As a unique twist, you can customize your own whisky by adding different types of oak directly to the bottle, simulating the barrel-aging conditions whiskies undergo at larger distilleries.
The other distillery in Kelowna, Okanagan Spirits, is located in the heart of the downtown. Okanagan Spirits produces a wide range of spirits, including vodka, gin, aquavit, rye whiskey, fruit brandies and liqueurs, and it also makes one thing no one else in the region does: absinthe. Infamous for supposedly being poisonous and hallucinogenic, the spirit is actually neither, but the distillery embraces the myths around the drink by calling its product Taboo Absinthe. It has a strong anise and herbal flavour and, although some people like to add sugar, it tastes great mixed with cold water (which will turn it cloudy, similar to pastis).
So, with all of these different craft beer and spirits options to consider, your next visit to wine country might not even involve wine. Cheers!
Sidebar: Touring in Style
Based in Penticton, Grape Friends offers a Barley, Hops and Spirits Tour that is the perfect way to sample the local craft beer and spirits scene. Ride in style in their comfortable Lincoln Navigator from brewpub to brewery to distillery without having to worry about who is the designated driver.
Places to Visit
#112-1475 Fairview Rd.
Tin Whistle Brewing
954 Eckhardt Ave. W.
Kettle Valley Station Pub
1050 Eckhardt Ave. W.
Barley Mill Brewpub
2460 Skaha Lake Rd.
Maple Leaf Spirits
1386 Carmi Ave.
340 Main St.
85 Westminster Ave. E.
6077 Main St.
1083 Richter St.
6-325 Bay Ave.
267 Bernard Ave.
RauDZ Regional Table
1560 Water St.
948 McCurdy Rd.