Dave Gokiert has visions of vines growing high in downtown Kelowna. On an expansive second-floor patio, he points to the garden boxes in which rhizomes will be planted shortly, next to a long table crafted out of planks from a single tree. In a few years, he says, the vegetation will climb all the way up the patio walls and form a canopy over the table, where patrons can sit and enjoy a drink.
Since this is the Okanagan, one might assume he’s talking about grapevines. But in fact, Gokiert is referring to bines—climbing plants that produce hops for beer. The patio is for patrons tasting Hop Head IPA and other Tree Brewing beers. It’s just off the classroom of the brewery’s new Beer Institute, and while the bines will be mostly decorative, Gokiert hopes they’ll eventually produce enough hops to use in the odd batch of beer.
With vineyards first cultivated in the area over 150 years ago, Kelowna has a long history of attracting wine lovers—so the city isn’t the first place you’d think of to spend a few hours learning about beer. But slowly and surely the craft-beer revolution is infiltrating wine country, and of late there’s more to enjoy here for those who prefer hoisting a well-made pint to swirling a glass of Pinot Gris.
Tree Brewing, of course, is no newcomer to the area; it’s been operating in Kelowna since 1996, with brewmaster Gokiert working there for almost that long. But last fall, the company opened the Beer Institute just off the Okanagan Lake boardwalk. The bilevel space is a cross between a pub and a tasting room, with welcoming seating areas, beer-friendly food, and a glassed-in view of the tanks in Gokiert’s small-batch production area.
Formal beer-appreciation classes are in the works, but Gokiert says the Institute even now serves as an informal venue for beer education: staff members are officially called Beer Geeks and as brewmaster, he’s always on call for questions they can’t answer.
“We’re showing beer in its rawest form here,” Gokiert says, explaining that all the beer at the Institute is served unfiltered, directly from the tanks. (Beer is usually filtered before packaging for reasons of stability, clarity, and preference.) Therefore, patrons can try whatever beer Gokiert is working on at the height of its flavour. “It’s a way of exposing people to craft beer in its natural state.”
According to Gokiert, Kelowna residents are becoming more interested in craft beer, and more local restaurants are responding with craft tap handles. He sees the trend as an extension of the wave that started in Portland and swung up to Vancouver: “People are more adventurous, and they’re more willing to try something they don’t know.”
That was evident at the first Great Okanagan Beer Festival flagship event on May 8, where almost 2,000 revellers had access to 119 beers. Put on by the folks behind the Whistler Village Beer Festival, it was smaller in scale than the 2014 Whistler event (with 41 rather than 64 breweries participating), but it offered plenty of space to sprawl out in the sunshine at downtown Kelowna’s picturesque Waterfront Park. While many of the breweries hailed from Metro Vancouver, there was a contingent from wine country too, including Firehall Brewing from Oliver, and Cannery Brewing and Bad Tattoo Brewing (which opened in July 2014) from Penticton.
Near Waterfront Park, another brewery is getting ready to open in June. Long-time Kelowna resident Kyle Nixon, whose family used to run the historic Hotel Eldorado, is renovating the 1919 British North American Tobacco Company building on Ellis Street. Locally referred to as “the BNA building”, it will be transformed into the BNA Brew Co., a restaurant and brewery.
When the Straight visited, the two-level, 240-seat space was still under construction but showed character with the brick walls intact. “We wanted the building to tell a bit of a story, so when people come in they feel like it’s a 100-year-old building,” Nixon said. That doesn’t preclude a few hipster touches, such as the indoor bocce court: “It’s a great game to play with a beer in your hand,” he explained with a laugh. BNA’s brewmaster will be Liam McCormick, who apprenticed at Granville Island Brewing under Verne Lambourne.
When BNA opens, it will be conveniently close to another beer-centric spot that opened on Ellis Street last fall. (Beer crawl, anyone?) With a Prohibition-era mural declaring “We want beer!” the Curious Cafe has 16 craft beers on tap and wood-oven pizzas. There are only token wine selections—a bold move in a city surrounded by vineyards.
Of course, many wine lovers also appreciate craft beer, and vice versa. Indeed, four diverse beverage producers downtown have teamed up to form the Grapes and Grains Trail, a self-guided walking tour of their facilities with complimentary tastings at each. The route covers Tree Brewing’s Beer Institute, Okanagan Spirits Craft Distillery, Urban Distilleries, and Sandhill Winery. (The latter’s modern, 8,000-square-foot space opened in May 2014 in the north end of downtown, about a 10-minute walk from the Beer Institute.)
And even beer lovers who have no interest in wine will want to get out of downtown and drive through the lovely vineyards surrounding Okanagan Lake at some point during their visit. The panoramic view sloping down to the lake from the patio of Summerhill Pyramid Winery’s bistro is enough to make any ale lover consider ordering a glass of Riesling.
Yes, the restaurant does offer beer as well. But when dining above a vineyard… Well, to each his own.
Access: The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism Kelowna; for tourist info, see Tourism Kelowna and Destination B.C. Brochures for the Grapes and Grains Trail are available at the participating winery, brewery, and distilleries.