First Look: Firehall Brewery

 

“It takes a lot of good beer to make good wine.” ~ winemaker’s proverb

Many equate Oliver with international award-winning wineries like Tinhorn Creek, Jackson-Triggs and Road 13 Vineyards. It’s this proximity to wine that got Jim (dad) and Sid (son) Ruhland thinking fermentation of a different type: barley.

“Here we are in wine country, with all these winemakers”, says Sid, leaning against one of Firehall Brewery’s shiny 1,300L stainless steel fermenters. Cue the winemaker’s proverb, it takes a lot of good beer to make good wine, and the father-son team thought ‘let’s start a brewery’.

The two acquired space in the basement of Oliver’s former fire hall. Originally built in 1948 for the Volunteer Fire Department, the building has been reinvented: once as a restaurant, information centre, and VQA wine shop, but more recently as The Firehall Bistro (upstairs) and the Firehall Brewery (downstairs). “This room wasn’t doing anything down here”, states Sid of their basement brewery.

It was a lengthy process to obtain the appropriate licenses from various regulatory bodies, but with permission to brew 15,000 hectoliters annually (micro-brewery status) Jim and Sid undertook the search for equipment. They found all they needed in the neighbouring town of Osoyoos, where a resident had been a little too enthusiastic in his attempt at home beer making; custom fermentation tanks turned out to be more than he could handle, so Sid and Jim took them off his hands.

With gear purchased, the Ruhlands began converting a former wine cellar to a properly ventilated, appropriately cooled, and very efficiently packaged brew space in July 2011. After several months toiling they were ready for their inaugural brew in February 2012.

The principle behind Firehall Brewing is to keep the focus on the beer. It sounds simple enough, but in a world where large breweries have extensive marketing teams and promotional gadgets (think beer umbrellas and branded bar equipment), being the small craft beer brewery can have its challenges. “It’s just an education thing”, says brew chief Sid. “People find authenticity interesting. We’re just trying our best to make it about the beer.”

Sid’s brewing experience started in college with “dorm-room beer”. He discovered that while he couldn’t sidle up to the bar and order a pint, it was easy for an 18 year old to walk out of the grocery store with everything needed to make beer. “We didn’t know what we were doing”, laughs Sid. “But after that, I started to research. I’d see the can in the beer making kit and think ‘where does this come from?’”

Sid discovered that he had plenty to learn. His third year of college was spent abroad in Wiener Neustadt, Austria; Sid used it as a home base for European travels to literally drink up the culture, including Oktoberfest in Munich. “Beer has such a long history”, muses Sid. “It’s liquid bread. People made beer before they baked loaves in ovens.”

Firehall Brewery sources barley from Canada Malting, importing specialty malts to help craft the specific flavour, body and colour of their brews. Caramelized malts come from the United States, roasted from the U.K., and the smoked barley is from Germany. The latter is a key ingredient in their Holy Smoke Stout, where smoked barley is used rather than adding liquid smoke flavouring in the process.

“We do use fining agents, but never filter” says Sid with a grin. “You don’t need to clarify a beer you can’t see through.” It’s not just the stout that’s left unfiltered – Firehall Brewery doesn’t filter clarify any of their beers. “If you have good brewing practice you shouldn’t need to clarify or filter beers. But people don’t want to see their beer hazy – even if that’s unnatural.” It comes back to education.

Between big brewers providing restaurants and pubs with fancy incentives to get on tap, and the hurried pace of modern living all but prohibiting people from taking time to explore unique, smaller businesses, it might appear that Firehall Brewery has a few steep obstacles. But the cookie-cutter approach to consuming has created a subculture of slow: food started it, and wine/beer/spirits seem to be next.

“Every town used to have a butcher, a baker, and a brewer”, says Sid. People didn’t look outside of the community. Breweries like Crannog Ales www.crannogales.com in Sorrento and R&B Brewing www.r-and-b.com in Vancouver give Sid hope for what Firehall is trying to accomplish. “I have respect for them being so strong in their principles”, says Sid, in reference to Crannog Ales. “They’re like, ‘we’re organic, we’re sustainable’, and they don’t compromise that.”

Microbreweries are gaining ground in the Okanagan. Penticton’s Tin Whistle Brewing Co. opened in 1995, and The Cannery Brewing Company  began crafting beer in 2000. Both breweries have seen success locally and throughout the province.

While a smaller operation has its challenges, according to Sid it has a few inherent advantages. “We’re blessed with the inability to control nature”, he says. “Nature is never the same – the crops (barley, hops) are different every year.” Small variations can allow for the wine equivalent of vintage variation, and an opportunity to work with the raw product rather than fitting into a particular taste profile.

Firehall Brewery provides fill-on-demand kegs to restaurants and bars as well as a growler program. Fill-on-demand requires refrigeration after delivery; dark kegs help keep light pollution out, and they’re filled to the top to help avoid oxidization. The growler is experiencing significant popularity in the craft brew scene and many smaller breweries on a growler program will happily fill the growler of another brewery. Sid has filled ones from BC, Alberta, and a few from the U.S. He knows other breweries have filled Firehall growlers, too.

For the consumer, the rise of craft and microbreweries is a substantial benefit. More products tailored to more palates, and increased opportunities for experimenting with new tastes. Besides – larger scale production facilities might not have a place for someone to guitar-serenade the ferments. “I don’t know why yeast wouldn’t like to be sung to”, says Sid, with a laugh. “It’s more love per litre.”

 

Backdraft Blonde Ale

The newest addition to the Firehall lineup, Backdraft Blonde was released mid-December 2012. Described as “a session beer that tastes like ‘cheers!’” Indeed. Bright and fresh, good for summer drinking – or remembering warm, sunny days.

Stoked Ember Ale

Sweet caramel malt and a hoppy long finish. Well-balanced, with citrus to keep the extremes in check. Perfect for an afternoon by the fire or reading a book in your most comfortable armchair.

Holy Smoke Stout

Use of a fire-dried German malt produces a natural smoke flavour, complementing chocolatey caramels and coffee notes. Smells like camping: outdoors, woodsy, campfire.

 

Prices

Growler (1/2 gallon): $10 deposit, $10 fill

Kegs*

  • Fire extinguishers: 15L $60, 30L $110
  • Fire hydrant: 50L $175

*additional deposit required, refundable upon keg return

 

Written By:

Jeannette is EAT's Okanagan writer. With her rural Canadian roots and love of grand experiences, Jeannette is equal measures country and city. Since moving from Vancouver to the Okanagan in 2007, she quit her day job ...

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