Nothing quite says summer like the cold, frothy, refreshing taste of a beer. Relaxing on the patio and chilling out with a beer after a day of working or playing hard is somewhat of a religious rite in Canada, and Fernie is certainly no exception to that rule.
The town of Fernie has a vibrant and renown history of producing great beer. In the early 1900s, the first brewery here began producing famed Fernie Beer, thereby whetting the whistles of thousands of miners and other hardworking folk throughout the Elk Valley. And after a quarter-century hiatus, that tradition is back in full swing at the Fernie Brewing Company.
The Fernie Brewing Company is the brainchild of Pat Robertson and Russell and Murray Pask, all of Fernie. After a lengthy period of intensive research, planning, and building, the three launched the company last fall. The first kegs of Fernie Pale Ale arrived in restaurants and bars in late December, just as the ski season was kicking into high gear.
“It was definitely a whirlwind at that time,” says Pat Robertson. “Especially with the busy ski season in Fernie – but the product was incredibly well received by restaurants and bars as well as beer drinkers.”
The Fernie Brewing Company is certainly adding to the reputation of microbreweries throughout the world for producing unique, great-tasting beers. If you’re lucky enough to take a tour of the facility on Dicken Road, you get the distinct impression that they’ll settle for nothing less than the best.
The brewery itself is housed in a totally refurbished outbuilding at the Pasks’ pastoral ranch just outside of Fernie – a beautiful setting complete with green fields, mountain backdrop, and even a few horses for good measure. Once inside, you’re given the immediate impression that Pat, Russell and Murray worked both to uphold the tradition of Fernie Beer and take it to the next level.
The front room features a long wooden bar (not unexpected), a glassed view into the cold-filtering chamber, and unique historic displays – including an ancient Fernie Beer bottle decades old and still unopened. It’s a great place to mingle, read about Fernie’s brewing history, and of course, sample the wares.
Following an introduction on the history of beermaking in Fernie and a brief explanation of how the Fernie Brewing Company came into being, Pat leads the tour into the heart of the operations. The brewing process starts with very basic ingredients – and as he explains, those ingredients directly impact the quality of the beer.
The Fernie Brewing Company has gone through a painstaking process of elimination to determine which ingredients will produce the flavour they are looking for. The combination of high-quality malted barley, imported hops, fresh mountain springwater, and yeast will eventually yield a great tasting beer – but only after weeks of careful monitoring and work.
“We were very focused when we started out on ensuring that we used the best and most expensive ingredients to produce our beer,” explains Pat. “We began with an ale, which is actually a more complex beer to formulate than the more typical lager – and that gave us the chance to ensure that all our processes and ingredients were right.”
As we take a look around at the impressive equipment, Pat gives us the run down on the brewery’s production process, from start to finish.
First, the malt is milled at the brewery, in order to crack but not break the kernels. The malt (called grist after milling), is then moved to the giant mash/lauter tun in the main area of the brewery, and saturated with hot water, yielding a porridge-like substance called mash. From here, sugar-water called wort is clarified, by re-circulating the wort through the grain bed before it is transferred to the brew kettle. Here the wort is boiled and the hops are added for bittering and aroma. Once the wort is finished this stage, it is transferred to the heat exchange where the temperature drops from 100 C to 12 C, before being put into the fermentation tank. Finally, the magical ingredient of yeast is added. The special fermentation tanks enable the brewers to control the temperature and dictate how the yeast will react; the scientific process at work is the conversion of sugars to alcohol. Following fermentation, the beer is moved to the cold filtering chamber for a number of weeks, and then at last to the keg or bottle.
Unlike some of the larger breweries, Fernie Brewing doesn’t use preservatives in its beer; the company is incredibly selective about their ingredients and their recipes. The beer is brewed in small batches to ensure quality control, and they don’t use a pasteurization process – so the beer tastes consistently fresh and full-bodied.
The next milestone for this new company will be the production of a lager beer – to be launched just in time for summer. Lager, traditionally the territory of the giant breweries, is a lighter and more popular beer type than ale, typically outselling its ale counterpart by almost eighty to one.
“We are really looking forward to the challenge of producing a new product — what we’re calling our Legendary Lager,” say s Pat with a smile. “There was a time when the most popular beer in the Elk Valley was produced right here in Fernie, and we’d love to see that happen again.”