Fort St. John breweries are a force to be reckoned with. Our writer Matt Preprost sat down with Stephen Beard of Beard’s Brewing and Zach Mirosevic of Mighty Peace Brewing to chat about Northern BC’s craft beer revolution.
Legend says that, once you drink from the Peace River, you will always return.
If it was true 10,000 years ago for the Dane-Zaa people, then it is certainly true today for the free-spirited adventurers still drawn to its fertile northern frontier — and Fort St. John breweries.
In the northeast of British Columbia and panhandle of the western Canadian prairies, the Peace River cuts through the Rocky Mountain trench. It meanders east through gold-green hills of Fort St. John en route to Alberta and up towards the Arctic. Glacier-fed with little to filter, its waters are used by two emerging B.C. brewmasters to craft distinct flavours that reflect the region’s abundance.
Meet the Breweries of Fort St. John: Beard’s Brewing and Mighty Peace Brewing
Both of these Fort St. Johns breweries are a stone’s throw off the world-famous Alaska Highway. They’ve also sown a quickly evolving craft beer revolution there over the last four years.
For Stephen Beard, owner of Bear Brewing and a firefighter by trade, his journey to opening the city’s first brewery started with a home brewing kit his wife Amy gifted him for Christmas. Eight months later he was purchasing a third-hand brewhouse from Rossland, B.C., and serving his first pours to the public in 2017.
Mighty Peace Brewing owner Zach Mirosevic arrived a year later. He was a transplant from Kamloops where he went to school and first worked at Red Collar Brewing before moving north to help to establish Mighty Peace in 2018.
In their own ways, both took a reserved approach to introducing the concept of craft to the masses where beer from the big international breweries still reigns as king. They started with light ales, pilsners, and IPAs with significantly less hop. Now, they’re regularly releasing seasonal radlers, fruity sours and saisons, and keeping seasonal dark beers on tap year-round.
“One of the best parts is how many people from the Lower Mainland — from these large communities that have had craft beer for quite a while — fall in love with our northeast beer,” says Beard.
“We have a lot of people from Site C who will exclusively drink our beer simply because they love the flavours; they love that we have so many recipes.”
“In the north we have had to adjust in a way that lots of craft breweries haven’t. We have two pilsners, we now have three lagers, we have all these ales. We’re just trying to figure out what does our region likes to drink. The remarkable part, honestly, is that we have a lot of people who like what I consider one-offs, and want that beer made over and over again.”
“We have so many customers that are demanding that all four of our IPAs constantly get made, that all of our lagers constantly get made, and they’re excited to see what’s to come,” Beard says. “And to be honest so am I.”
Three blocks north at Mighty Peace, Mirosevic couldn’t go off the rails right off the bat, launching the brewery’s signature Peace Gold before becoming brasher with his styles as of late.
“I had to build a model where you got to draw in the crowd firs so light beers, golden ales, pilsners. Then I started our IPA off being a little less hoppy, more palatable,” Mirosevic says. “But as things have grown in the last two years, and especially during COVID, people are starting to go outside their comfort zone. That’s been a good sign. When you start seeing that running this brewery, and as someone that enjoys going outside their comfort zone, pushing the envelope out in nature, it gives me a little bit of hope. People are willing to try new things. It can open up new ideas.”
Mighty Peace just released its Super Neat saison, in time for the May long weekend, made with a blend of locally sourced indigenous haskap berries and black currants that Mirosevic says make for a nice dry, tart berry beer.
“We did a small batch last year, and scaled up. It was such a huge hit,” Mirosevic says.
“Since I’m not from here, I don’t know how to perceive the public sometimes. When I come out with something like that and I see a huge reception that’s really nice to know that I can just scale up those kinds of brews.”
Beard has had to scale up his Black Beard recipe, a malty, creamy milk chocolate oatmeal stout, and keep it brewing in his kettles, flowing from his taps and filling up cans.
“When I created the Black Beard recipe I thought it would be a seasonal winter beer, yet with the flavours of chocolate and coffee, and the slightly sweet finish, women in particular, but men as well, didn’t know beer could taste like that,” Beard says. “Until you allow it to pass their mouth and to reach their tongue, they actually realize, wow, beer is actually more about just getting drunk. It can be a food experience. It can be a new experience. We’re really seeing a massive shift where we have regulars that are here every day, every week, every month that want to try what’s next, what’s new, what do you have coming for flavour.”
Mirosevic has a similar recipe in the Mighty Peace Breakfast Porter, made with locally-roasted Peruvian coffee beans.
“It’s very nice to blend in with a porter because it’s not overbearing and it’s just there for subtlety. But it will also add a little bit of a caffeine kick. I added chocolate to that, too, and it makes for a real nice porter,” he says.
Kegs of Mighty Peace’s cherry kolsch and guava and mango ale run out faster than you can fill a growler, and a Dry Hopped Hazy Sour is the last of the brewery’s pilot sour series this spring,
Both Beard and Mirosevic have their eye on sustainability, using B.C. grown grain and hops paired with whatever local ingredients they can find and forage. Both use Mackay Farms down the highway in Taylor for honey — raw and unpasteurized straight from the hive, which sweetens the Apricot Buzz and Belgian saison at Mighty Peace, and the signature Bee Sting Lager and new Honey IPL at Beard’s.
In return, Beard sends his spent grain back to the farm so it can be fed to their pigs, ensuring zero waste. Beard is also working with local farmers and hopes he’ll have a first locally-grown batch of hops to use next summer.
“They take three years for the roots to establish before you get a viable crop so they’re about two years in,” Beard says. “Simply because I’m from here, I want locals supporting locals … It’s really the whole basis of my business.”
Mirosevic hopes that one day, market demand will be there for local farmers to be able to supply the breweries with locally malted grain.
“Crafting good raw materials and crafting good beer is not easy. Any one of us can brew beer, grow hops, probably not malt, but grow barley. But to me, it’s only sustainable if there’s real care and nurture into it,” he says.
In 2019, the two helped to co-organize Fort St. John’s first craft beer festival, selling out the city’s historic Lido Theatre and introducing hundreds not only to their brands, but to other breweries from across Northern B.C. For Mirosevic, who was still new to Fort St. John at the time, the festival helped him and his partner settle into the community.
With Mighty Peace located a block away from Fort St. John’s redeveloped Centennial Park, which includes a brand new bandstand and market plaza, Mirosevic hopes the park may one day soon play host to its sequel.
“I met all my really good friends here,” he says. “You meet people in the same space with the same interests.”
Beard says he’s seen an explosion of interest at local liquor stores ever since, where breweries such as Trench and Crossroads from Prince George, and Barkerville from Quesnel, are now common on the shelves.
And soon these two Peace Country breweries will be joined by a third: the Post & Row Taphouse in Dawson Creek recently announced its plans to add a brewery to its facility.
Post & Row takes its name from two Dawson Creek landmarks: a historic row of grain elevators turned art gallery and railway museum, and the Mile 0 Post marking the start of the Alaska Highway. The taphouse hopes to open its brewery by the end of this year, or in early 2022. They have also collaborated with Mighty Peace on the new Post Voyage ESB, a classic English-style bitter ale with citrus-stone fruit and spice flavourings, and toffee malt profile.
“We were very excited, very willing to go for it,” says manager Jenifer Helboe. “We want beer out there. We didn’t want to keep waiting. It is a limited release, so we’re trying to convince them to keep it brewing, and maybe even help us out and let us bring it on to our brewery.”
Adds Mirosevic, “We were thinking about roots and the Peace as it once was, and the spirit of trying something new, and innovating and discovering. These guys genuinely want to learn. It was fun for me, for the first time in my career to just share the knowledge,” he says. “We’ll do it once a year. They’ll come up here, we’ll brew it again. It will be this hangout session and collaboration of the Peace — seeing the Peace in a cool way, in an entrepreneurial, free-spirited way.”
Until the brewery opens, the taphouse continues to build its brand in the community, fundraising this month to help a local school build a wheelchair-accessible playground. If public health restrictions allow, Helboe hopes she can hold events this summer to preview plans for the new brewery to the public, and continue enticing customers to come out and try new beers.
“We have already been busier than we imagined,” she says. “We already have people coming from Grande Prairie and Fort St. John that come down, so I think with the brewery it will just grow.”
“The craft beer revolution, even though we were probably five or ten years behind the rest of the province, has finally reached the northeast,” says Stephen Beard. “I’m excited for that.”
Fort St. John was recently added to the eastern leg of the NORTHERN BC ALE TRAIL and you will now find them in the BC Ale Trail mobile app.
Explore BC NOW
BC has now entered Step 2 of BC’s Restart Plan; travel throughout the province is now encouraged. It’s time to #exploreBCnow as #newexperiencesarebrewing. Book your summer getaway now (at exploreBC.com) and let the BC Ale Trail be your guide for your next Ale-venture. Travel safely and responsibly this summer. For those outside of British Columbia – we look forward to welcoming you soon.
BC’s breweries are strictly adhering to recommended COVID-19 safety protocols to keep both guests and staff safe. They are ready to welcome you for on-site patio tasting, with limited capacity indoors, or to pick up your favourites to go.
Please remember to be a Considerate Craft Beer Consumer. Let us each do our part now, so we can explore BC again, soon. We’re all in this together.
New Experiences are Brewing Nearby!