This is the latest instalment in the Hops Among Friends series, which is designed to showcase the people that make up the craft beer scene on the BC Ale Trail.
My most recent Hops Among Friends interview was with Aaron MacInnis from Iron Road Brewing in Kamloops and when asked, he recommended I interview Chris Vandenberg next. Chris is the head brewer and co-owner of newly opened Slackwater Brewing in Penticton, in the heart of the Okanagan. Slackwater Brewing is also about to join the growing and dynamic Penticton Ale Trail.
As I live in the Okanagan, I’ve had many opportunities to hang out with Chris since he moved to Penticton a few months ago. Having said that, I was really excited to learn a lot more about Chris, his brewing background and his goals at Slackwater Brewing.
KL: Tell me about how you got started in craft beer?
CV: I met my partner Cleo about 10 years ago. She was living in a punk house at the time and was making her own cider. Together we discovered home brewing beer and enjoyed learning to make our own beer. At the time, we were both mental health workers on the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver.
I was ready for a change and I decided to pursue one of my other passions, and that was craft beer. So, about seven years ago, I got a job at Parallel 49 Brewing working in the warehouse and over time, I slowly started working my way up. I started out making mix packs and then driving a forklift. After that, I worked on the bottling line. I took over this role, we bought a new bottling line and that became my area of expertise. I really enjoyed learning about the mechanical aspect of brewing. I love tinkering, so this was a really great experience.
In 2015, I had the opportunity to move into brewing at Postmark Brewing. I was really excited to be able to brew under Dominic Giraldes, who was such a great leader and a really great teacher. Over time, I decided I wanted to pursue an opportunity where I could brew some interesting beers such as sours, wild ferments and barrel aged beers. Dave Bowkett at Powell Brewery was looking for a brewer, so I took a job there. I was at Powell for about two years. It was a great place to work, and I would have stayed there a lot longer, but then I met Liam and Kelsey, and the Slackwater Brewing dream began.
KL: How did you meet Liam and Kelsey?
CV: Well it’s a funny story. Liam sent me a message on Facebook about 1.5 years ago which I actually ignored because I thought he was trying to sell me something. Then Liam called me and asked me to meet him for a beer. I learned that Liam had been asking around for recommendations for a brewer for their new brewery, and my name came up three times. Our meeting over a beer quickly turned into about five beers and things clicked right away. We started working on this project on evenings and weekends and became friends really quickly.
Before you know it, I was a partner in this new brewery. I was really happy to be able to bring Jason Mathews in as a partner too. Jason was our Operations guy at Postmark and also a financial consultant. When we were working on our business plan for the new brewery, I brought Jason in as a consultant. He’s a financial genius and he knows everything there is to know about liquor laws. Eventually, Jason came in as the fourth partner in the business.
KL: What do you love most about craft beer?
CV: Community, more than anything. Since I’ve worked in the craft beer industry, I’ve met such friendly and interesting people. People are always willing to help each other in this industry. There is a lot of hard work and a lot of stress, but at the end of the day, we are inspired by each other to keep the industry growing. When I think of my own experience, I worked at three different breweries, all within a few blocks of each other. People don’t get upset about moving from one brewery to the other. They encourage it as a learning experience.
KL: Tell me about one of your beer accomplishments to-date that you are most proud of.
CV: Well, there are the Canadian Brewing Awards, the BC Beer Awards, and World Beer Cup. The one thing I’m most proud of to-date, however, is the Traditional Dark Mild I brewed at Postmark. I received an email from a gentleman who had tried this beer and he told me in the email that it made him cry. He said he hadn’t had anything like this beer in 25 years since he moved from England. This is one of the memories that sticks out for me the most.
KL: It’s pretty exciting times for you with the opening of Slackwater Brewing. What is your beer philosophy at Slackwater Brewing?
CV: I like to use only premium ingredients and I take my time on things. I have a sensitive nose and I want to ensure that I don’t rush a beer just for the sake of a production schedule. I want to be proud of what I am making. We’ve already changed our grains because I want to keep making better and better beers. I’m using my own ingredients and my own recipes and making these beers my own.
KL: Tell me something you are brewing right now.
CV: We just brewed our first sour beer. It’s a dry hopped sour with Idaho 7 and I’ve been a fan of this hop for a couple of years. I love making kettle sour beers. The equipment here is different than what I’ve used in the past, and I was really excited to try brewing my first kettle sour here. My brew day started at 6 am today. I checked and the pH was 3.3, which is what I was looking for, so now it’s ready to go. This will be released shortly after opening day.
KL: What can we expect to see beer-wise from Slackwater Brewing, both in the short term and in the long term?
CV: I want to see a constantly evolving beer menu. We’ve got four single sized fermenters in the brewhouse. I have the opportunity to experiment and make new beers and my plan is to brew lots of seasonal beers so there is always something new to try when you come in. We’ve got bigger tanks for our core beers. Our core beers will include:
- Tight Lines Lager, which is a traditional German-style Helles lager that is clean, crisp and crushable
- Anglers Tale Pale Ale, a hybridized English meets North American pale ale
- What the Fog IPA, which is a true to form NEIPA. It has a rich oat body, and it is a hazy and huge juicy beer. We actually have two different recipes for our What the Fog IPA, one featuring El Dorado hops, and one featuring Galaxy hops. We’ll see which recipe people love best. We’ll also try other new hops in this beer going forward
- Serenity Saison is our summer seasonal. It’s a traditional French Saison brewed with local honey and organic chamomile. We’ll adapt this saison by the seasons, so we’ll have a darker style saison in the fall/winter
Plus, I’d say we’ll likely have at least four rotating seasonals which will likely only be available on tap here. We want to make sure that we keep the tasting room exciting with new beers. We are only brewing 1,000 litres at a time, so there won’t be enough volume to package these beers. I also want to do a mixture of barrel aged beers using both new barrels and wine-used barrels from local wineries. We have our Saison ageing right now in two 30 litre gin barrels from East Van’s Odd Society Spirits.
KL: What else can we expect out of Slackwater Brewing?
CV: We’ve got 9,000 square feet here in this building. Our seating capacity is 278 people, including the sidewalk patio. Our brewery is the main focal point in the centre, with bar seating, high tables, low tables, a lounge/bar area with booths, plus a rooftop patio and a street front patio. We will have live music and entertainment. It will be a space to come and meet new friends, hang out, and enjoy a beer. We have 12 taps. We’ll have eight of our own beers, and we’ll always have a couple of guest beers, a couple of ciders, and bottled wine. Plus, we have a cask engine, so we’ll regularly have cask beers.
In terms of food offerings here at Slackwater Brewing, we are looking for good times all around. Chef Ben Overland is a genius and he’s been experimenting as we’ve been building the brewery. He’s baking sourdough bread with our What the Fog IPA and it has beautiful floral aromas. Chef Ben really thinks outside the box – think spruced-up pub fare. Not too fancy, but interesting twists with fine attention to detail. One of the things I really respect about Ben is that he cooks the way I brew. He focuses on attention to detail and each individual ingredient.
KL: You’ve already got a ton of community support since winning People’s Choice best beer at both the April Okanagan Fest of Ale and then again in May at the Great Okanagan Beer Festival. How are you feeling about this?
CW: The community support has been incredible. People walk by in the alley and poke their heads in and keep asking for updates. Really, the community support in Penticton has been incredible. We’ve found that the local businesses are happy to help. Our contractors are excited. Our family and friends keep going the extra mile. The folks at City Hall have also been great and they know us by name.
Because this space has a history as The Mule, everyone is really interested to see what is happening with this space and that has given us an advantage. We want to show the community that we’re not losing nightlife, we are just changing it. By the time we were at Okanagan Fest of Ale, so many people had heard about us and were very excited to try our beers. Word of mouth has been the most important part of our marketing to-date.
KL: You’ve been a brewer at a couple of great breweries, and now you have been a part of starting one from scratch. One that you are a partial owner of. What are you most excited about? What are you most afraid of?
CW: What I am most afraid of? Everything. I’ve never been in a position where everything that could go wrong is on me.
I’m most excited about making a name for myself. I want my beers to shine. This is both exciting and scary. I want to brew what I want to brew. In the past, I was able to make my own beers including seasonals and I was so proud of those. Here at Slackwater, from day one until the keg gets sold, I’m probably the only person who touches it.
KL: When did you move to Penticton? What are your early thoughts on living here in the Okanagan?
CW: I moved here in November and it already feels like home which caught me off guard. I grew up in Niagara Falls, Ontario. One of the reasons I was excited about moving to Penticton was that community feel and support. It’s been great so far. We got really lucky because we found a long-term rental right away. I had this opportunity from a career perspective, and my partner Cleo got work right away so it’s been a really easy transition for both of us and it’s such a great area.
KL: Like many of us that live in the Okanagan, you’ll likely get lots of company visiting you this summer. What are you most excited to show them?
CV: I can’t wait to show our friends and family all of the breweries. I like doing a walking tour of the downtown breweries. Plus, I really like to hike and be out in nature. I’m a big walker and Cleo and I have been swimming in the lake since May. I guess I would say beer first and nature second. My favourite spot to hike is on the KVR. We are also really excited to get out and go camping in the area.
KL: What do you love about the craft beer scene here in Penticton?
CV: I love that there are so many breweries so close together but with such distinct personalities. We like to go for our after-work beer at alternating breweries because there is something different happening everywhere. Some have patios, some have food, and some have extended hours. You’ll always find me with a pint of beer in my hand, so for me, Penticton is the place to be.
I also love how much the breweries support each other. We got our tanks from Ripley Stainless in Summerland and they built my dream brewhouse for me. Ripleys is also where Bad Tattoo got their tanks from, so they invited me over to do a test batch on their system. Ross from Cannery Brewing is always around to answer my endless list of brewing questions.
KL: What else do you love about where you live, outside of the craft beer experience?
CV: It’s so nice to be in tune with nature. Everyone seems to really embrace nature. You see people out jogging, mountain biking, gardening and eating local. We love being able to pick up our groceries at the Penticton Farmers’ Market and I love that living in a small town you know your grocer, your butcher, and your local beer maker. I’m excited to have four seasons again. These are the things I miss about living in Niagara Falls, so I’m excited to have found them again here in Penticton.
KL: What is your favourite beer style going into the summer?
CV: It’s a toss-up between sours and saisons for the patio. I find dry hopped kettle sours the most refreshing. I really enjoy good farmhouse saisons, but I like a kettle sour for summer.
KL: What are your predictions for craft beer this summer?
CV: I think craft lagers are going to come back. I’ve been predicting some exciting things for lagers for a while now, and I think we’re going to see it.
KL: What are some of your favourite craft beers right now?
CV: It’s really exciting to drink my own beers again. I also enjoy the Strange Fellows Popinjay Sour. It’s one of my favourite beers and it only comes around once a year at this time of year, so I always get excited when it comes out. It’s a beautiful dry-hopped sour. I also really enjoy the Cumulus Lupulus dry-hopped tart session ale from Powell, the Sunblink Berry Sour from Cannery Brewing, and the 2 Doors Down Kveik IPA collab from Bad Tattoo and Neighbourhood Brewing.
KL: If you aren’t drinking craft beer, what are you drinking?
CV: Cider. I love cider. I drink as much cider as I drink beer. I really enjoy Nomad Cider out of Summerland. They are doing some really interesting stuff. I also like what Dominion Cider is doing with natural ferments and barrel-aged ciders. I’d love to collaborate on a cider.
KL: What else do you want to talk about that I haven’t asked you?
CV: One of the things I’m most curious about in brewing is the microbiological side. I’ll borrow a quote from Azlan Graves who I worked with at Powell. “Brewers make wort. Yeast makes beer.” I like the science of brewing. I like looking at things in the microscope. There are so many grains and hops in the world. But the yeast is really what makes the beer.
KL: Who else in the craft beer industry do you find interesting and why?
CV: I think the breweries in northern BC are doing really incredible things. Things are harder to come by there in terms of ingredients and equipment. So that makes what they are doing there even more incredible. Cam McKeigan is a partner and the head brewer at Smithers Brewing. I knew him from when I lived in Ontario. I’m so inspired that he can live off the beaten path, yet he’s creating a great culture of interesting beers in a more remote location.
Stay tuned for the next installment of the Hops Among Friends blog series, where I chat with Cam McKeigan from Smithers Brewing, up on the Northern BC Ale Trail, Until then, cheers!