In this latest instalment in the Hops Among Friends series, showcasing the people who make up the craft beer scene on the BC Ale Trail, Kim Lawton interviews Tessa Gabiniewicz from Land & Sea Brewing.
My most recent Hops Among Friends interview was with Connor Blanchard from Luppolo Brewing. Connor was able to pay it forward, and he selected Tessa Gabiniewicz, the Head Brewer at Land & Sea Brewing for my next Hops Among Friends discussion. Land & Sea Brewing was established in 2018 in Comox on the Vancouver Island Part II Ale Trail.
I enjoyed speaking with Tessa and learning about her career in BC’s craft beer industry. She also got me excited to start planning a future trip to the Comox Valley and to go out foraging with her for ingredients for a future beer!
This is my 19th interview in the Hops Among Friends series over the last 6 years. You can read through all of my previous Hops Among Friends articles here.
Kim: How did you get started in craft beer?
Tessa: I got my start at Nelson Brewing Company in late 2009. I applied at NBC because they were looking for some extra help. Mike Kelly was the head brewer at the time, and he hired me on the brewing side. While I didn’t have any experience brewing, I went to school for robotics and automation in Ontario, and I think Mike saw potential there.
As I hadn’t done any brewing, I did some on-the-job shadowing. I started right away filtering and brewing beer. My hands-on college background gave me the right mechanical aptitude for this kind of work. I got right in there and I was really quick to learn the hands-on stuff, but microbiology is definitely where I lacked.
I was at Nelson Brewing until sometime in 2014. Then I went to Sherwood Mountain Brewhouse in Terrace as a consultant and contract brewer. I helped them open up their facility, and I helped them with their recipes and equipment in a professional capacity. Then I moved to Vancouver Island, to Union Bay in 2016. I was the contract brewer and consultant for Beach Fire Brewing in Campbell River — Darren Finnerty was also a homebrewer, so I was able to provide them with my professional expertise.
I really enjoyed working at these breweries. Both contracts were designed so that I would work myself out of a job once I got them set up and started.
From there, I went to 33 Acres Brewing from 2017 to 2018 as their Lead Brewer for the evenings. I got to work with the legendary David Varga, and I was able to hone my brewing skills here. Especially after working at two small breweries, it was great to be at a production facility again.
This then led me to the job at Land & Sea Brewing in April 2018.
Jason and Hanna Walker contacted me and asked if I would like to be their brewer. It was pretty awesome for me. People had been asking me if I wanted to start up my own brewery, but I was reluctant to start my own business as I love what I do. With the Land & Sea opportunity, I was able to build this brewery from the ground up.
The third time’s a charm when building a new brewery. The difference was that here at Land & Sea, if I do a good job, I get to stay, as opposed to the contract roles where if I was doing a good job, I would work myself out of a job. Land & Sea is the fifth brewery I’ve worked at, and the third one that I’ve opened up, but I’m so happy that I get to stay at this one.
I was able to build the brewery how I wanted it. I designed where to put the plumbing, so I have no one else to blame but myself! In this role, I make all of the recipes. Jason, Hanna and I oversee the operations and we have a great team to help us run the show. It’s been such a positive experience. We’ve grown a lot, yet we have tried not to expand too much, especially during COVID. We are proud of what we have built as a very taproom-focused brewery. We really want people to come to Land & Sea to experience all that we offer.
Kim: What do you love most about the craft beer industry?
Tessa: The community. It’s so special. It takes a bunch of working pieces to solve problems and make it the great industry that we have. I think this industry is really unique. I have found in the brewing industry, there is so much camaraderie and I love that. You can be the best brewer in your facility, but the more you learn from your colleagues, the more tools you get in your toolbox, and the more you keep learning. It’s an industry where you can keep learning for the rest of your life.
Here in the Comox Valley, there are five breweries. We call each other up for help or to borrow ingredients. If we are having a problem, there’s always someone there to jump on a call and help. The way we look at it is that the better we all do as a whole in the Valley, the more we will each succeed individually.
Kim: What makes Land & Sea unique?
Tessa: We are very taproom focused. You can bring grandma here, or you can come here on a date. We have a big, bright open space with two large garage doors. We have a 72-person capacity, with an additional patio in the drier months. We have one bar that you can sit at and another bar that you can order from.
We only have a small pony wall, so you can see into the brewhouse and into the kitchen from wherever you are. Our guests often comment to us that you really can see everything going on here.
Also, we have an awesome food program. We just won the Peoples’ Choice Awards for the best brewery, best nachos and best wings with the Comox Valley Record. We were really pleased to win these awards. There are five breweries in the Comox Valley, and they are all wonderful, so this was very meaningful for us.
We have a great space with a nice atmosphere, great beer, great food, and great people.
Kim: Tell me about something that you are really proud of.
Tessa: I would have to say being chosen to go to JD Wetherspoon to represent Canada and brew one of my beers was a career highlight for me. JD Wetherspoon is a company that has almost 900 pubs in the United Kingdom and Ireland. They hold an international brewing festival, with brewers from around the world. Gary Lohin from Central City Brewing called me and told me about the opportunity. I went in February 2020 just before the lockdown. There were brewers from five breweries around the world including Italy, New Zealand, Canada, the US and Japan. I was chosen to represent Canada.
I sent them a list of all the beers I had brewed to date for their consideration. They really liked my recipe for our Estuary Session Ale, which has 5 KG of spruce tips in it. I like to get on my dirt bike and take logging roads up the mountain to find and harvest the spruce tips for this beer. I am really into foraging and experimenting with local ingredients.
My brewhouse capacity is 1,500 litres, so I don’t need many spruce tips for a small batch of this beer at our brewery. I was pretty shocked when they connected me with the host brewery, Hook Norton Brewery, and I learned that we would be brewing a 408-hectolitre batch! That’s 40,800 litres. I contacted a hop farm in the lower mainland. They worked with me to pelletize spruce tips and centennial hops and we shipped 80 KG of this blend to England from BC. That was very cool in itself. This process got the ball rolling with having spruce tip-infused hops available for breweries in BC to purchase.
I went to Hook Norton Brewery in Oxfordshire. I brewed with them over three days, and I was there in total for five days.
I spent almost two weeks touring around doing some PR for the festival. Brewing at Hook Norton was amazing. It is an older brewery, over 175 years old. It’s also a tower brewery, so everything was gravity-fed, and everything was open-top fermenters. It was the biggest, oldest brewery I’ve ever worked in.
When I returned home, I brought some cultured yeast samples from Hook Norton back to Comox and I was able to recreate this same beer here with their yeast and our Canadian ingredients. That was very cool.
Sadly, I didn’t get to try the beer. It was meant to go into around 900 pubs across the UK in casks and kegs. But unfortunately, all of these pubs were shut down shortly after I left because of COVID. Hook Norton made the decision to pull out the cask and kegs from the pubs, and they packaged all of the beer from the kegs and casks into bottles so that the beer wouldn’t go bad. They sent me a care package with samples, but the bottles with my beer were broken, so I didn’t get to try it. I heard it was very well received.
Kim: What do you have planned at Land & Sea for this winter?
Tessa: We have our fifth-year birthday coming up in December. We’ll be celebrating this special milestone in January 2024. I’m brewing an imperial pastry stout with my assistant brewer, Levon Olsen, to celebrate our fifth birthday. It will be available on tap and it will be packaged in 473ml cans, which will be sold exclusively from our taproom.
Based on our tank space, we typically have six-to-nine different beers on tap in our taproom. However, at the end of January, I’m getting two made-in-Canada 700-litre foeders delivered from New World Foeder Craft in PEI. I was just in PEI to check out the building of them. We’ll use one of them for our saisons. The other will be for lagers.
It’s going to be awesome. They are made with new American oak from Quebec. They are going to go above my current tanks, so I’m excited about that. Then four-to-six times a year, we’ll release foeder-aged beers. I’m really excited for this new series. We don’t have the space for a barrel program so this will provide an elevated experience. People can expect to try the first of our foeder-aged beers in late spring/early summer, 2024.
We’ll also be using our own house culture for our saisons and lagers, and I’m excited to see how that develops over the years.
I am really into foraging and experimenting with local ingredients, so you can also expect more beers like this in the future.
Kim: What is your favourite beer to enjoy in the winter?
Tessa: I love a saison, any time of year, even during winter. Something like Saison Dupont, which I can drink all year round. I also really enjoy English-style beers including milds, bitters and heavier lagers like a doppelbock. But I’m also a sucker for a classic German lager. Apparently, I love beer!
Kim: If you aren’t drinking beer, what are you drinking?
Tessa: Wine. A natural wine, like an orange wine. Or a red wine with low intervention and deep, jammy flavours. I really like Plot Wines from the Okanagan. Their red wines have lots of character and variety.
Kim: How is it for you being a woman working as a brewer?
Tessa: I love it. I feel very supported. People ask me this question often, but I really don’t even think about it in my day-to-day, honestly. I have always felt like an equal through my experiences, and I am fortunate to say that.
I have always worked very hard, and I’m passionate about what I do. It takes a village to make this industry what it is. I think that’s why we all love working in this industry.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a brewer, a server, an owner or in marketing, it takes all of us to make it work. I can work as hard as I want at brewing, but if the person behind the bar isn’t engaged, it’s not going to be the same experience for our guests.
Kim: Can you tell me about some hidden gems in the Comox Valley?
Tessa: I would recommend Mount Washington for skiing. If you want to go cross-country skiing, I’d suggest Strathcona Park, which is the oldest park in BC. From Land & Sea Brewing, it is 20 minutes to Strathcona Park, so it’s easy to go for a hike or a mountain bike.
We have rivers to swim and fish in. And of course, ocean fishing and the beach. We also have great roads for road biking. It’s very much an outdoor recreation community here. We have something for everyone. I would recommend doing a bicycle winery tour in the fall. Plus, of course, visit all of our local breweries.
Also, you can’t miss seeing the Comox Glacier from anywhere in town. It’s an iconic view. I see this stunning view on my drive to work. It’s gorgeous! I drive by the ocean, so I get an amazing ocean view. I also get a city view and the Comox Glacier.
A few other things I would suggest are to check out Comox Lake in Cumberland. Head to Comox Harbour and downtown Cumberland for some unique shopping. If you are looking for some delicious oysters, check out GiGi’s Oysters in Comox. We also have lovely walking trails to Nymph Falls, which are really nice. We have lots of great hiking and biking trails in the area.
Kim: Who else in the craft beer industry do you find interesting and why?
Tessa: I’d love for you to speak with Matt West-Patrick (co-owner/brewer) and Isaiah Archer (co-owner/sales and marketing) at Whistle Buoy Brewing. They are great. They have an awesome team, and I’m very proud of them. They are innovators in the industry, and they are always doing something new and interesting with their brewing and their marketing.
Stay tuned for the next instalment of the Hops Among Friends blog series, where I speak with Matt and Isaiah from Whistle Buoy Brewing in Victoria, on the Greater Victoria Ale Trail. Until then, cheers!