On May 15, 2021, Nelson Brewing Company celebrates its 30th anniversary. We dive into the company’s “richer than a chocolate stout” history, and uncover the characters who made this neighbourhood brewery a stalwart of the BC craft beer scene.
Nelson Brewing Company was founded in 1991. The history of brewing in this small Kootenay town, though, goes back much further — nearly a century in fact. To begin our tale of Nelson craft beer, we must travel all the way back to when the mining boom was just beginning.
It was the early 1890s. As more and more people began to settle in Nelson, Robert Riesterer recognized that local businesses, hotels, and citizens were in need of delicious cold beverages. So he decided to open the Nelson Brewing and Ice Company. In 1892, he constructed his brewery in a very specific location to benefit from multiple factors. Its position on Latimer Street was uphill from the main downtown district, but downhill from the railroad. This meant that any fully laden horse and carriages used for transportation were only travelling downhill: moving from the railroad to the brewery with supplies, and from the brewery to the hotels with beer and ice.
Built into the side of the mountain, the cellars of the brewery are effectively two storeys underground, allowing for natural cooling — which aided in the production of ice. Reisterer also decided to build over the top of Ward Creek, redirecting the water to run directly through the cellar — providing a very handy water source. The creek still trickles through the back rooms to this day.
The Nelson Brewing and Ice Company evolved into part of the Kootenay Breweries chain, which became the Columbia Brewing Company in Creston (today a Labatt plant as part of AB-InBev). The Latimer Street location was left dormant and gradually started to fall apart. Brewing in Nelson was put on hiatus, but nearly four decades later, local resident Dieter Fiest discovered that this historic building was about to be condemned and torn down. Rather than allowing the brewery to be lost, Dieter decided to bring brewing back to Nelson. This is where our story really begins.
In 1990, Dieter got in touch with his wife’s friend Paddy Glenny, who ran a microbrewery in Oxford, England. Somehow, he managed to convince Paddy to emigrate to Canada, and to bring a five-hectolitre tank and a brew kettle with him.
Dieter and Paddy set themselves up in the dilapidated space and recruited some other local Nelson residents to help with financing equipment and repairs. Dave Elliot, Rick Dietrich and Tim Pollock joined the company, but Tim soon became much more than a silent partner; he ended up managing the brewery for the following 25 years.
By spring 1991, the misfit team had their first two beers: Old Brewery Ale and Silverking Lager. The new Nelson Brewing Company was officially born.
The 1990s were early days in the BC craft beer scene. Only a handful of other breweries were in existence, and there was no established market for craft brews. Most people still drank Kokanee. The NBC team had to convince customers that it wasn’t just “God damn hippie s***”, but actually pretty tasty stuff. Local hotelier Dave Martin decided to take a chance and put both beers on tap in Mike’s Place Pub — one of the most frequented local drinking holes. The beverages quickly became a hit with the local community and NBC gained some loyal fans and customers.
Tucked away in the Kootenays away from competitors gave NBC a lot of freedom to experiment. With a British brewer at the helm, many of their early ales followed traditional English and European recipes — quite divergent from the beers being produced on the coast.
“In the early days, our motto was: ‘We make beer we drink, and we sell what’s left over.’” – Tim Pollock.
As production began to scale, they invested in a bottling line. Unfortunately, the choice of one-litre plastic bottles was not particularly popular with liquor stores — although backcountry hikers and skiers seemed to be big fans. They soon switched to 375ml glass bottles, which seemingly helped sales, as did recruiting their first sales rep Al Macleod, who still works for the brewery to this day.
The following decade saw the company grow to keep up with demand. More equipment was purchased and more locals were trained up in the beer business. Although they were distributing province-wide, the biggest customers were still within the Kootenays, and the majority of NBC was drunk on tap in local pubs.
In 2001, owners of the local ski hill, Mike & Shelley Adams, asked NBC to brew them an exclusive beer to celebrate Whitewater’s 25th anniversary. Wild Honey Ale was so popular, however, that it only remained exclusive for three weeks before other local establishments demanded it on tap too. Twenty years later, it’s still one of NBC’s top 3 best-selling beers.
A few years on, Mike Kelly replaced Paddy Glenny and transitioned the company to a certified organic brewery — a move that was well-received by the brewery’s local customer base. Paddywhack IPA was released to honour Paddy, the previous head brewer. This award winner was one of the first ‘highly hopped’ beers to be distributed in BC.
Fast forward another decade or so, and Nelson Brewing Company had a solid line-up of popular beers, ranging in styles from their Blackheart Oatmeal Stout to the Harvest Moon Hemp Ale. Tim Pollock decided to step away from management and the business was put up for sale. Along came Kate Walker (daughter of original investor Dave Elliot) and her husband Matt. Despite the couple having no previous brewing or business experience, they were excited to learn the ropes, having witnessed the explosive craft beer movement while living in the states.
It was 2016: the BC craft beer scene was at its height and new breweries were appearing all over the place. Although NBC had a strong following in the local community, the experimental microbreweries in the Lower Mainland were really stirring excitement into the beer world. Kate and Matt realized they needed to shake things up in order to stay at the top of the game.
The Walkers began tightening up processes and investing in training schemes for staff. A young member of the brewing team, Simon Barna, jumped at the chance to increase his beer knowledge. After a few years of schooling, he took over from Mike Kelly as Brewmaster in late 2017, bringing a fresh pair of eyes to the signature recipes that NBC was known for.
Between Simon, Matt and Kate, NBC has seen some change over the last five years. They invested in a pilot system which prompted a more collaborative, experimental and team approach to brewing. They also built and opened a tasting room, which offers 10 rotating taps of the company’s signature, limited-release and small-batch beers.
To celebrate their 30th anniversary, Simon dug around in the old recipe books to find a beer he gets many requests to bring back: the Old Brewery Ale.
“The malt build is classic English, but the hop variety is a super interesting mix of Goldings/Liberty/Centennial. Goldings is often used in English Pale Ales and adding Liberty gives a spicy, earthy note — often seen in German beers. Centennial though is a hop we typically associate with Northwest style beers, with notes of grapefruit and citrus. Throwing this hop into the recipe in the 1990s would have been a pretty crazy move. It still kind of is. Really different to most modern hop combinations you’ll see out there.” – Simon Barna
The Old Brewery Ale was not just brewed to honour NBC’s milestone, but also as a thank you to the people of Nelson. The loyal locals who have stood behind the company for the last 30 years, and who seem to love the beer just as much now, as they did back in 1991.
“This little town has a really diverse population. There’s hippies and rednecks and a whole host of crazy characters — people of all backgrounds, ages and cultures live here. We work really hard in the hope that our community is as proud of their hometown brewery, as they are of their hometown. Whatever direction NBC ends up going in the future, it’ll be because the locals have supported us in getting there.” – Kate Walker
Cheers to that NBC. Here’s to another 30 years.
NBC’s Old Brewery Ale is available in liquor stores across the province from May 15th, and, of course, available on tap almost everywhere in Nelson.