Sarah Lord from Living Here tells the story behind Trail Beer Refinery, a brewery providing positive change in the community and keeping the glass half full.
(This article originally appeared on LivingHere.ca.)
As local as it gets
Before Mike and Sheri Konkin started a brewery in Trail, British Columbia, in 2017, they had never made beer before.
“We thought this would be good for the community. Just as craft beer started booming and breweries started popping up everywhere,” says Mike.
Today, Mike is the CEO and Accountant of Trail Beer Refinery, and Sheri is the Brewmaster. All 13 partners are from Trail, other than Mike’s brother in Vancouver. One of the partners owns a construction company, so they renovated the old Sears building into the brewery. It was indeed a community affair.
“We incorporated the company, and less than a year later, we had a building renovated, equipment in, recipes formulated, and we were operational,” says Mike.
Today, the brewery offers a tasting room and full-service kitchen. They sell beer across BC and at a designated spot at Smokeaters games. They also recently partnered with the Junior A hockey team to create a new beer called ‘Eternal Smokeater Goalden Ale.’
Mike is an accountant with a full-time gig instructing at Selkirk College. He grew up in Trail, which he loved, but after high school, Mike felt like he had to leave town to chase more opportunities.
Mike went to university in Victoria and worked in Vancouver for eight years. He met Sheri in Vernon, but her family was originally from Nelson. The couple decided to raise their two kids in Trail, who are now young adults.
Mike has seen Trail change immensely over time.
“Trail was vibrant when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, and then it got depressed and shrank for two decades. The smelter downsized quite a bit, and the population shrank, and that caused a ripple effect. Now we’re seeing growth. We’re coming back to the heyday. I see many people moving into town and wanting to live here. We’re going in a positive direction. There are more young families. Now it’s an option that people can stay.”
Beer can change a town
Mike knows well how the brewery has impacted the town of Trail.
“A lot of folks say that the brewery was a start of a turnaround of making downtown more vibrant. It encouraged other investments down there, and existing businesses are spending money to upgrade and make theirs a little bit nicer.”
Gina Ironmonger is a Trail resident who cares about local food. She has seen the brewery’s impact on the town.
“People love to go there and meet, to enjoy locally crafted beer and great food. It has ripple down effects to the downtown revitalization that’s taking place,” says Gina. “The overall impact is huge. I see more people visiting downtown. More people want to live downtown.”
Mike explains that the refinery does its part to keep the local food economy strong.
“We source as much as we can locally. 80% of the grains are BC grown.”
Since opening its doors, the brewery has donated its spent grains to local farms.
“The pigs love it. It seemed like a shame to take it to the dump. It gives back to the community,” says Mike.
When it rains, it pours beer
Owning a business has not been a cakewalk in the past few years.
“(Covid) affected us big time. Our main source of revenue is the taproom. Closing right down for a few months and the restrictions, even today, we’re still nowhere where we were. There have been some stressful times.”
For Mike, “The stress of the uncertainty” hit him the hardest. He was exhausted because of his skyrocketed workload and overwhelmed that there was no end in sight.
This summer, they were significantly affected by the extreme heatwaves and forest fires.
“No one wants to go (on the patio) when there’s smoke. The super crazy heat and the forest fires affected the brewing, too. It slows things down because our chillers can’t keep up. It was a big challenge. It took two days to do something that usually takes one,” says Mike.
Then, the flooding across southern BC affected the supply chain this fall.
“It was a disaster trying to get things in and out since so much comes out of the area for raw ingredients, and getting our product out to liquor stores in Vancouver is a challenge. Sometimes it takes ten days to get a pallet somewhere; it used to take one day or two days. If we’re missing an ingredient, we can’t do anything,” says Mike.
Mike thinks all these big weather events are due to more significant issues.
“Climate change is having an effect and has ricocheted right through. We have to figure out how to deal with this because I’m sure this is not the first and the last flood or weather event.”
With all these challenges, what is at stake for Mike is the dream he and Sheri had at the beginning.
“The original idea of a super fun, great place to hang out in, it was looking like things would be different. That was very worrisome,” says Mike.
Keeping the glass half full
Gina thinks it is essential that we strengthen our food supply chain.
“It’s so important that our communities work together to strengthen our agricultural base. The lower Columbia region has a lot of land base; there’s a lot of zoning here that’s industrial that will support agriculture when it comes to distribution centres, abattoirs, etc. We’ve got the land for it. Plus, there’s a huge amount of land that’s agricultural that’s not being used.”
The brewery team is holding onto their original goal and looking to the future.
“We’ve just got to roll with it. Every day there’s a new challenge, and we’ve just got to solve it,” says Mike. “The original goal was to make the brewery a community focal point. I think we’ve done a good job. I’m hoping that as we come out of Covid, we come out better and stronger, and people want to come here and celebrate.”
Trail Beer Refinery is located on the Kootenay Rockies West Ale Trail.