Oliver’s Firehall Brewery marks 10 years since release of first beer
Oliver’s Firehall Brewery recently passed a major milestone – a decade of brewing and serving craft beer downstairs at the old firehall.
Brew chief and owner Sid Ruhland started the business in 2011 with his father, Jim Ruhland, in the fire hall that had served the community from its construction in 1948 until a new fire station was built in 2000.
This March, Firehall Brewery also celebrates the 10th anniversary of the launch of its first beer, Stoked Ember Ale.
Today the brewery produces a gamut of crafted beers from light blondes to dark stouts and porters and many in between.
It’s also become a popular venue for live music, which Sid describes as mainly singer-songwriter, acoustic folk style, with some rock and punk. Since Covid, he’s had to scale it back depending on current health orders, but Ruhland is looking forward to resuming the Back Alley Concerts that were popular before Covid.
Jim is no longer an owner, but he stays involved as a delivery driver, technical consultant and “filling a father role in the sense of helping me out,” said Sid.
These days Sid runs the brewery with his wife Marie-Eve.
The Ruhlands began their involvement with the old firehall when they invested in the building in 2003 with several other families. It served for a while as the Wine Country Welcome Centre before the brewery was started in some empty rooms downstairs.
The upstairs is now home to Pappa’s Firehall Bistro, which is a separately owned business, but the two enterprises enjoy a symbiotic relationship. Some of Firehall Brewery’s products are served on tap upstairs, while the brewery offers a “mini menu” of food items delivered by dumbwaiter from the bistro.
Sid studied business at Okanagan College in Kelowna, wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps as an entrepreneur. Jim had started a construction company when he was around Sid’s age.
Away at college, Sid began brewing beer in his dorm when he was still 18 and not quite old enough to buy beer.
“I’ve often joked about it being budget related, but really it was just for fun,” he says.
His four roommates sometimes helped out with the work, though Sid concedes that their participation was mainly helping with consumption.
Since then, his brewing skills have been self-taught, although he admits to having asked “thousands of annoying questions to other brewers,” and reading all the brewing books he could get his hands on. Online, he’s also connected with a large and helpful brewing community that’s willing to share the science of making great beer.
The beers made by Firehall are predominantly English-ale-style beers, though some non-English-style lagers and other brews are also on tap.
Not only are the beers unpasteurized, but they are also unfiltered, giving them more flavour. And they lack preservatives, so must be stored cold.
“It’s a lot more natural,” said Sid. “Whenever you have a more natural situation, it’s also harder to control, it’s a bit more wild, so it takes a lot more attention to detail and intuition to keep producing something consistent.”
Lighter beers tend to be more popular with customers, and the Backdraft Blonde is probably the favourite, followed by False Alarm Bitter pale ale, Stoked Ember ale, Kick Axe premium lager, and White Hat Witbier, a fruity Belgian-inspired brew.
A non-alcohol India Pale Ale was especially popular in dry January.
Although what he drinks changes with the season, Sid’s own favourite is the Wind and Fire porter, an annual seasonal beer brewed in memory of Sid’s late brother.
When we visited, Sid was in the process of brewing a dark Holy Smoke Stout. The roasted barley sits in a “mash” in water as enzyme conversion occurs, breaking the starches into sugars. The mash was sweet as Sid separated it in preparation for fermentation, when it is combined with hops and yeast.
There it ferments at a warm temperature for about two weeks before being cooled and allowed to settle. It is then transferred to a conditioning tank for another couple of weeks.
Sid estimates that more than half the beer produced is consumed in the tap room while the rest is sold for off sales or on tap through other businesses in the Okanagan. It’s not normally sold through the BC Liquor stores, because its system geared to larger producers.
In 2016, Firehall used crowdfunding to open a retail-oriented Beer Shop and Social, partnering with another couple. Now Sid and Marie-Eve run that side of the business by themselves.
As for future plans, Sid says Covid taught him not to plan too far ahead, but he hopes to continue growing Firehall Brewery as a music venue while continuing to improve efficiency and make good beer.
He’s also started doing “beer education nights” in February with hopes to offer more in the future. Customers can buy a ticket and sample beer and food while they learn about beer history and science.
Oliver brands itself as Canada’s Wine Capital, so Firehall Brewery may be swimming against the tide by producing craft beer. But the brewery finds a synergy there too: “We’re in the unique position of being both the fuel for winemakers and the palate cleansers for wine drinkers,” it boasts on its website.
Story and photos by Richard McGuire
Firehall Brewery Inc.
6077 Main St.
Oliver, BC V0H 1T0