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Ponoka microbrewery eyes world domination

Kari and Brent Tarasoff had no intention of opening a brewery when they began growing hops in Penticton, B.C. four years ago.

But their five-year plan got thrown out the window last year when they opened Siding 14 Brewing Company in Ponoka with two partners. And pretty soon, they’ll need to toss out their new five-year plan too, when they triple their production after less than a year.

“We expected that we would get good uptake of our beer, but we never expected this,” said Brent Tarasoff, co-owner of Siding 14. “We never expected that we would have to triple our capacity within the first year just to keep up.”

Siding 14 Brewing Company is the brainchild of three families with deep roots in both the agricultural and brewing industries — the Tarasoffs, who own Square One Hop Growers; Josh and Femke Lubach, who own Pridelands Grain; and brewmaster Marc Shields, who has been brewing for more than seven years.

Having a barley grower, a hops grower, and a brewer on the team wasn’t an accident for the Siding 14 crew.

“We had the ambition to grow our own ingredients,” said Shields. “Alberta has the best water. We grow the best barley. Why not add some hops to it and make the best beer?”

And that’s been the key to Siding 14’s success, added Kari.

“We know that customers like the story behind our beer — it resonates with people,” she said.

“We put our ingredients on our cans because we want people to understand where they come from. It’s nice to be able to show them not only the ingredients they’re consuming, but who’s growing them and where we’re growing them.”

The brew process

Siding 14’s slate of beers starts with locally grown malt barley, some from the Lubachs and some from other central Alberta growers. AC Newdale is a popular variety for use in Siding 14’s beers, but they also use the other big names in barley genetics — AAC Synergy, AC Metcalfe, and CDC Copeland.

Then that barley is malted locally, too. Most of the base malt used in the beer comes from Rahr Malting in Alix, with speciality malts coming from Red Shed Malting in Penhold.

“Their bag of malt barley can be traced back to the legal location of the land,” said Brent.

One year after they opened their doors, the owners of Siding 14 are set to triple their production and expand across the Prairies.
photo: Jennifer Blair

It’s the same story for their hops, most of which are grown by the Tarasoffs in Penticton. There, they grow around 17 different varieties of hops, but at the brewery, they use around 30 different varieties for their various beers. (Some varieties are under patent and must be brought in from other Canadian suppliers.)

The variety they use depends on the attributes — such as bitterness or aroma — they’re seeking. There are “probably a million different ways” these ingredients can be put together, said Brent. So Shields starts with an idea of what he wants in the end product and develops a recipe, working backwards to the malts and hops he will use.

“I would have paid a lot more attention in science class if I knew this is where I was going to be,” said Shields.

“People who are thinking about growing or brewing don’t realize how much science is involved in this process,” Kari added. “So kids, stay in school. If you want to brew, it’s a lot of work.”

So is producing the ingredients — particularly the hops.

“Is it tricky? Yes. It’s tricky to grow good-quality hops,” said Brent, who has farmed for more than 30 years and now works as an agrologist.

“If the quality isn’t there, I don’t want your hops.”

And it can be tough to grow high-quality hops in Alberta. Hops need plenty of fertilizer and moisture, said Brent.

“They’re hungry and they’re thirsty,” he said. “It would be along the lines of a 250- or 300-bushel corn crop.”

Like corn, high-quality hops need a lot of heat units. (No one is working on developing a low heat unit hop for Alberta, but the fledgling Alberta Hop Producers’ Association has nearly 20 members growing them in the province.)

“We can grow hops here, but we just can’t do the volume. We just don’t have the heat,” Brent said.

“We barely have the heat to finish what we’re growing in Penticton.”

Southern Alberta might have enough heat, but it also has the biggest enemy of hops (which can grow to a height of 18 feet) — wind.

“We had a windstorm last week, and we lost between five and seven per cent of our crop.”

Given the low volumes that are likely to be produced in Alberta’s growing conditions, it can take a long time to see any return on investment. With trellising, anchors, posts, wire, and plants, the Tarasoffs spent nearly $40,000 an acre on their two-acre hop yard. That doesn’t include any equipment — tractors, harvesters, the drying equipment, the pellet mill, the processing equipment, and the shop where all the work is done.

“We’ve talked a lot of people out of growing hops because it’s so intensive and so costly,” said Kari.

“It’s like the romantic notion of buying a vineyard and sitting on your deck sipping wine,” Brent added. “That goes away very quickly when you realize you have to be in the field all the time.”

World domination

So if you’re thinking twice about growing hops or opening a brewery, that’s probably a good thing.

“There are people who have these pipe dreams because they love craft beer and want to be a part of it,” said Kari. “Do it if you love it, but really go in with your eyes open.”

For the owners of Siding 14, it’s already too late — they love it, and they’re in it for the long haul.

“Before I started doing this, I never knew where my beer came from,” said Shields. “Now I get to meet the guys who are providing the ingredients that contribute to the flavour I enjoy.”

And Kari and Brent think it’s equally important for farmers to have that connection with the end product.

“As farmers, we never knew where our product went,” said Kari. “This is completely different. It’s from field to glass — from standing in Josh’s field to sitting in the brewery. We know where this came from and where it’s going to end up.”

Right now, their beers can be found in close to 300 liquor stores and 150 taps across Alberta, but since they shattered their production goals in the first year, they need to wait until they can ramp up supply before expanding into B.C. and Saskatchewan.

“Hopefully within a year, we’ll be able to talk about getting ahead,” said Kari. “Right now, we’re just running to keep up.”

Even so, the group has big plans for Siding 14.

“I’m not sure about the universe, but certainly world domination. We’ll start there,” said Brent.

And while few people would pick Saskatchewan as the staging grounds for world domination, Shields thinks it’s the perfect place to start.

“They’ll never see us coming.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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