Farming Beer? Hooked From The First Bubbles

August 12, 2016

We are hooked on the goodness and bounty of Sea to Sky Country.  And with the innovation and energy inherent in the people of this region, what the folks here are up to never ceases to amaze.  In that light, writer Lisa Richardson brings us a conversation with Pemberton’s first farm-to-tap brewery. Coming Spring 2017.

The Beerfarmers: Hooked from the first bubbles

When she took her sommelier course, Brenda Miller was the oldest person in the room.

She wasn’t doing it to further her serving career. The 40-something mother of five, from Pemberton, just wanted to travel more intelligently, more viscerally – she was an organic farmer, after all, so everything came back to terroir and taste.

“I just wanted to be able to get a sense of place wherever I went.”

Little did she know she was opening a Pandora’s box.

“I never thought it would translate to beer, but it really does.”

Pemberton has been a potato growing Mecca since pretty soon after being first settled by European immigrants, including Brenda’s husband Bruce’s grandfather, who bought the land they now farm as Across the Creek Organics back in 1911.

Across the Creek grows organic table potatoes. Their culls (imperfect looking but perfectly good spuds) also go to Schramm Distillery to make the world’s only organic vodka. (The potato spirit is the base for a host of the Distillery’s award-winning offerings, including gin, schnapps and liqueurs.)  But until now, the town has never had a brewery.

Six years ago, Brenda went out for dinner to Whistler’s Creekbread with her husband and nephew. She ordered a potato beer and declared it “the best beer she’d ever tasted.” Her nephew convinced her to try brewing her own, and encouraged her to buy a home-brew kit. Though she resisted, (the package formula idea didn’t appeal), he persisted. “The next day, the beer in my pantry was bubbling, and I was hooked.”  And so it began.

What does a potato farmer know about beer? Raising 5 boys teaches you something about alchemy. When Brenda looks back on her 20s, when she first started having kids, she says, “All I did was grocery shop and cook. But that did inspire a passion for food. How do I make things taste good to people who say yuk?”

Beer only has four ingredients – barley, water, yeast and hops – but Brenda Miller reckons it really boils down to passion. And passion she has. As well as a streak of perfectionism, several incredible recipes for beers that she’s developed since that first fateful (admittedly horrible tasting brew) that people rave about.

“I just like to know where my food comes from. Every bit of it. I like to know the process behind it. And beer’s no different.”

What’s next is scaling it up, from home-brewing to Sea to Sky’s first farm-to-tap brewery.

The water, hops and barley for the forthcoming Pemberton Valley Beerworks will come from their farm. Potatoes traditionally are rotated with plantings of grains to replenish the soil. Instead of oats, clover and hay, the Miller’s fallow fields will be planted in 20 acres of barley.

“In the spring, when I ride my bike to town, it smells so amazing,” says Miller. “I know it sounds awfully grandiose, but that sense of place is what I’m trying to capture, and you can’t do that if you buy barley from Saskatchewan.”

She’s getting great advice from brewmaster friends: Don’t worry about all the little things. Just brew really great beer.

“Hopefully, I can live up to that.”

By Lisa Richardson

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