On the shores of Ootsa Lake, in the heart of British Columbia, you’ll find Ursa Minor Brewing. We Explore Canada contributor Hans Tammemagi walks us through how owners Nathan and Gwyn are looking to be a tourism beacon in the area, while simultaneously supporting the local economy as they grow. Oh, and you can arrive by float plane.
My heart is in my throat as the pilot tilts the floatplane, gauges the wind, then lands on the white-capped waters of Ootsa Lake. He ignores the small dock, letting the wind carry the plane along the shore while he steers by pushing various pedals in the cockpit with his right hand, all while standing outside on the pontoon. Luckily, or perhaps skillfully, he manages to guide the floatplane to a sheltered spot behind a large log in the water and bumps the plane against the shore.
We’ve arrived at Ursa Minor Brewing, which is tucked away in central British Columbia about 100 km south of Burns Lake on Highway 16, which links Prince George and Prince Rupert. As I will learn, it is one of the most unusual breweries in the country. We are greeted by owners Nathan and Gwynn Nicholas, who reach hands out to help us — a group of four beer afficionados — clamber from the pontoon onto terra firma, our shoes and socks gaining only a little of the cold lake water.
The Stars Align at Ursa Minor Brewing
Nathan and Gwyn are energetic, friendly and carry themselves with the confidence that comes from being self-reliant in a place far removed from familiar services. We follow them and their dog, Max, across a rolling green field dotted with bright yellow dandelions. Various farm buildings, a barn, a house and, yes, an outhouse, stand in the field with the lake on one side and forest on the other.
Passing a few picnic tables, we near a corrugated-iron building with a sign announcing Ursa Minor Brewing. Our smiles broaden for we are about to enter a temple of beer.
What’s On Tap at This BC Brewery?
A fridge door converted into a sign proclaims six tap beers are available to sample. While Nathan fills glasses from the spigots, he explains:
“These truly reflect this land, for the produce from our farm and the surrounding forest are interwoven with the craft beer.”
Watching the head settle on a glass of Siberian Express (6% alcohol), he hands it to me and adds, “This beer is seasonal and has an infusion of haskap berries, which are particularly well suited to the region’s soil and climate.”
My colleagues choose a Lover’s Rock Porter, an Ootsapogo Double IPA and a Red Squirrel Spruce Tip Ale. Gwyn adds, “Rhubarb is just coming into season and then we’ll be brewing a seasonal rhubarb beer, one of my favourites. We also make Caught Red Handed, a raspberry seasonal.” Nathan notes that Juniper wheat ale is made with local wild juniper.
Contentedly sipping our beers, we follow Nathan from the small dining/sampling room into the adjacent brewery area. Leaning against a shining stainless-steel tank, his feet surrounded by hoses, Nathan explains that the brewery has four tanks, each of five-barrels volume.
“We make about 2,000 litres of beer per month, and since we launched our business in June 2020, we have released 14 types of beers. One of the pleasures of a small brewery is that we can experiment and produce beers that we and our friends like, and that capture the essence of this land.”
Returning to the sampling room, we are soon savouring different brews. I try a Lost Viking Wheat Ale made using a Scandinavian tradition of adding fragrant juniper boughs and berries collected from local bluffs to the beer. Ahhh, the beer has a refreshing sour and fragrant taste! One thing stands out, though. All the beers perfectly complement the salmon chowder we are served. Bouquets of wild flowers garnish the tables as we eat and sip cheerfully.
Touring the Farm
Carrying our beer glasses, we embark on a tour of the farm. Noting that “Little Bear Ranch” is written on the barn, I punch a colleague on the arm, saying, “I get it! Ursa Minor Brewing is not named after the constellation but for the farm, but in Latin.”
At a fenced area enclosing what looks like a mud bath, we meet Willy, a 400-pound pig, and two small piglets. Nathan feeds Willy some grass, and Gwyn says, climbing into the pen and rubbing Willy’s shoulders, “He’s very friendly, but may knock you over if you get between him and his food.” Nearby, we greet two adorable donkeys, Rosa and Bella. Nathan explains, “They are great guardians and keep coyotes and lynx away from the farm.” Four horses are in an adjacent pasture.
Nathan gives a brief nature lesson noting that the farm is at the edge of the sub-boreal forest at the northern end of the interior pine plateau, which means this area is relatively flat compared to the mountain ranges to the west. But it is remote with black bears, deer, moose, elk, rabbits, grouse, grizzlies, lynx, coyotes and wolves.
“I often see bear scat while hiking,” says Nathan casually. “There’s a good reason why our motto is ‘Wild Taste from a Wild Place.’”
A Brewery With A Vision
I can’t help asking why they have started making beer in such a remote place.
“I’ve been brewing beer since I was 18,” says Nathan, who is now 55. “I was a chef and always wanted to live and work where I grew up. A few years ago, Gwyn and I decided that starting a brewery would allow us to move here to my late Dad’s 540-acre farm and let us do something we really enjoy. We love the area, lease most of the farm to neighbouring farmers, and focus on making beer. We make a good team for Gwyn handles the business side well.”
Gwyn explains that although they are only small, the brewery is helping bring tourism to the area and is boosting the local economy at a time when forestry is declining. She adds, “We buy produce like raspberries from neighbouring farms for our beers, and we hire local youths to pick spruce tips in the forest.” I think fondly of the Red Squirrel Spruce Tip Ale I tasted earlier. “Sustainability and biodiversity are key to our operation. For example, we generate almost zero waste, recycling almost everything.”
“Close involvement with the Cheslatta Carrier First Nation is important to us,” Nathan says. “For example, we’re working on trail development with the Cheslatta. They are an important part of our community and, having occupied this area for thousands of years, have an encyclopedic knowledge of the land and forest.”
Nathan and Gwyn plan to expand their garden and picnic and camping facilities with the goal of hosting weddings and larger functions in the future. “However, it’s a slow process,” Nathan adds, “but we want to offer the whole package. We’re expanding the barbeque and have just found a source for local chicken.”
Until Next Time
With the sun sinking in the western sky, it is time to leave this unusual brewery, but the blustery wind still prevents the floatplane from returning. This emphasizes just how remote and isolated the brewery is, for Burns Lake is 100 kilometres plus a ferry ride distance away. Showing the kindness that is so characteristic of small rural communities, Gwyn drives our group to the ferry, where we meet our van.
Waving goodbye, I’m sad, for we have not only tasted unique beers that resonate with local character, but we have been blessed with enormous generosity. In this remote area, human values shine forth that modern urban society seems to have misplaced.
Hans’ writing is eclectic including travel, environment, Indigenous culture and things quirky. He has penned 10 books including one national best seller. Hans writes for Canadian Geographic, Westworld, Ensemble, Zoomer, British Columbia magazine, Explore, Northwest Travel, Canada’s History, the Globe and Mail and the Vancouver Sun. A member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and former adjunct professor, he has a strong affinity for the environment around us. He lives in the Gulf Islands where he enjoys kayaking and photography.