Polarity Brewing, the latest addition to the Yukon craft beer scene, is a labour of love. The most definitive and emphatic reason Erik and Kai Miller provide for opening a brewpub is that it’s a super-fun business to have. There are three Miller brothers with a stake in Polarity. Erik is the oldest, while Kai is the youngest. Their middle sibling, Chris, lives in Toronto. Chris has yet to “darken the door” of the family business due to COVID-19.
On a cold day in November, I meet with Erik and Kai at their riverside establishment. The visit is characterized by their friendly banter and their obvious similarities. Both have an affinity for science, a wry sense of humour, a passion for beer and great enthusiasm for all things local. It makes me think that the brothers have always been close. This is not the case. The brothers grew up in Ottawa. When they left home, Erik went to Vancouver and Kai moved to Halifax. Living on opposite coasts, they saw each other infrequently for more than a decade. Eventually, Kai headed west to Vancouver. By then, Erik had moved to Whitehorse. This is when the brothers grew closer.
Erik is a critical care paramedic whose work involves frequent medevac flights to Vancouver. The brothers would get together every few weeks during his meal break. As well, Erik and his wife would often go south for Dine Out Vancouver, which involved brewery-hopping with Kai and his partner.
Kai was working as a brewer in Vancouver. His credentials included jobs in breweries throughout university and an undergraduate degree in biology, which he undertook after being bitten by the homebrew bug.
“I was taking philosophy and that stuff in first year,” Kai says. “I started home brewing and reading up on what was happening in it and got really into the science of it and it was like, ‘biology is pretty cool.’”
Like every brewer, Kai eventually wanted his own business so he could make the beers he wanted to make. However, Vancouver is not the place to open a brewery: the market is saturated, it’s incredibly expensive and the City of Vancouver’s bureaucracy doesn’t make it easy for fledgling businesses to get started.
Whitehorse, on the other hand, is a great place to start a business, the brothers tell me. It takes mere days to get a building permit that might take weeks or even months to obtain in bigger cities. The City of Whitehorse and Yukon government are “absolutely awesome in their response to the needs of the community,” Erik says. Whitehorse is also a great market for craft beer. Yukon Brewing and Winterlong had folks well-primed to drink IPAs and dark beers. On top of that, Yukoners embrace and support local products. But while craft beer was popular, Erik perceived a hole in the Yukon market–tasting room brew pubs. He figured Kai was “just the talented person” to fill that hole, so Erik pitched the idea of opening a brewery that would bring the tasting room experience to adventurous Yukon beer-drinkers.
Kai was in. He moved to Whitehorse and the brothers set out to find a location. There weren’t a lot of available spaces in town that could accommodate a brewpub.
“A lot of the older buildings didn’t have the bones we needed,” Kai says, referring to amenities including water, electricity, sewer, HVAC and a floor that can withstand the tanks. “A lot of the places with the right bones, the industrial buildings, were in the wrong part of town for people to want to visit, or weren’t attractive places to set up a tasting room.”
The space they selected, the former Wheelhouse restaurant, had at least some of the “bones” they needed for making beer. The riverfront location with the killer views fit the bill for the front-of-house. Still, the space needed extensive renovations. Some of it the work they did themselves – jackhammering, for instance. For jobs they couldn’t do, such as plumbing and electricity, they hired “genius ticketed professionals,” as Erik calls them. The Millers’ architect, Ron Hart of Vancouver, worked with them on the brewery design. An observant person might notice the distinct contrast between the industrial side of Polarity where the tanks are kept, and the public side looking out to the waterfront and beyond.
“Everything on this side of the room we tried to aim for wood grains and earthier tones and warmer light matching the river views,” Erik says of the public area. “And behind the counter, machinery.”
“Bright lights and shiny stainless.” Kai adds.
The long wooden bar where the taps reside bridges the dichotomy, or the polarity, between the tank side and the river side.
“The bar really marks the dividing line between the two,” Erik explains. “And we think it’s really special because, let’s face it, the official building material of the Yukon is corrugated metal, and what we have is a corrugated wood, so it’s the halfway point between the two design languages.”
The space also shaped the business to an extent, says Kai, because it came with a kitchen, which spurred a robust food program that wasn’t in the original business model.
“The location we found had a kitchen, a wonderful kitchen, and we were introduced to a really talented chef [Tim Cameron] who in turn hired a really talented team,” says Erik.
The food menu features as many local products as possible. When the brothers buy meat, they purchase the entire animal from small Yukon farms. Part of the meat goes into the core menu of burgers and tacos, while the rest goes into the rotating tapas menu.
“It’s a nice way to keep talented chefs happy,” Erik says. “They get to invent cool things to cook … Hopefully whenever people come in, there will be a new beer to try, there will be a new dish on the tapas menu.”
While the kitchen talent keeps the food menu interesting, Kai keeps a running list of all the eclectic beer styles he wants to brew.
“I’m pretty ecumenical,” he says. “I like a broad selection of beers—super classic European-style, trendy West Coast messed-up stuff. I feel like with just about any style of beer, there’s something that makes it tick, there’s a reason people made it in the first place and kept making it and drinking it. And I like finding that and getting inside of it.”
For what’s on tap at any given time, he aims to “balance a good variety of beer.”
Erik sums it up—something light, something dark, something hoppy, something classic. Don’t get too attached to any one beer, though. The Millers will always focus on the tasting room experience, which means you won’t find the same four styles on repeat. For the brewer and probably for the public as well, that’s not as much fun.
“We’ll bring something back,” says Kai. This happened with One Caribou Apart, a “physically distanced” blonde ale which is on tap the day I visit. The name of the ale is, of course, a reference to the measure of physical distancing used in the Yukon government’s COVID-19 public relations campaign. The shutdown order for bars and restaurants delayed the brewery’s launch, but the Millers looked at the big picture and put the setback in perspective.
“What’s two- or three-months delay in selling beer versus controlling a deadly disease?” Kai says. “Not that important.”
“I absolutely understand every other business owner’s complaints because I have the same fears and concerns,” Erik says. “But I also watch the toll it that takes on my health care colleagues.”
“The public in the Yukon and all levels of government have done what they can to pull together with us, and make sure that we’re not hit any worse than anyone else by these [pandemic-related] measures,” Kai says.
When Polarity finally opened in June, the public response was so enthusiastic that Kai was “brewing at breakneck speed” to keep the taps from drying up. It’s taken until now to get ahead of demand.
“When we opened up, no one had eaten out of their house in three months and we were the new thing in town, so it really helped build early excitement about us,” Kai says. “The amount of goodwill we’ve had for making this happen when it did has been really inspiring and really a big material help to us. “
After six months in business, Polarity is hopping, with trivia nights on Tuesdays and a popular “booze-informed” weekend brunch featuring mimosa flights, homemade Irish cream, and radlers. Hardy souls who brave the patio this winter receive a “temperature per cent” discount, for example get 20 per cent off when it’s -20 degrees C. There are two fire tables on the patio, rather than umbrella heaters, because the Millers are “hippies” who “don’t want to use too much dinosaur juice to heat the outdoors.”
I don’t venture onto the patio on my visit, but I do enjoy a flight of amazing beers, my favourite being Steampunk Alt-Common. I even like the IPAs. Kai is currently fermenting a Belgian abbey table beer and hopes to use the same yeast to make Belgian dubbel and tripel beers. The prospect of trying all three of these craft beers has me hankering to return, which is what Polarity’s all about.
“We want to be a place to hang out and try something new,” Kai says. “That’s really the core of what we’re trying to do here.”