Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/1/2019 (973 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
I feel like I should be typing this in a tuxedo, as this week marks the fifth anniversary of First Draught! It really doesn’t feel like it was five years ago this week when I did my initial review, a review of New Zealand Steinlager lager, a full-on recommendation from a former 10th and Victoria Liquor Mart employee (now managing the Sobeys West End Liquor Mart Express). I’ve reviewed hundreds of beers in that time, complained about the obvious perimeteritis we receive from MBLL to the point that I’ve likely made a few enemies, and even missed out on substantial beer releases all because of releases not making it to Brandon.
On the flip side, I’ve had times where I had the honour to visit my favourite brewery on the planet, Unibroue … followed by a trip to RateBeer.com’s No. 1-rated brewery on the planet, Hill Farmstead in Vermont.
I’ve been writing about beer for much, much longer than that, but I found that more has changed in the past three years in the Manitoba beer scene than any other amount of time since the early 1990s when consolidation and brewery closures were the norm by Molson, Labatt, O’Keefe’s and others.
Today, I’m going to chat about what has changed to the Manitoban beer industry since I’ve been writing First Draught in 2014.
Owning a brewery or brewpub in Manitoba was incredibly expensive until the last five years. Prior to writing First Draught, I met up with entrepreneurs over the course of a few years to discuss "why doesn’t Manitoba have a brewery/brew pub?"
The problem was cost. Not only does your standard brewery with a taproom cost at minimum $750,000 to start up, but until liquor laws changed in 2011, if a brewery wanted a taproom on site or wanted to sell growlers at their brewery, they had to buy the beer back from MLCC (pre-MBLL). When the liquor codes changed in 2011, allowing breweries to sell on site without having to buy the product from MLCC, this was the first step in getting Manitoba’s craft beer scene on track.
If you weren’t really following beer in Manitoba in 2011, Manitoba had two breweries — Fort Garry, which opened in the mid ’90s and has ties to the original Fort Garry Breweries plant that closed in the 1960s through the brewery’s ownership; and then there was Half Pints Brewing, which opened up in 2006.
Half Pints was considered the Holy Grail of beer, and it wasn’t a surprise because their seasonal-style beers would be considered to be the best of its kind in the world, Half Pints was the best of the best! Their Demeter’s Harvest Wheat Wine was rated the No. 1 wheat wine in the world when it was released, while their Le Temps Noir barrel-aged Imperial Stout was the best beer in Canada … outside Quebec, which is still quite a feat when all the other beers in the list were Dieu du Ciel, ice wine ciders and Unibroue products.
Before the Warwaruk Brothers were brewing beer in Neepawa at Farmery Estate Brewery, they were operating Manitoba’s best craft beer bar, Luxalune Gastropub on Osborne Street in Winnipeg, offering beers from all over Canada and the world, including Steam Whistle and Yukon Brewing before either brewery was ever officially ever available in Manitoba. They were also the first people to announce their intent to open up a brewery back in 2011. These guys had the guts to go on CBC’s "Dragons’ Den" a second time to raise money for the brewery, and it looked like all the Dragons enjoyed the product.
From 2012 to 2016, their Premium Lager and Canadian Pale Ale were contracted to another brewery so that they could get brand awareness for once they opened up a brewery, which they finally did in very late summer 2016 — they’re also growing their malt barley out of Erickson/Arden area and their hops are out of Arden. Farmery is the first brewery to open up in Manitoba since Empire Brewing left Brandon in the 1930s. Seagram’s also used to have a plant in Minnedosa, but that closed down in the 1990s.
The first new brewery and brewpub to open up in a very, very long time was Barn Hammer back in July 2016. That was a great year for the craft beer industry in Manitoba. I can’t even recall how many breweries opened up between June and December, but many of you may recall me being frustrated that nobody was ever trying to open anything up. Well, Barn Hammer earns the rights to claim that they opened up Manitoba’s first brewery since 2006, as well as Manitoba’s first taproom since the early 2000s.
I remember visiting the brewery four months after they opened and there were tourists visiting asking where the "other" taprooms were in town, but unfortunately … no other taproom was open yet. I love the vibe of Barn Hammer’s taproom, it has a bit of an old farm shed vibe to it, all the way down to the old John Deere seats at the pub.
Torque Brewing was the second brewery to open up, only a month and a half after Barn Hammer. I knew one of the co-owners, Matt Wolff, the previous brewmaster over at Fort Garry. In February 2016, I visited the brewery to check on their development. At the time, their brewing side of things was entirely a pile of dirt — they did all the manual work themselves, pouring the cement, installing the equipment, etc. I still remember back when I was told by someone at Torque that there was never any desire for Torque to deliver to Brandon … but after talking to him two weeks ago, Torque is delivering to Brandon on average of one to two times per week because of the demand. That’s a lot of beer!
There’s a lot of other breweries that have opened up since then. In fact, there were two breweries in Manitoba back in May 2016, but now there are 18 breweries open, brewing at another brewery or opening up in the near future. That’s a great sign here in Manitoba as Manitoba grows some of the best malt barley in the world.
La Brasserie Nonsuch finally found a permanent brewery and taproom space in the Exchange District back in the late summer after brewing at Barn Hammer Brewing for approximately a year. If you’re not familiar with Nonsuch, three of their owners, Tyler, Mark, and Ben all lived in Brandon at one point, and they collaborated with Brandon University for a BU50 Oktoberfest Ale, which you can still find at Brandon Liquor Marts for $19.69 per 750 mL corked and caged bottle. Each bottle is expected to age well up to five years, plus it’s a great fundraiser for Brandon University Alumni Association … and it definitely tastes a lot better than the Assiniboine lager that came out for Brandon’s 125th anniversary by Big Rock.
Many of Manitoba’s craft breweries distribute their beers here in Brandon. You can find beers by breweries such as Trans-Canada Brewing, One Great City Brewing (OGC), OXUS Brewing, Little Brown Jug, Winnipeg Brew Works (their co-owners Darren Wanless and Bernie Wieland are both originally from Westman — if you love Little Brown Jug or Lake of the Woods, you’ll love Bernie’s work at Winnipeg Brew Works. He created many of their beers), and Fort Garry/Half Pints (of course) … as well as the breweries I mentioned earlier.
There’s another brewery opening up in the near future on Osborne Street in Winnipeg, Sookram's Brewing, so look out for them in the near future! As for a brewery here in Brandon, it’s just not going to happen yet. We’re the largest city or municipality in Canada without a craft brewery. It will happen one day. For now, we do have one brewery here in the region with Farmery, as well we have three commercial hop farms with Farmery’s hop farm in Arden, Prairie Mountain Hops one mile north of the International Peace Garden, and JGL Shepherd Farms in Moosomin — the more hop farms, the better the craft beer scene will get here in rural Canada!
Considering the theme of the week, I decided to do a quick review of a cider by a ciderie named Dead Horse Cider Co. that just opened up right outside Winkler last year! Dead Horse is described as being crush and crafted on the Prairies using locally sourced Manitoba apples. Their current offering is the Looking on the Bright Cide(r) which is the "locals only" hard cider.
You all know that I’m not a cider fan, but I’m happy to see a full-on Manitoba ciderie opening up here in the province, in rural Manitoba no less!
The cider pours a very clear, light, apple juice yellow appearance to it — a bit watered down, a very faint amount of carbonation in the glass, and a few bubbles on the top of the top. The aroma is very aromatic, sweet apple presence with what appears to be a bit of an addition of sugar to it. This reminds me a slight tad of the ice apple cider/wine I had in Quebec a few years ago with it being as sweet as it is, but for the most part, this is juicy! As someone who isn’t a cider fan, this cider has a moderate apple juice presence to it, but with also a bit a of a sweet sugary aspect. It’s fairly dry on the palate and leaves behind only a hint of a sour aftertaste at the end. Quite smooth.
One thing I love about Manitoba is that we have some of the best malt grain on the planet to the point that hundreds of millions of people are drinking a whisky out of Gimli, which is regarded as one of the top five whiskies in the world! We should also be supporting our beer, wine and cider industry as well as they all use Manitoba-sourced ingredients grown by Manitoba farmers!
I’ve sampled beers that used Manitoba barley and Prairie Mountain Hops barley in the past, and today I sampled an apple cider from Winkler! The cider was something that popped right out at me when I was searching for something to review and as soon as I saw the label, I knew I had to try it, and then seeing that it’s made in Winkler, I was absolutely sold on it! It’s a great cider with a great apple presence to it, sweet with a mild sourness to it, dry on the palate, easy to drink. You can find Dead Horse Cider Co.’s Looking on the Bright Cide(r) at Liquor Marts in Brandon and Virden for $6.99 per 500 mL bottle. Five per cent ABV
One last thing, for a long time writing about beer, very few establishments here in Brandon would never cater to the local craft beer market, offering only the standard Labatt/Molson products on tap or bottle for so long. I’d love to give a shoutout to Prairie Firehouse for having a rotating beer tap selection by Manitoba’s breweries — making sure that people get to try Manitoba’s best beer, they are all about supporting local before anything else, even if that means no Bud Light. The Dock on the Princess has become increasingly better over time for bringing in craft beers. They currently have Torque’s Red Line and Little Brown Jug’s 1919 Belgian Pale Ale, as well as a variety of craft beers in cans.
Lastly, I’m surprised by Tavern United. I never expected them to have craft beer on tap because in the past they’ve listed Half Pints on their menu but they stated it was only meant for the Winnipeg locations, but every time I’ve gone in the past year, they’ve offered Torque’s Red Line IPA and Little Brown Jug’s 1919 on draught! Serious props to every pub/bar/restaurant/venue that offers craft beer options for those exhausted of the usual options and want to try something made by Manitobans, for Manitobans, from Manitoba. If there are any other Westman establishments that are doing this already that I haven’t mentioned — cheers and it’s great to support everything great about Manitoba!