Saskatoon craft brewery 9 Mile Legacy (photo: Nathan Jones)

Cross the Border for Saskatchewan Craft Beer

By Joe Wiebe

Everyone knows beer is made from barley. Farmers grow a lot of barley on the Prairies. So beer must be a big deal in Saskatchewan, right? The problem is Canada’s beer bigwigs—Labatt and Molson—haven’t brewed beer in Saskatchewan since 1989, meaning there hasn’t been much local production in decades.

Happily, that’s all changing. Renewed interest in local brewing over the last three years has given rise to seven new Saskatchewan microbreweries. These rookies join a pair of pioneers who paved the way long before anyone even used the term “craft beer.”

The origins of Saskatchewan’s beer culture date to the mid-1970s when University of Regina physics professor Bev Robertson spent a sabbatical year in Stuttgart, Germany. There, he cultivated a taste for proper German bräu, but upon returning home was hard-pressed to find suds of similar quality. So, he tried his hand at home brewing. Before long, Robertson and a couple of pals found themselves prepping big batches on a weekly basis. As avid cross-country skiers who liked to “bushwhack” new trails, they dubbed themselves the Bushwhacker Brewers.

The contemporary North American microbrewery movement began taking hold in the 1980s, but Saskatchewan’s liquor laws didn’t yet permit brewpubs. Robertson worked with the provincial government to modernize the outdated rules and, in 1991, he opened the doors to the Bushwakker Brewpub in the Strathdee Building, a heritage structure in Regina’s Warehouse District.

No beer-soaked stay in Saskatchewan is complete without visiting Bushwakker. Try to catch a monthly First Firkin Friday, a bagpiper-led cask-tapping procession that gives a willing customer the honour of tapping the firkin (a.k.a. keg)—and getting soaked in beer as a result. Bushwakker’s annual Blackberry Mead release every December is another highlight: Patrons line up overnight for the coveted bottles.

Saskatchewan Craft Beer Bushwakker Firkin
Tapping a firkin at Bushwakker Brewers

The Saskatoon side of the beer pioneer story is best described as an “accidental brewery.” Steve Cavan was an avid home brewer, but had trouble sourcing ingredients locally. In 1995, he began a home-based mail-order business to secure supplies for himself and other home brewers. This evolved into a storefront operation, where he found himself mashing and boiling grains and hops to save customers time. When tax officials required Cavan to register as a brewery in 2004, he made the leap and Paddock Wood Brewing was born.

Over the next decade, Paddock was the province’s de facto craft brewery—its bottles were available in Saskatchewan and beyond; Bushwakker’s were only available at its brewpub.

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The local beer biz really picked up steam in 2013. First out of the gate was Prairie Sun Brewing in Saskatoon, which boasts an eclectic tasting room, kitchen and outdoor patio. Brewmaster Cameron Ewen, who previously worked at Paddock Wood, produces a variety of craft beer styles, including Crazy Farm, a spicy Belgian farmhouse ale with a citrus twist.

You may not know Nokomis (pop. 436), about halfway between Regina and Saskatoon, but craft beer is quickly putting the small community on the map. Nokomis Craft Ales opened here in 2014, when founder Jeff Allport and his wife relocated from Vancouver. The brewery is a modest affair, open only on Thursday and Friday afternoons, but the beer is delicious, making it a perfect road-trip diversion.

Swift Current also welcomed its own hometown beer in 2014: Black Bridge Brewery. Co-owners and long-time residents Clayton and Kari Stenson grew tired of the lack of good local beer options. With a relatively large capacity, Black Bridge packages and distributes its brews throughout the Prairies.

Saskatchewan Craft Beer Rebellion Brewing
Lentil cream ale is on tap at Regina’s Rebellion Brewing

Back in Regina, Rebellion Brewing grew out of that city’s original brewpub’s supportive community—founders Mark Heise and Jamie Singer became friends after competing against each other in a Bushwakker-sponsored home-brew contest. Among Rebellion’s offerings are lentil cream ale, sour and barrel-aged beers, gluten-free amber ale and seasonal Tripel brewed with Saskatchewan-grown Haskap berries.

Saskatoon’s 9 Mile Legacy joined the fray in 2015. In true Prairie style, the name refers to the distance between the family farms of founders Shawn Moen and Garrett Pederson. Technically a “nanobrewery” due to its very small batch production, the brewery will soon expand into the artsy Riversdale neighbourhood.

Rounding out the boom is Malty National Brewing, which opened in Regina’s Heritage ‘hood earlier this year and shares its building with a coffee roaster and a vintage vinyl shop. Malty National focuses on variety, releasing a new beer each week—mostly hop-forward styles with the occasional stout mixed in for good measure.

With such diverse, thirst-quenching libations, now is the time to enjoy a pint of local, independently produced, made-in-Saskatchewan beer.