Grab a growler at Barn Hammer Brewing (photo: Symon Ptashnick/Ptash Film & Photography)

Manitoba’s Craft Beer Boom

By Joe Wiebe

Winnipeg beer lovers have anxiously watched as the craft beer industry has expanded across North America. Over the past decade Ontario, Quebec and B.C. have grown to host more than 100 breweries each, Alberta has added close to 40, and even Saskatchewan has welcomed seven new breweries since 2013. But Winnipeg—and Manitoba—has long offered just two choices for local suds.

The wait seems to be over: Five new breweries have opened in Winnipeg this year with several more in the works. The floodgates opened in 2014 when changes to provincial liquor legislation made it possible for breweries and liquor stores to fill growlers and allowed breweries to open taprooms. This was incentive enough for brewers (and investors) to look for locations and order brewing equipment.

Many of these new brewers were inspired by two Manitoba pioneers: Fort Garry Brewing and Half Pints Brewing. The former opened in 1995, endured a mini boom-and-bust stretch, and was bought by Surrey, B.C.’s Russell Brewing in 2007, though it’s still managed locally.

Half Pints opened in 2006 and has led Winnipeg’s craft beer scene ever since. Brewmaster David Rudge’s mission is to educate by example: He produces a range of beers, including some complex, seasonal offerings—such as Old Red Barn, a sour Belgian red ale that was barrel-aged for two years prior to its release this past spring. The brewery’s name even speaks to the idea of drinking smaller glasses in order to enjoy more variety, rather than chugging pints of one bland beer. Half Pints recently spruced up its digs by adding a taproom with pinball machines and comfy seating—as well as delicious beer, naturally.

Cross the border to sample the latest craft beers in Saskatchewan 

Ten years on from Half Pints’ debut, its former CEO, Nicole Barry, opened the first of Winnipeg’s new wave of breweries, Peg Beer Co. The Exchange District brewery and restaurant launched this spring, but delays in completing the brew house prevented them from serving their own suds right off the bat. But the taps are now working overtime to pour their house-made brews, including
a saison, stout and red rye pale ale.

Peg’s brew house delay meant that Barn Hammer Brewing was officially the first of the new breweries to serve its own beer—an oatmeal stout, Belgian wit and double IPA among them. Brewmaster Brian Westcott worked for several years at Edmonton’s Alley Kat Brewing before moving to his wife’s home province to help open Barn Hammer’s West End operation. Its welcoming taproom is res-plendently rustic, with lots of reclaimed wood, while maintaining a modern vibe.

Manitoba's Craft Beer the forks common
A smooth pour at The Forks’ Common beer kiosk

Four more Winnipeg breweries, each led by locally trained beer makers, are slated to open by year’s end. Torque Brewing’s large facility produces auto-inspired offerings—like Redline IPA and Diesel Fitter Stout—by Matt Wolff, who learned his craft at Fort Garry Brewing. Bernhard Wieland is also an alumnus of Fort Garry (among others), though he first studied brewing as a side project while playing rugby in South Africa. His inaugural beer for Little Brown Jug Brewing Company, a Belgian pale ale, can be quaffed in a century-old building near Red River College. And Jeremy Wells is putting his eight years of Half Pints experience into ales for Brazen Hall Kitchen and Brewery, which has taken over a space previously occupied by The Round Table, a steakhouse on Pembina Highway.

One Great City Brewing Company is a slight outlier: Its owners haven’t toiled at local breweries. Instead they’re local boys—lawyer Tim Hudek and chef Jon Burge—who built their careers elsewhere before returning home. Expect Burge to plate farm-to-fork fare for OGC’s restaurant, while brewmaster Josh Berscheid, who trained at Alberta’s Olds College, handles the suds, including a pale ale and milk stout.

In the works for 2017 is Nonsuch Brewing Co. Named for the ship whose 1668 voyage into Hudson Bay effectively launched the Hudson’s Bay Company, Nonsuch grew out of a local home-brewing club. Its partners plan to offer premium European-style beers with an emphasis on Belgian ales. Beyond that, look for Oxus, Stone Angel and Trans-Canada brewing companies to enter the fray in the future. And though the Forks Market’s on-site brewery project seems to have stalled, its Common craft beer and wine kiosk opened earlier in 2016 with 20 Canadian and international brews on tap.

A number of Winnipeg restaurants and pubs have also made craft beer the focus of their menus. With the city’s brewing scene on the upswing, awareness and interest will further feed a Manitoban craft beer revolution that’s only just begun.

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