Sask’s craft brewing scene is finally fermenting

by Jason Foster

Up until recently, if someone asked me which province lagged the most in terms of craft beer, I would’ve said it was no contest: Saskatchewan.

With only one legitimate craft brewery (Paddock Wood in Saskatoon), one major independent brewpub (Bushwakker’s), one brewpub chain (Brewsters) and a mid-sized independent brewery focused mostly on the pale lager market (Great Western Brewing), Saskatchewan simply didn’t have a lot to offer in terms of locally produced craft beer.

That’s pretty disappointing, especially when you start comparing numbers with other provinces. Saskatchewan has one craft/independent brewery for every 330,000 people, for example, while tiny Nova Scotia has one craft brewery for every 65,000 people. B.C. has a craft brewery for every 62,000 people. Clearly, we were getting crushed when it came to locally produced beer.

And then, kaboom!

All of a sudden Saskatchewan seems to be experiencing an explosion in brewery start-ups: in the last two months, no less than three companies have either opened or announced plans to open.

Hopefully it’s a sign that Saskatchewan’s beer scene is reaching a new point of maturity, and may finally be ready to catch up with the rest of the country.

I had a chance to speak with the owners of the three breweries and ask them about their vision and their plans.

The farthest along is Prairie Sun Brewery in Saskatoon. Earlier this fall, Cameron Ewen, a former brewer at Paddock Wood, and his partner (both in beer and life) Heather Williams started up a small, locally focused brewery aiming to provide quality craft beer to Saskatoon residents.

One of the admirable things about Prairie Sun is their determination to self-finance, which means they aren’t bringing in outside investors.

“I don’t want to work that hard for someone else,” says Ewen.

So they created an operation designed to be small and local. “We’ll be happy if we produce 4000 litres a month,” Ewen says.

Translated into yearly production, that would make Prairie Sun by far the smallest brewery on the Prairies.

Prairie Sun is starting with keg sales and growlers sold out of the brewery, and in the coming months they plan to install a canning line so they can place cans of their beer in SLGA stores.

When it comes to their beer, Ewen says Prairie Sun is looking to walk a line.

“We want to make beers that are distinctly flavourful, but at the same time hit on a wide audience of people [when it comes to the] choice of styles,” he says. “Our goal is to help grow craft beer in Saskatchewan, so we want to [create] beer that most people can really enjoy, but that are very different than what’s out there.”

Their initial offerings include 306 Bavarian Wheat (made with locally grown and malted red wheat), Prairie Lily Lager (a pale lager) and Crazy Farm Saison. All are beer styles not regularly available in Saskatchewan.

Up next is Regina’s first microbrewery in the modern era (excluding brewpubs). District Brewing has a very simple plan, says co-owner Byron Wiebe.

“[Our plan is to brew] a ‘transitional beer’ as our first beer — 100 per cent malt, fuller than Coors and Canadian, but it won’t scare those customers away,” says Wiebe.

Their target market is younger, more urban drinkers who haven’t experienced craft beer but might be curious.

Their one beer is a pale lager called Müs Knuckle Lager, served in distinctive green bottles, and they plan to play on their Saskatchewan roots.

“We’re going to attract people by telling them we are Regina’s beer. If we do that, people will be willing to try it, and I’m confident in our brewmaster’s abilities to keep people drinking it.”

Finally, Black Bridge Brewing in Swift Current plans to release its first beer in the spring of 2014, and they’re also aiming for a sweet spot in the “small but good” market. They have their equipment and are currently working the kinks out.

Kari and Clayton Stenson, Black Bridge’s co-owners and sole employees, are banking on a growing awareness of local production among Saskatchewanians.

“We make beer from our hearts,” says Kari. “We’re clear we are very proud of our beer and we want to support people in the community. Craft beer can play a huge role in festivals and fundraising [in the community], and we’re hoping the community rallies around us.”

The Stensons aren’t yet ready to reveal their initial beer, but they will say that they intend to compete with some of North America’s most well-known craft beer.

“The SLGA is trying to bring in craft beer from California — why not buy it from Swift Current?” asks Kari.

There might be even more news to report in the near future, as I’ve heard that another group may be preparing to announce a brewing start-up in the province. And I haven’t mentioned fledgling endeavours like O’Hanlon’s B-Sides brewery and Slow Pub’s line of beers.

It’s clear that Saskatchewan is quickly moving from last place in Canada’s craft beer culture to at least the middle of the pack.

It’s about time.