Two new breweries boost Saskatchewan’s beer scene

by Jason Foster

pintsAfter years of lagging behind the rest of the country when it comes to locally produced craft beer, Saskatchewan might just be righting the ship. At least a bit.

Last year, four new micro-breweries opened up shop in the province and all four have stuck around — slowly catching on and growing their followings. That brought the number of Saskatchewan breweries up to eight, which is still pretty low when you realize that even tiny Nova Scotia has 22 breweries. Still, a good step forward.

And now for another: 2014 brings two more new SK breweries — a 25 per cent jump! Sure, we’re not Oregon (with almost 200 breweries) yet, but the trend is good.

Even more interesting are the different approaches these two newbies take from the existing breweries. This diversity is yet another sign that brewing is maturing in this province.

Nokomis Craft Ales started selling its first beer in August. Founded by carpenter Jeff Allport, it’s a really small operation. Allport and his spouse are ex-Vancouverites who moved to Nokomis a couple years ago to re-establish some balance in their lives. (If you don’t know Nokomis, it’s a burg of about 450 people located roughly halfway between Saskatoon and Regina.) Through home-brewing, Allport realized he had a passion for beer-making, and he soon concocted plans to build a brewery.

The Nokomis Town Council sold him three-quarters of an acre of land for a dollar to allow him to build the brewery (by himself, of course — he’s a carpenter, after all) and install a small 800-litre brew system. For the moment he’s literally a one-man show, doing everything from brewing to clean-up to sales.

Two things make Nokomis different. First, Allport has no growth plans — the brewery will always remain small and local. “I just need enough to pay the bills and pay myself. I don’t want to compromise quality and freshness by stretching too far,” he says. He sells his beer only in kegs and growlers available at the brewery and at farmers’ markets in Regina and Saskatoon. He will have a handful of regular tap accounts in each city as well.

The second difference is the lack of a flagship beer. The traditional craft model is to have a stable of three to five beers, with one or two carrying the bulk of the sales, while seasonals and one-offs are a fun but secondary consideration. Nokomis will have no regular beer at all. “None. Not packaging frees me from having a flagship beer,” says Allport. Instead his plan, in true home brewing tradition, is to constantly make up new things and rotate through styles. Okay, he’ll likely always have an IPA available, but generally it’ll be a diverse mix of flavours.

Rebellion Brewing, opening soon at 1901 Dewdney, is also carving out a niche in Saskatchewan’s beer scene. It’s licensed as a brewpub, but the plan is to be like no brewpub you’ve ever experienced. It’s more like a taproom in the U.S. craft tradition: small, intimate with a select food menu, but with a strong emphasis on serving beer the right way.

Rebellion co-founder Mark Heise says the goal is “local first.” Unlike most who talk about local-ness, he really seems to understand what that means in the beer world. A former award-winning homebrewer, Heise knows serving local beer means serving it at its peak condition.

“I’m a huge, huge believer in [the idea that] you need the freshest beer possible,” he says, noting that you can’t achieve that by shipping across the country.

Besides, Heise says, there’s plenty of room in the Saskatchewan market for locally made beer. “There’s a lot of room to grow the market here, and so why not take advantage of that?”

His plan is to focus initially on Regina with the tasting room, and select accounts with some tentacles reaching Saskatoon, but that’s about it.

As for Rebellion’s beer, it sounds like it’ll be a fascinating mix of accessible and challenging. There will be five mainstays: blonde ale, amber ale, Belgian witbier, oatmeal stout and an IPA. But there will also be a regular mead offering, as well as more experimental one-offs at all times.

“We’re going to make big, bold beer, but we can still make them approachable to people,” says Heise. “It’s about leading our customers on an exploration of flavours and enjoyment. We want to be a leader in the Saskatchewan market.”

And so Saskatchewan’s craft beer movement moves forward, one or two steps at a time. It might not seem like four breweries last year and two in 2014 is progress, but when you consider where we’re coming from, it definitely is.

Now, let’s just keep it going — and growing.