Saskatchewan’s craft brew scene is blowing up big time

PINTS by Jason Foster

Not to be too blunt about it, but back in 2005 Saskatchewan was basically a craft beer desert. True, Regina’s Bushwakker Brewpub (which deserves a column of its own one of these days)

has been a mainstay since 1991, and we have to tip our hat to Great Western Brewing — they aren’t really craft but deserve huge kudos for saving the former Saskatoon Molson brewery from closure back in 1989 (with the help of a 1995 convertible debenture and loan from Saskatchewan’s then-NDP government). But that’s about it.

(Yup, I know that there were a smattering of extract pseudo-brewpubs in the province — some of which still exist today — but I’m not counting them, because the beer was/is substandard and the only reason they existed was to get in on the offsale business.)

Back then, the Regina location of the Brewster’s brewpub chain had barely dusted off its brewhouse, having opened in late 2004, and the big news of 2005 was the creation of Saskatoon’s Paddock Wood Brewing, which put out its first beer for retail sale mid-year.

Anyway, Paddock Wood as an entity had actually been around since 1995, the year owner Steven Cavan opened Canada’s first mail-order homebrewing supply business. They shipped malt, hops and other brewing ingredients to thirsty homebrewers around the country. The mail-order business started to tail off in the early 2000s, but Cavan had another plan in mind by then: he was going to open Saskatchewan’s first microbrewery.

To do that, he first had to convince the Saskatchewan government to change the law to actually allow microbreweries. (That speaks volumes on where we were as a province in terms of beer.) He succeeded, and Paddock Wood — slowly, very slowly — started building their business.

The next few years didn’t see much movement, though. As Quebec, Ontario and B.C. participated in the next wave of Canada’s craft beer revolution that witnessed the opening of dozens of breweries over a short span of time, all was quiet on the Saskatchewan front.

One other attempt was made in 2009 by Brecknock Brewing, but they never advanced past the contract brewing stage (where you pay a different brewery to make your beer for you) and collapsed a couple years later.

Even five years ago, Saskatchewan was depressingly quiet when it came to brewing, in part due to restrictive beer laws that punished new entrants, and in part because the province had a conservative beer culture. There simply wasn’t a lot of room for craft beer.

But wow, has everything changed. The past two years have seen seven breweries open in Saskatchewan, with at least one more in the planning stages. That’s huge for a province of our relatively small population.

In Saskatoon, Prairie Sun Brewery opened in late 2013, focusing on growler and tap sales. They make styles of beer not normally seen around these parts. Saskatoon is also now home to 9 Mile Legacy Brewing, a very small brewery that opened up just a couple of months ago, and there’s lots of potential in their inaugural beer. A third Saskatoon brewery in the planning stages is Temperance Brewing Co-operative, which has an innovative model of offering itself up as a consumer co-op, meaning you can easily be a part-owner of a new brewery, if you move fast.

In Regina, District Brewing opened in late 2013 with a single pale lager and a focus on a more mainstream crowd, while the new Rebellion Brewing is already breaking many beer barriers. They’re doing barrel-aged beer, meads, Belgian styles and a whole host of different and cool stuff.

And then there’s Nokomis Ales, in the little town of Nokomis between the two big cities. Owner Jeff Allport may be engaged in the bravest beer adventure ever: trying to sell beers only available in growlers and kegs to a town of 450 people, and without a flagship beer. Sure, they’re also at farmers’ markets in Regina and Saskatoon, which undoubtedly helps, but it’s still a fascinating model.

Finally, we head to Swift Current. For a short period last year, the small southern city could brag about two new craft breweries in its environs. One of those breweries, Bin Brewing, was unfortunately short-lived due to an overly optimistic sense of how much beer they could sell. But the other, Black Bridge Brewing, seems to be finding its feet in a very quick eight months of operation. And that’s as it should be: they’re producing some high quality beers, including a milk stout that won a bronze at the Canadian Brewing Awards last month.

There are many, many reasons to be hopeful about the direction of Saskatchewan craft beer. Saskies seem to have caught on to what craft beer is about and are embracing it, meaning we should expect to see more breweries opening over the next few years.

What a difference 10 years can make.