Saskatchewan’s biggest brewery wins a fistful of medals

PINTS by Jason Foster

When Cindy Klassen won five medals in speed skating at the 2006 Winter Olympics, the nation roared in celebration of a historic feat that made Canadians everywhere proud.

When Great Western Brewing won five medals at the 2015 Canadian Brewing Awards in early June, the entire nation likely didn’t notice — but you can be sure the whoops were exuberant at the old Saskatoon brewery on 2nd Avenue N. It may not be quite as historic as Klassen’s quintuple haul, but in the beer world their victories certainly caught people’s attention.

The Canadian Brewing Awards (CBAs) are Canada’s national beer competition. Breweries across the country — large and small, craft and mainstream — enter their best beer or beers in hopes of receiving recognition. I realize you’ve probably never heard of the CBAs, but they’re a big deal in the beer world. This year, CBA’s panel of judges evaluated 1,300 beers by 200 Canadian breweries — that’s the bulk of Canada’s breweries, from big companies like Molson and Sleeman to the smallest new start-up and local brewpub. The competition awards medals in 41 style categories, ranging from light lager to double IPA to sour beer.

If you scan the list of medal winners, it reads like a who’s-who of Canada’s craft beer scene. Well-known craft brewers like Central City, Steamworks, Beau’s All Natural and McAuslan sit alongside smaller upstarts like Moon Under Water, Persephone, and Tatamagouche Brewing. You wouldn’t necessarily expect to see Great Western’s name on that list as well.

But there it is, multiple times. Great Western won gold for Great Western Pilsner (North American Premium Lager) and Original 16 Krystall (North American Wheat Beer), a silver for Great Western Light and a bronze for Brewhouse Light (both in Calorie-Reduced Lager), and another bronze for Original 16 (Cream Ale). Their five medals tied for the largest haul with eventual Brewery of the Year winner Four Winds Brewing from Delta, B.C.

It’s fascinating that such a large medal haul comes from a brewery that openly admits it makes beer for the masses and shies away from the more crafty styles.

I called up Great Western’s brewmaster, Viv Jones, to get his reaction to their CBA success. He was surprisingly understated about it all. “We expected it, to be honest,” says Jones. “We win something every year.”

He isn’t being immodest, just honest. Since GWB began entering beer into the CBAs in 2008, they’ve won 23 medals — so clearly they’ve figured something out.

But Jones does admit that he was pleased at how many medals they won, given GWB is at something of a competitive disadvantage.

“I am particularly pleased because most of the micro and craft breweries, they can select from several different brews, picking the best,” said Jones. “We can’t afford to do that [given our limited line-up].”

Jones was referring to craft breweries’ practice of producing seasonals and one-offs. GWB just takes their annual line-up to the Awards.

“We don’t even taste them, just take them off the line and go,” he added with a chuckle.

I asked Jones, who went to the awards ceremony, what it was like claiming all these medals in a room full of Canada’s most reputed craft brewers.

“It was fun. It was more like a party,” he said, noting that he knows most of them — a reminder both that the beer industry is small in Canada and that Jones has been a central part of it for almost 30 years.

But Jones understands GWB’s place in the industry and where his beer fits. The company doesn’t try to make beer like craft breweries do. “We are a regional brewery. We are targeting different demographics. We nibble into the craft beer market, but position ourselves as a midway between the two. Put it this way: if you were going to try craft beer [for the first time], we would be a good centre point as to where to start.”

GWB wasn’t the only Saskatchewan winner at the CBAs. New Swift Current micro, Black Bridge Brewing, won a bronze in the stout category for their Milk Stout, which is only a surprise to people who haven’t tried it yet.

While the bulk of the medals were dominated by B.C. and Ontario — in part due to the number of breweries in those provinces, but also a recognition of their more mature craft beer cultures — the Prairies did get their licks in. In addition to GWB’s medal haul, Edmonton’s Alley Kat Brewing scooped up Beer of the Year (basically Best In Show) for their Scona Gold Kölsch, a win best described as an upset. This delicate, light-bodied German hybrid ale-lager got the nod from the judging panel over 40 other gold-medal categories, including barrel-aged beer, double IPAs, imperial stouts and sour beer. No small feat, that.

In my books, the best way to celebrate Great Western Brewing’s success is to pick up a pint or case of your favourite GWB beer, give a hearty “Cheers” and then find out what Saskatchewan pride tastes like.