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New breweries, old rules

Saskatchewan grows its palate for ‘flavour-driven beer’

Author: Evan Radford – Contributor

Rebellion Brewing brew master Jamie Singer says there's lots of room for growth in the Saskatchewan craft beer market. / Evan Radford
Rebellion Brewing brew master Jamie Singer says there’s lots of room for growth in the Saskatchewan craft beer market. / Evan Radford

When it comes to developing a seasoned palate for complex, full-bodied beer, Saskatchewan beer drinkers are five years behind Alberta and ten years behind British Columbia.

That’s the assessment of Jamie Singer. The long-time home-brewer is the brew master and president of Rebellion Brewing, one of a handful of new breweries in the province that prize craft beer over cheap, mass-produced industrial beer.

“People want flavour-driven beer nowadays,” he said. “It’s like [co-owner] Mark Heise says: is it good beer or not?”

After 10-plus years of home brewing, Singer and Heise opened up shop in Regina, five blocks east of trailblazer Bushwakker Brewpub, the Dewdney Ave. staple that has been fermenting craft ales and lagers since 1991.

“They were really the pioneers in getting this all started,” said Singer.

The North American based Brewers Association defines craft beer brewers as small in scale, who rely on “innovation and interpret historic brewing styles with unique twists and develop new styles that have no precedent.” The Association says craft beer is “made with traditional ingredients like malted barley; interesting and sometimes non-traditional ingredients are often added for distinctiveness.”

Other new breweries in Saskatchewan include Swift Current’s Black Bridge Brewery, which opened in September, 2014; Nokomis Craft Ales began brewing in August, 2014; and Prairie Sun Brewery opened in Saskatoon in August, 2013.

Saskatchewan beer drinkers are finally developing palates for complex, craft beer, Singer said. Hence the push for more craft brewers on the prairies.

Craft beer pioneer Bev Robertson is less optimistic about the prairie market.

“I keep saying Saskatchewan is being dragged into the 1990s kicking and screaming from the 1980s,” he said.

Robertson co-founded Bushwakker and the Ales and Lager Enthusiasts of Saskatchewan (ALES), a 100-plus member club dedicated to craft beer, home-brewing and craft beer literacy.

Craft beer consumption on a per capita basis is a strong indicator of how or if that market is growing, he explained.

Penetration into Saskatchewan’s market by microbreweries and brewpubs is approximately 20 years behind the rest of North America, especially when compared to Colorado, Oregon and California, he said.

“It’s a very small market penetration, though it’s better than it was,” he said.

Speaking from his winter home in Mesa, Arizona, Robertson said he, his wife, and friends seldom go out to restaurants when in Regina, because few have a “modern menu of beer.”

“Saskatchewan, I suppose, is moving, but it’s still behind,” he said.

The province’s new craft brewers are an indication of that change, although Heather Williams said she still faces opposition to her product from some of Saskatoon’s restaurants.

The Prairie Sun brewery co-founder sees availability (rather than ignorance) as the main issue.

“We’ve had some support from the newer restaurants that have opened up in the last two to five years,” she said. But Saskatoon’s older restaurants, “like Amigos, Vangelis, or Yard and Flagon, they’re just not open to [craft beer].”

She grew up in Colorado, what she calls a “beer mecca,” where beer tents at music festivals only serve craft beer.

In Saskatoon, she says restaurants are being paid off by big beer companies to not carry craft beer.

“They’ll even flat out tell us, you know, that they’ve been paid off $5,000, $20,000 to not put us on [the menu].

“I’ve been told to my face, ‘Heather, we’re just starting a business and they [big beer companies] … they bought us new patio furniture,’” she said.

“It’s really too bad,” she said, “because I know the consumers want it, and trends are pointing to it too.”

“Probably the number two thing is they’ve done the exact same thing for 20 years, why would they change now? That’s the mentality,” she said.

Jeff Allport is one brewer who’s seen the change happen. He owns, operates and brews at Nokomis Craft Ales in Nokomis, Sask. He brewed in B.C. before moving back to the Junction Town four years ago.

“It’d be wrong to say ‘it’s not worthwhile to start a craft brewery in Saskatchewan, because everyone in Saskatchewan likes crappy beer.’ Well, sure, but that’s all they’ve had exposure to,” Allport said.

“Just since I’ve opened here in Nokomis where there hasn’t been any craft beer available at all, ever, people have gone from drinking [Molson] Pilsner to drinking my beer,” Allport said.

“I expected most of my sales to be in Regina and Saskatoon, but I open up for a couple nights each week and sales have been a lot better than anticipated,” he said.

Singer is another new entrant onto the market who has the same optimism.

“Five and ten years from now, I see Saskatchewan being on par with any province in Canada. I see Saskatchewan as being a destination where the craft beer is second to none,” he said.

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