Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Exchange brew pub might make Irish eyes smile

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On Sunday, Manitobans will come together over a pint to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. Unlike their counterparts across Canada, however, there is one place they will not be going to toast all things Irish: a brew pub.

Last October, Vacay.ca came out with the first-ever ranking of Canada's 24 best brew pubs. Unsurprisingly, Toronto had four establishments on the list, the most of any city, but even tiny Shawinigan, Que., home to just 50,000 people, had two.

In fact, every single province was represented except Manitoba -- because it is the only one to not have a single brew pub (We had one -- the River City Brewery -- briefly in Osborne Village.)

Apparently, the Exchange District came close to getting one in the 1990s. Two investors wanted to turn the James Avenue Pumping Station into the Pump House Restaurant and Brewing Co.

According to these entrepreneurs, however, the plan fell through when the City of Winnipeg refused to sell them the heritage building at their requested price of one dollar. The building was eventually purchased by another restaurateur for $150,000, only to be sold back to the government a few years later for $750,000, and has sat empty ever since.

With three new condominiums, six converted warehouses, and a boutique hotel all soon to be found within 100 metres of the old pumping station, a brew pub in the east Exchange is more appropriate than ever.

Condo owners would likely both appreciate and support a fun local watering hole, as would hotel patrons looking for a unique way to sample Manitoban food and drink. As such, should another developer approach the city with a solid business plan for establishing a microbrew restaurant, the government should seriously consider donating the pumping station to the project (as it did for the Red River College's downtown campus).

Instead of holding onto an empty building as it slowly succumbs to demolition by neglect, the city would be putting the heritage structure to productive use and earning tax revenue in the process. It would also be contributing to the growing list of unique attractions that make Winnipeg a more dynamic place to live in and visit. And that is definitely something worth raising a glass to.

In the last two decades, brew pubs have become one of the most popular trends in the restaurant industry. A sort of homage to European tavern culture, these venues blend fresh craft-brewed beer with an engaging food menu, usually in a historic neighbourhood. The Bushwakker Brewpub in Regina, for instance -- the best in Canada according to Vacay.ca -- is located in the city's old Warehouse District, and famously plays only Saskatchewan music.

While certainly bringing in regulars, brew pubs have also become highly sought-after by tourists hoping to enjoy a taste of local froth. As Craig Flynn, owner of the Yellowbelly Brewery in St. John's, argues, brew pubs are about "getting quality beer, but it's also how you learn of local culture. People don't have the brand loyalty to beer they used to in the past. They're more willing to give things a try, because I think they recognize the quality is in locally produced products." Quite simply, brew pubs offer an authentic homegrown dining experience, while serving beverages with a flavour and character the major brands cannot match.

Because of their popularity with locals and tourists alike, brew pubs are often credited with helping in the revitalization of the surrounding community. The once-abandoned Distillery District in Toronto, for example, was redeveloped in the early 2000s, with people flocking to the Mill St. Brewery brew pub, its most popular tenant. Today, the welcoming, pedestrian-friendly dining and retail neighbourhood is one of the top-rated attractions in the GTA.

Moreover, brew pubs can provide some notable economic advantages. According to economist Scott Metzger, multinational brewing companies annually produce about 3,000 barrels of beer per employee. The average craft brewer, on the other hand, produces only 112 barrels per worker. This labour inefficiency, inherent in the craft-brew process, results in more jobs created per unit of beer produced, boosting the economy. Meanwhile, brew-pub patrons are spending their dollars on homegrown fare, further assisting with local economic development. In fact, despite Canadians' pride in their beer, this country is the world's sixth-largest importer of lagers and ales, meaning there is definitely opportunity for hometown brewers to capture more of the market.

Obviously, opening a brew pub does not guarantee a vibrant neighbourhood will spring up around it. Still, it is these types of unique amenities that add variety to a community, which is why it is a little disappointing Manitoba stands alone in Canada in not having even one brew pub -- especially considering the Exchange District is likely a natural fit for such a cool establishment.

Benjamin Gillies is a political economy graduate from the University of Manitoba, where he focused on urban development and energy policy. He works as a consultant in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 16, 2013 J6

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