When La Brasserie Nonsuch Brewing Co. set sail in search of a home back in 2016, there was no way of knowing the course they would chart would lead through many corners of downtown Winnipeg before they could drop anchor just a short walk from the replica of the boat that gave the brewery its name.
After being outbid for a location near Broadway, Nonsuch — a team made up of president Matthew Sabourin, head brewer Mark Borowski, vice-president Ben Myers, brand artist/co-founder Tyler Johnston and brewery co-ordinator Dylan Picton — set their sights on a famous downtown space: the Nutty Club building at 149 Pioneer Ave.
"It had a lot of challenges, but a lot of potential as well," says Sabourin of the 120-year-old building. "We were a few weeks away from signing a 10-year contract. So we brought everybody through again, triple-asking the same questions and making sure we were thorough. The structural engineers realized there were issues that were missed. That essentially killed the deal."
A couple potential locations later, and the Nonsuch crew are now hard at work converting 125 Pacific Ave. — what had been Peg Beer Co.’s space until its closure in February — into a home of their own. Shortly after Peg Beer Co. closed its doors, Nonsuch entered into brief negotiations with the building’s owner and sealed the deal. The team is working on a two-phase renovation plan that will see the tap-room area (in Peg’s former bar area) open first, with future renovations set to take place in what was the dining room.
Prior to landing their Pacific Avenue location, the Nonsuch crew had set up shop at Barn Hammer Brewing Co.’s location on Wall Street in 2017. Borowski, who comes from a home brewing background, had already left a position at the Winnipeg Film Group, and the two breweries reached an agreement whereby he would work for Barn Hammer, learning the ins and outs of commercial brewing systems, while starting to brew smaller batches for Nonsuch.
"Tyler and Sable [Birch, Barn Hammer proprietors] have been incredibly supportive. It was nothing short of an absolutely amazing experience," says Sabourin.
Borowski now brews out of the Pacific Avenue location, where he’s well into learning his way around the brewing system — a combination of Nonsuch’s own equipment as well as the Peg Beer Co. system that was already in the space. He’s already brewed four larger batches as well as a half-dozen smaller experimental batches.
When to comes to sourcing ingredients for Nonsuch’s relatively small-batch brews, Borowski’s focus is on top quality, including sourcing artesian spring water from Middlebro in the RM of Piney, about 200 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg, which he says imparts a cleaner, softer taste.
"We try not to skimp on any of the ingredients," he explains. "Some places may use lower quality ingredients because they’re brewing bigger batches. I try to find the best possible grains I can find, the best-quality and freshest hops I can find. If it’s a little more money, that’s fine. I want the best product possible."
It was this commitment to quality from the outset that prompted the brewery to pursue the art of making Belgian-style beers, often considered among the world’s best. "For us it was a no-brainer," says Sabourin. "If we all agree Europeans, particularly Belgians, make the best beer, then why aren’t we doing that?"
"Some places may use lower quality ingredients because they’re brewing bigger batches. I try to find the best possible grains I can find, the best-quality and freshest hops I can find. If it’s a little more money, that’s fine. I want the best product possible" - head brewer Mark Borowski
Nonsuch’s offerings, like many Belgian beers, are intense, higher-alcohol (eight to 12 per cent) brews. Current offerings include a saison, a Belgian strong ale, an old ale and the Lune Noire, a black saison brewed as a collaboration with Barn Hammer. (The Lune Noire and the Belgian strong ale both won silver medals at the Canadian Brewing Awards in May; the bulk of Nonsuch’s available offerings were brewed at Barn Hammer.)
Borowski anticipates the brewery’s initial lineup will include four or five core beers, including a few of their existing brews, as well as a Baltic porter and a lower-alcohol (relatively speaking) kölsch.
One of the key features Nonsuch is looking to add to the Pacific Avenue space is a glassed-in cellar for aging their beer so patrons can see that their brews are more than just for popping and pouring right away. They’re also hoping to add some foeders, large wooden barrels used for aging beer prior to bottling.
The style of beers Nonsuch is producing is conducive to cellaring for months, or even years, something the brewery is looking to educate visitors on as they develop a library of older brews.
"We make every effort to encourage the aging of the beer... a lot of thought went into how we proceeded with the bottles and packaging so that people could cellar the beer for a long time," says Borowski. This includes vintage-dating the dark, 750-millilitre Champagne-style bottles under cork-and-cage, sparkling wine-style closures. "Many people still don’t even know vintage-dated beer is a thing. You can treat it like wine," says Sabourin.
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More immediately, the brewery hopes to open its doors to the public later this year. "We’re planning to have the tap room open possibly in October, maybe early November," says Borowski.
As for the food offered in the space, that’s still to be determined. "The plan has always been to have a food component: high-end charcuterie, cheeses, gourmet popcorn, oysters, that kind of stuff," says Sabourin, adding that may change based on public feedback.
The buzz in the neighbourhood is already palpable. "Everyone we’ve talked to is so positive, so happy there’s someone moving in, that there’ll be new life in the spot that’s going to bring in more people, especially at night." Adds Myers, "It really speaks to the changing nature of the area that you hear more and more people saying ‘oh, I live right near there’ — this is really turning into a mixed-use area, and that’s really exciting for us."
Occupying the space of a now-closed brew pub raises the question as to whether the city has reached its limit in terms of number of breweries. "I honestly think [Peg Beer Co.’s closure] was a series of unfortunate events. This anomaly aside, I still think there’s tons of room to grow," says Sabourin. "If you look at the number of breweries per capita, compared to other provinces we’re pretty low," adds Myers.
Sabourin sees adding more breweries to the local craft beer scene as a positive. "With announcements of new local breweries I never think ‘oh no — more competition.’ It’s more like ‘oh, sweet — I hope they make really good beer, because that’s good for everyone, makes everyone work harder.’ "
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Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson Literary editor, drinks writer
Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson edits the Free Press books section, and also writes about wine, beer and spirits.
For the month of August, Uncorked will mainly focus on aspects of the Winnipeg beer scene, which continues to develop at an impressive pace.
Nonsuch Brewing Co. 2018 Belgian Strong
(Winnipeg — $11/750ml bottle, Liquor Marts, select beer vendors and Barn Hammer Brewing Co.)
Aromatically this deep copper Belgian-style brew brings toasted nut, stone fruit, caramel and malt notes. It’s a full-bodied, mainly dry and robust brew, with spice and dried-fruit flavours that show brilliantly.
At eight per cent alcohol it’s certainly not a patio pounder, but the flavours here are precise and accessible for those looking to venture into more adventurous beer territory. It’s also age-worthy, and could stand another couple of years in the cellar. Very well done. ★★★★ 1/2
Nonsuch Brewing Co. Old Ale X
(Winnipeg — $14/750ml bottle, Liquor Marts, select beer vendors and at Barn Hammer)
Big raisin, dried fig and sweet malt and brown sugar notes dominate on the nose of this caramel-coloured ale. It’s rich, full-bodied and medium-sweet, with raisin, brown sugar and sweet malt flavours in charge and with secondary granular brown sugar flavours rounding things out.
It’s a heady 10 per cent alcohol, meaning it’s a sipper that would do well with many desserts and/or in cooler weather, although this style isn't for everyone. ★★★ 1/2
Updated on Saturday, August 25, 2018 at 10:22 AM CDT: Adds Tyler Johnston to list of Nonsuch team.