November 16, 2018

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Beer battleground

Manitoba craft breweries seek greater share of lucrative festival season

Winnipeggers will get one last taste of summer festival season this weekend, as Manyfest takes over Memorial Park and Broadway near the legislature. And, as is the key with most summer festivals, beer will be on the mind (and in the glasses) of those in attendance.

The festival, which welcomed an estimated 60,000 visitors in 2017, will for the first time in its eight-year history allow beer drinkers to take their beverages beyond its beer and wine garden. “You can get a beer, glass of wine or cooler and go walk through the food trucks and visit the market,” explains Jason Smith of Smith Events, who is helping quarterback day-to-day operations of this year’s Manyfest. “The beer and wine garden still exists so people can go sit and hang out and have a beverage.”

Also new this year to Manyfest is the involvement of Kenora’s Lake of the Woods Brewing Co., as the primary beer sponsor. In addition to a selection of wine and coolers, the Lakeside Lounge will feature a cross-section of beer from Lake of the Woods.

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Winnipeggers will get one last taste of summer festival season this weekend, as Manyfest takes over Memorial Park and Broadway near the legislature. And, as is the key with most summer festivals, beer will be on the mind (and in the glasses) of those in attendance.

The festival, which welcomed an estimated 60,000 visitors in 2017, will for the first time in its eight-year history allow beer drinkers to take their beverages beyond its beer and wine garden. "You can get a beer, glass of wine or cooler and go walk through the food trucks and visit the market," explains Jason Smith of Smith Events, who is helping quarterback day-to-day operations of this year’s Manyfest. "The beer and wine garden still exists so people can go sit and hang out and have a beverage."

Also new this year to Manyfest is the involvement of Kenora’s Lake of the Woods Brewing Co., as the primary beer sponsor. In addition to a selection of wine and coolers, the Lakeside Lounge will feature a cross-section of beer from Lake of the Woods.

Jason Halstead / Winnipeg Free Press files</p><p>Crowds line up for food trucks at Manyfest on Broadway.</p>

Jason Halstead / Winnipeg Free Press files

Crowds line up for food trucks at Manyfest on Broadway.

"I’m a big fan of Lake of the Woods’ beer — I love their branding and they’re a growing company," says Smith. "I feel like Kenora’s pretty local — they’re not Manitoban, but for Manitobans it feels like they’re a local brewery."

Leading up to Manyfest, Smith reached out to local craft breweries, speaking with members of the Manitoba Brewers Association, an overarching organization that includes most of the city’s local craft brewers, about potential partnerships. "The problem is trying to get folks together, with busy summer schedules and all, so we weren’t able to make that work," Smith explains.


The relationship between Manitoba’s festivals and breweries — local or otherwise — is a complex one; between capacity, sponsorship/financial issues and back-end support, there’s often more than meets the eye to making things work.

Since 2010, Pride Winnipeg has worked with Half Pints Brewing Co., one of the city’s longest-operating local breweries, which has also become a key partner and supplier for the Winnipeg International Jazz Festival and also supplied beer at the now-defunct Interstellar Rodeo.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS files</p><p>Half Pints president Dave Rudge (left), seen here with brew master Chris Young.</p>

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS files

Half Pints president Dave Rudge (left), seen here with brew master Chris Young.

"When you’re putting together a festival, one of the biggest headaches you have to deal with is your beer and beverage area," says Jonathan Niemczak, president of the Pride Winnipeg festival. "For most outdoor festivals that don’t do a ticketed gate, it tends to be their biggest revenue source. So it has to run 100 per cent smoothly in order for us to maximize revenue to keep the festival free, to keep the festival going."

Niemczak has nothing but praise for Half Pints’ work with Pride, which took place in late May/early June in 2018. "Having a really good working relationship with the brewery is critical... We’ve been with Half Pints since 2010, so it’s been a long-term relationship for us. They’re awesome to work with, and their producing the Queer Beer is amazing — it always flies off the shelf."

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS files</p><p>During the Winnipeg Fringe Festival, which has a beer sponsorship agreement with Sleeman’s, Torque Brewing was featured on nearby patios such as the one at King + Bannatyne.</p>

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS files

During the Winnipeg Fringe Festival, which has a beer sponsorship agreement with Sleeman’s, Torque Brewing was featured on nearby patios such as the one at King + Bannatyne.

Mike Falk of Jazz Winnipeg, which takes place annually in late June, has similarly kind words for Half Pints. "I can see for some festivals, getting a much larger cheque might be valuable or even needed to make sure the event goes forward," says Falk. "For us there’s a lot of value in working with a local because they make great beer that people like to drink, but also it feels like the right ethos or value structure for us. If we brought in a bigger macro brewery it would change the vibe of Old Market Square for us, and I’m not sure that’s what our audience wants."

In July, the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival’s beer tent also goes up next to Old Market Square, albeit with the Canadian-run, Japanese-owned Sleeman Breweries. Some Winnipeg breweries have gotten creative when attracting fringers, positioning themselves prominently in licensed establishments that surround Old Market Square. "We were on special at the King’s Head, which was one of the fringe festival venues, and we were on the patio at King and Bannatyne as well as Amsterdam Tea Room," says John Heim, president of Torque Brewing Co., whose brewery works with the River City Blues Festival, Toba Rock Fest and the MEME electronic music festival, most of whose events also take place at Old Market Square.

"I don’t mind if we’re not at a festival," says Heim. "As long as the beer is someone local."


For two decades, the Winnipeg Folk Festival and Calgary’s Big Rock Brewery have retained an exclusive partnership that’s practically ironclad. "Culturally for us, we’re about long-standing partners," says Kelly McArthur, director of development for the festival. "The working relationship is incredible — they do so much behind the scenes. They’ve built a whole system to do draft right out of the refrigeration truck. It’s those sort of intangibles that people don’t realize that help us to ensure the operations are running smoothly."

And while the Winnipeg Folk Festival recently extended its contract with Big Rock — who also work with Clearwater’s Harvest Moon Festival — festival organizers are well aware of the explosion of local craft breweries over the last couple of years.

"We’re really excited about what’s going on here locally, but some of it for us is just volume and production," says McArthur. "We go through so much beer that we’ve heard it would be difficult for one small brewery to manage the volume we require. Big Rock is still a craft brewery, and they’re individually owned, but they’re much larger in terms of volume that they can output."

Smith agrees. "It’s one of the main considerations when you do a festival that moves through a large amount of beer. It does limit the prospects; some of the [local] breweries don’t produce enough beer for a weekend festival. It takes some of those folks out of the equation."

ANDREW RYAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Jason Smith, president of Smith Events, speaks at the launch of Manyfest at Memorial Park in August.</p>

ANDREW RYAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Jason Smith, president of Smith Events, speaks at the launch of Manyfest at Memorial Park in August.

Half Pints president David Rudge doesn’t buy the volume/capacity argument when it comes to festivals. "It used to be that sometimes the quantity was beyond what we could produce, but it’s not that at all anymore," says Rudge. "For what we do for Pride and the jazz festival — both festivals added extra time and days this year, which is fantastic — we just went ahead and rolled with the punches and brewed more beer."

Rudge sees the disconnect between some local festivals and the beer they’re pouring as being more about the bottom line than about supporting the community. "The beer is making you money hand over fist. One way or another you’re making far more than what I’m making on it."

And when it comes to an event like the Winnipeg Folk Festival and its relationship with Big Rock, Rudge sees plenty of hypocrisy. "The Folk Fest doesn’t have a sole food sponsor... why would you have one single sponsor for all their food? But they could — they could just sell their food rights to McDonald’s and let them come out and serve their food to everybody. Can you imagine the uproar? But for beer they say ‘OK... we just want to do this,’" referring to the festival’s relationship with Big Rock.

Rudge’s frustration extends beyond city limits and beyond Birds Hill Provincial Park, where the Winnipeg Folk Festival takes place every July. "You get Big Rock whining that they can’t get their beer into the Calgary Stampede for years, and then they turn around and shut everybody else out at folk festivals across the country."

ben.macphee-sigurdson@freepress.mb.c

Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson

Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson
Literary editor, drinks writer

Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson edits the Free Press books section, and also writes about wine, beer and spirits.

Read full biography

History

Updated on Wednesday, September 5, 2018 at 10:45 AM CDT: Corrects name of Manitoba Brewers Association.

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