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This article was published 8/3/2019 (258 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
In just three years, Manitoba’s craft-beer scene has gone from barren to booming.
The latest entrant in the field — the 16th counting craft breweries, brew pubs and contract beers — is Sookram’s Brewing Co., which is raising a glass Saturday at its Warsaw Avenue brewery as it opens to the public.
It’s a far cry from the days when the only local brews on the market were products from Half Pints and Fort Garry breweries. Since April 2016, all manner of new local craft beer has been flooding Manitoba shelves from producers such as Barn Hammer, Nonsuch, One Great City, Oxus, Torque, Trans Canada and many more.
Sookram’s president Andrew Sookram is certain there’s still a thirst for more local brews. "I think there’s still a lot of room in Winnipeg for more breweries," says Sookram, 38, from the brewery’s tap room. "When some of the contracts initially got announced, I already had plans. I knew I’d be coming in at a good time. There’s a community we can build here — let’s make as much locally as we can to satisfy all the tastes."
After an initial foray into home winemaking inspired by his father-in-law, Sookram moved into making his own beer, which offered the former account manager a greater challenge and the opportunity to make something from scratch.
"I just dove right in — did hours of research, read everything I could, watched as many videos as I could, and started brewing. It was then I realized how much I didn’t know," he explains, laughing. "But I fell in love with it. I’m kind of a creative guy, and this became my outlet."
Sookram began entering his homemade brews in competitions across Canada, in part to get feedback on what he could do better. He quickly began earning accolades; most notably, Sookram won best in show and top brewer in a local professional/amateur brewing competition for his amber lager, which the public will get to try as the brewery’s Macguffin California common.
As part of his prize for best of show at the local pro/am competition, Sookram was invited to make his beer at Barn Hammer’s Wall Street location on its commercial brewing system. From there, he knew there was no looking back.
In addition to obtaining a brewing system that’s roughly the same size as Barn Hammer’s, Sookram has frequently turned to Barn Hammer owner Tyler Birch for information, advice and peace of mind. "When I’m panicking about something at two in the morning, I know Tyler will answer my email."
And while Sookram earned some modest experience on commercial brewing equipment through brewing at Barn Hammer, he’s also brought former Peg Beer Co. brewer Dan Simpson into the fold. "He had a hand in developing Peg’s Life Coach [India session ale]. I remember drinking that beer and thinking I needed to meet the guy who made it, because I loved it. So I did. We both like punk rock, and we just bonded," adding with a laugh "I always had a plan to hire a brewer so I didn’t kill myself or something."
The brewery’s location near Confusion Corner, in a space tucked away at 479-B Warsaw Ave., near Winnipeg Transit’s rapid-transit corridor, was finalized last year after he and an initial partner parted ways. Their initial plan was to open a brew pub with a restaurant component, and the pair was close to signing a deal to set up shop in the old Jekyll & Hyde’s location on Stradbrook Avenue in Osborne Village, which has its own craft-beer history — it was once occupied by River City Brewing Co., until it closed in 2003. (The space has since become the home to cannabis retailer Tokyo Smoke.)
"I’m happy that all fell through. Food is not my passion — I didn’t have any restaurant experience; my partner had a little bit. After things fell through I took a couple months off and refocused," Sookram says, adding he managed to find a couple of new investors while working with his bank and Futurepreneur Canada to get the brewery off the ground.
Setting up the 95-seat brewery tap room, meanwhile, has been a family affair. "My father-in-law built the flight boards with us; all the furniture was essentially made by my wife," Sookram explains. "Her dad’s really handy and gave us the template. All the work — the sanding, distressing the wood, the staining — was done ourselves." In addition to the tap room, Sookram plans to open an adjacent patio that will increase capacity in warmer months as well as offer the opportunity to host food trucks.
The brewery will eventually feature four core beers in addition to a rotating selection of smaller-batch and seasonal releases. And if the initial sampling of available beers is any indication of things to come, thirsty craft-beer fans should be in for a treat.
The quartet of regular brews will include the light and crisp Cult Classic pilsner, the more robust and toasty Macguffin, the fruit-forward (and not overly bitter) Desert Island India pale ale and the Cosmos dry-hopped sour (which wasn’t available to sample). The initial rotating brews, meanwhile, include the intensely fruity Amity Island hazy pale ale and the As You Wish Buttercup chocolate salted caramel porter. (Each of the beer’s names come from film references; before venturing into beer Sookram took film studies at the University of Manitoba.)
Like most brewery tap rooms, Sookram’s offers flights of their beer as well as some that can be taken home in growlers. The brewery also has plans to package their core beers in 473-ml cans, some of which might be available as early as today. They also feature a small quantity of merchandise such as shirts, hoodies and glasses.
And while Sookram is excited and nervous about coming onto the burgeoning commercial craft-beer market in Manitoba, he doesn’t want to lose the sense of discovery that comes with making beer at home.
"We want to experiment, but we also want consistency. I see those as two separate things. We’re going to be experimenting like the home brewers, but with the core beers the goal is for as much consistency as possible."
Since Sookram’s is still working on first runs on some of the brews, and getting others ready to go, here are a few other new and notable locals to whet your whistle...
Torque Blonde Ale (Winnipeg — $2.99/473ml can, Liquor Marts, select beer vendors and brewery)
Deep-gold in colour and clear, this blonde ale brings biscuit/bread dough, fresh malt and light citrus notes with little discernable hoppiness. It’s a fresh blonde ale with just a hint of sweet doughiness, plenty of malty notes and just a dash of crisp herbal and citrus notes. It’s a fun and simple sipper, and does well against other beers in this style/price range. Coming in 15-packs closer to summer. ★★★½
Trans Canada Brewing Co. Raw: Almond Nordic Pale Ale (Winnipeg — $10.74/750ml bottle, brewery)
The folks at Trans Canada brewed this beer special for Raw: Almond, the pop-up restaurant constructed on the frozen Assiniboine River every year. The pale straw-coloured beer boasts a Norwegian yeast strain and Canadian black spruce tips, among other additions, and aromatically brings intense citrus, wheat/yeast and those spruce notes, with some underlying secondary peppery notes. Those notes persist on the light-bodied but intense palate, with some citrus-peel and tropical-fruit flavours emerging as well. Quantities of this unique and tasty brew are limited — get it while you can. ★★★★
Nonsuch Brewing Co. Baltic Porter (Winnipeg - $4/473ml cans, brewery and Quality Inns beer vendor)
Nonsuch’s first canned product (the rest of their packaged product has been in 750-millilitre sparkling wine bottles) pours deep-brown in colour, with an off-white head. Aromatically there’s a roasted-malt component that works well with the oatmeal, mocha and Tootsie Roll notes. There’s some modest sweetness and a subtle smoky note on the chewy, medium-bodied palate that accentuates the darker, rich malt and cocoa notes, and for Nonsuch, it’s a relatively low-alcohol beer — albeit still clocking in at 6.5 per cent. A solid effort. ★★★½
Half Pints Brewing Co. Le Temps Noir (Winnipeg — $13.49/650ml bottles, brewery, Liquor Marts and select beer vendors)
The third iteration of this bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout is coffee-black in colour, with a deep-beige head, and delivers woody bourbon, vanilla, raisin, mocha and chocolate-malt notes on the nose. It’s full-bodied, chewy, medium-sweet and boozy (9.6 per cent alcohol, to be precise), and flavour-wise the bourbon notes show nicely with the espresso, dark chocolate, roasted-malt and dried-cherry components. Sip (don’t chug!) this now, or put it away for a couple of years to see how it ages. ★★★★½
Literary editor, drinks writer
Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson edits the Free Press books section, and also writes about wine, beer and spirits.
Updated on Saturday, March 9, 2019 at 10:57 AM CST: Typo fixed.