December 10, 2019

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Renaissance of beer

Local brews soar despite overall dip in suds sales

Manitobans are getting thirstier and thirstier for local beer, even as overall suds sales continue to decline across the country.

16 locals on tap: A list of Manitoba breweries

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Barn Hammer Brewing Company

Brazen Hall Kitchen & Brewery

Devil May Care Brewing Company

Farmery Estate Brewery

Fort Garry Brewing Co.

Half Pints Brewing Co.

Kilter Brewing Co.

Little Brown Jug

Nonsuch Brewing Co.

One Great City Brewing

Oxus Brewing Company

Sookram’s Brewing Company

Stone Angel Brewing

Torque Brewing

Trans Canada Brewing Co.

Winnipeg Brew Werks

During April, May and June, sales of local beer were up 13.7 per cent compared to the same period last year. Meanwhile, overall beer sales dipped nearly five per cent, according to Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries.

"Manitoba may have been a sleeping giant (for sales); we do enjoy our beer," said Torque Brewing’s John Heim. "We're finding that people are just not spending as much on big beer, and they're experimenting with local and regional beer and Canadian beer, now."

While macro-brews still make up nearly three-quarters of beer sales in Manitoba, craft beer has been chipping away at that number for the last four years, rising from 3.6 per cent of the local market to more than five per cent now, Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries states on its local beer website.

Heim said customers are getting more educated about craft beer, know what’s out there, and are changing the way they shop: buying an eight-pack of different local cans instead of a big-box 24.

Paul Clerkin at Stone Angel Brewing — which also hosts Devil May Care and Kilter in its south Winnipeg shop — said keeping things fresh is the key to local brewing's success.

"Every month is better than the month before for us," said Clerkin. "Craft brewers are more innovative, they're more likely to do a small batch, have it for a month or two, which encourages more and more people to try the product, rather than resting on our laurels."

He wasn’t surprised to hear that the overall numbers for beer are down, but that doesn’t worry him — there’s still a $350-million annual market for beer in Manitoba.

"The market might be down but the market’s huge," he said. "It’s cyclical, and right now beer sales are coming down in the states because people have switched to products like seltzers instead of Bud Light."

A shipment is prepared in Torque Brewing’s distribution area. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

A shipment is prepared in Torque Brewing’s distribution area. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

When Manitoba’s craft beer regulations were loosened in 2016, a beer renaissance of sorts began. There's now 16 breweries operating in Winnipeg.

Heim said he’s seeing more and more local beer in his hockey dressing room, and Torque's 13 offerings range from a lake-friendly blonde to a $12 barrel-aged one-off. Breweries like Nonsuch and Little Brown Jug specialize in Belgians while numerous locals are trying their hand at a sour this summer.

"When we were first trying to look for investors, banks were leery," Heim said. "Now it’s such an important new market in Manitoba."

Clerkin said local restaurants and bars now want local beers on tap and tourists want to get a taste when they come to town.

"Beer tourism is an actual thing," Clerkin said. "It's great for the city."

John Heim, of Torque Brewing, said customers are getting more educated about craft beer, know what’s out there, and are changing the way they shop. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

John Heim, of Torque Brewing, said customers are getting more educated about craft beer, know what’s out there, and are changing the way they shop. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Several local breweries — Torque included — distribute for out-of-province craft beers, which Heim said helps drive the overall craft market and piques people’s curiosity.

Craft beer is also pushing into small towns and cottage country, where previously it was difficult for liquor vendors to source craft beer. Liquor and Lotteries confirmed that private liquor vendors — in communities not big enough for a Liquor Mart — can now sell single-serve domestic beer.

"Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries are realizing some of the archaic rules that were on the books, and they're looking to address them to help the local economy, which we certainly appreciate," Heim said.

For Torque's third anniversary in August, Heim said they're planning to expand into the Alberta market.

Sales are only going to heat up as the summer progresses, he said.

"I like to say, our best salesman is up in the sky," Heim said.

tvanderhart@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @tessavanderhart

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