Opinion

It's a perfect night for a drink at the eastern edge of downtown Winnipeg, where Red River carts once carved thick ruts into Main Street and clusters of brick buildings rose to meet the incoming trade. The memory of that time remains in the weathered white-painted brick of what used to be the Winnipeg Hotel.

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This article was published 25/6/2020 (519 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It's a perfect night for a drink at the eastern edge of downtown Winnipeg, where Red River carts once carved thick ruts into Main Street and clusters of brick buildings rose to meet the incoming trade. The memory of that time remains in the weathered white-painted brick of what used to be the Winnipeg Hotel.

Between that building, now shuttered and due for renovation but still standing after 139 years, and the lovingly restored Macdonald and Fortune blocks to the north, lies an unlovely surface lot.

Once home to the iconic Blue Note Café, it has sat barren since 2011, the "buildings gone missing like teeth" of the old Weakerthans song.

JESSE BOILY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Patrons keep their distance when lining up for drinks.

JESSE BOILY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Patrons keep their distance when lining up for drinks.

So there's some sort of poetry in how, while the COVID-19 pandemic put a damper on the usual flow of social life in the city, it restored it to this patch of gravel. Once littered with construction debris and used needles, a testament to the blight that has gnawed the city's heart; now, seven nights a week, it is thriving.

Welcome to the Beer Can, a pop-up beer garden that, since opening earlier this month, has Winnipeg talking.

"Winnipeggers like beer, they like sitting in the sun, they like drinking beer in the sun." –Brad Chute

It's a simple set-up, in a tastefully aesthetic sort of way. The bar, built into a shipping container, slings cans of local craft brews and a small selection of wine. Rows of handmade plywood tables are crowned by blue-and-white patio umbrellas. A food truck holds court at its western end.

On a clear evening, it is a pretty place to drink. The sky over the nearby railroad tracks hangs a blue canvas against which the buildings loom; shadows cast by the setting sun etch geometric patterns on the brick walls.

Then there are the people: mostly (but not exclusively) young, laughing in the sun, filling up every table.

JESSE BOILY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS A set of rules and a reminder for costumers to wash their hands.

JESSE BOILY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS A set of rules and a reminder for costumers to wash their hands.

The pandemic is still on, of course, so restrictions are in place. Patrons are encouraged to stay in their seats, unless headed to the bar or the row of port-a-potties around a corner. Tables are situated to keep six-foot distance between groups, which limits the capacity of the site. Pets are allowed, but paying with cash isn't.

On a sunny evening, it's easy to sit at the Beer Can and, much like The Forks' open-air patio just down the street, imagine for a minute the pandemic hadn't happened. It seems a world apart in its way, hidden but still in conversation with downtown, a place to lean back, relax, unwind.

Since it opened, the pop-up has been popular. On a Tuesday night, around 7 p.m., the line stretches around 25 deep, which doesn't sound too bad until you realize the only time it moves is when people give up and leave. The next night, there's a lineup already just after it opens at 4 p.m., and it continues through early evening.

JESSE BOILY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Rachel Boese waits for customers to order drinks.

JESSE BOILY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Rachel Boese waits for customers to order drinks.

The lineup is noted not to dissuade anyone from coming, but as an observation. The city is thirsty, and not just for beer. Restaurant patios have been open for nearly two months, but the Beer Can slakes a different type of desire: casual, al fresco, feeling more like a neighbourhood hang-out than an outdoor lounge.

In recent days, co-founder Brad Chute, who is also the co-owner of Blank Canvas Beer, has been mulling over what has made the Beer Can so popular.

Of the pop-up's founding members, he was the most optimistic about how it would work out, but the reality has exceeded his expectations.

On Wednesday, the team got approval to expand the site, building new tables and benches to tuck in the shade of an old tree that stands against the Winnipeg Hotel's wall.

It added a handful of more seats to the site, bringing its safe seated capacity to about 125; it will fill all of those on most nights, and many weekend days.

JESSE BOILY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS  Randi Kellows, (from left) Michelle Dewson, Megan Stanick, Laura Iserloh, and Chris Foley have a drink after a bike ride at the Beer Can on Wednesday.

JESSE BOILY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Randi Kellows, (from left) Michelle Dewson, Megan Stanick, Laura Iserloh, and Chris Foley have a drink after a bike ride at the Beer Can on Wednesday.

But why? What is it about this idea, or just this time, that has made the Beer Can a prime destination?

"The easy answer is because COVID has been such a huge impact, people are looking to get outside and everything else is cancelled," Chute says.

"I think it still would have clicked with Winnipeggers in a regular year. Maybe not to the same degree, but... Winnipeggers like beer, they like sitting in the sun, they like drinking beer in the sun."

What it has shown, maybe more than anything to do with the pandemic, is Winnipeggers are hungry to see a creative use of languishing space.

"We’re not going to get rich off this. It’s just a fun little project ‐ a place where I wanted to sit and drink, basically." –Brad Chute

There is much of it in the city, and it works to keep authentic cultural life at bay; perhaps all it takes is someone willing to look at those places with an eye to what they can be.

So in retrospect, Chute says, the idea of putting a beer garden in an unused lot seems obvious. That it hadn't been done in quite this way before speaks to a growing creative momentum: when one innovative use of space blooms, it charts a path that can be followed by others.

JESSE BOILY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Amber Nielsen (left) and Rachel Boese pour drinks at the Beer Can on Wednesday.

JESSE BOILY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Amber Nielsen (left) and Rachel Boese pour drinks at the Beer Can on Wednesday.

On that end, Chute credits The Forks licensed patio with paving the way. Indeed, when organizers first contacted the Liquor, Gaming and Cannabis Authority of Manitoba to explain their vision, the answer came back: "Ah, so you want to be like The Forks." From there, the approval process was straightforward.

Organizers plan to bring the Beer Can back next year, though in a different location; the current lot will be used for the Winnipeg Hotel's renovation.

They have their eye on a few potential sites; one thing they do know for sure is they won't be looking to make it any bigger.

"We've hit on something that we’re not really sure what makes this space as cool as some people think it is, so we’d be scared to change too much," Chute says.

"We’re not going to get rich off this. It’s just a fun little project — a place where I wanted to sit and drink, basically."

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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