Whether it replicates tropical flavours or a smooth dark coffee, a good beer boils down to just four ingredients: water, yeast, hops and malted barley.
“It’s really your unique process that changes the flavour of beer,” says Marko Marjanovic, co-owner of Yukon’s Winterlong Brewing. The length of time you leave beer in a barrel or the temperature at which you ferment it can make all the difference. “For example, some of our yeasts produce fruity aromas when the temperature is a few degrees higher.”
Marjanovic has been tweaking time and temperatures the last two decades, since he first began home-brewing in 2003 in Vancouver. He has developed a taste for new flavours over that time.
“We began experimenting with German wheat beers, we created a couple IPAs and even started dabbling in weird things like a pizza beer,” he says. “It was like, thyme and oregano—it was horrible.”
Despite the pizza mishap, Marjanovic and his wife Meghan added a personal brewery to their home after moving to Whitehorse in 2013. Once the couple started making more beer than they could drink, the idea for Winterlong Brewing came about.
Winterlong is one of five breweries in the Yukon and just seven across the territories. With only a few places for customers to choose from up here, Northern brewers have to cater to all kinds of tastes—from people looking to try something new and punchy on a regular basis, to others who want to drink the same reliable beer each week. Regardless, there’s a lot more options now than there were 20 or 30 years ago.
Back then, you’d turn on the TV and see commercials of sasquatches running after a bottle of Kokanee or skiers racing down mountains for a Coors Light. While the average beer drinker’s attention hardly went past these mainstream brands, microbreweries were buzzing away in the background, experimenting with hops, roasted coffee beans and all kinds of citrus fruits.
Those outside-the-box flavours were what Whitehorse beer-lovers Alan Hansen and Bob Baxter craved, so they brought that market up to the Yukon. In 1997, the pair created two British-style ales and became Yukon Brewing, Whitehorse’s then-only brewery.
Their original pale ale and amber ale, now called Yukon Gold and Yukon Red respectively, are two of dozens of flavours created over the years, ranging from lagers and IPAs to porters and even a lemon lavender radler. “We do about 15 or 16 seasonal beersa year,” says Baxter. “Ten years ago, [that] was not a thing.”
Now their products sell as far as Japan and Switzerland, and that has made Baxter and Hansen role models in the Northern brewing community.
“I saw Bob Baxter as a resource and it opened up my eyes to what the craft industry is like,” says Fletcher Stevens, co-founder of NWT Brewing Company. “He was very forthcoming with information…I gained a lot of insider information from my visit [to Yukon Brewing].”
Stevens and his wife Miranda opened the doors to the NWT’s only brewery in November 2015. Residents gazed in awe at their new neighbourhood pub, at the rustic wood decor and giant set of antlers that hung over a line of brewing taps. The Stevens first introduced a brown ale, a Belgian witbier and a pale ale, but it took time for Yellowknifers to get their palettes accustomed to the new flavours.
Kicksled Cream Ale was immediately the top choice for beer drinkers because of its mild and crisp taste, but since then, IPAs and sours have become favourites too.
“Yellowknife’s taste buds have been evolving for sure,” Stevens says. “Four or five years ago it was sketchy putting out an IPA because people said it was too bitter. But now, it’s one of the safest beers we can put out.”
It seems to be an ongoing trend across the North. The more local breweries push the limits, the more willing residents have been to expand their interests from the big-name, southern beers.
That can be said for Iqaluit’s newest addition, Nunavut Brewing Company, or NuBrew for short. The four-year-old craft brewery has four primary beers: the Floe Edge Northern Lights and Nilak Light lagers, as well as the Aupaqtuq Red Ale and a Frob Gold Strong Ale. They also offer sours, IPAs, witbiers and more on tap. While the pale ale and lager are most popular in liquor stores, it’s the more unique flavours that tend to sell out among sit-down customers.
And the popularity with new beers is only likely to grow as they start experimenting more with local flavours, like a recent crowberry sour. In the NWT and Yukon, local craft breweries have incorporated cranberries, spruce tips, fireweed honey, birch syrup and more. That includes NWT Brewing’s Forager IPA, which combines locally sourced tamarack branches and needles, and spruce tips. Meanwhile, Winterlong Brewing has seen great success with its spruce tip beer.
“We’re doing the legwork of 40 breweries in one, while keeping people happy who want the same beer all the time,” Marjanovic says. Luckily, Northerners generally keep an open mind. “It doesn’t matter if it’s dark, light or hoppy or a variety that’s not specific to a style: a lot of customers want to get engaged in a new flavor, a new beer.”
And that’s a challenge Northern breweries meet with gusto.