How a Group of Saskatchewan Homebrewers Created a Bustling New Industry
The flood of high-quality craft beer in Saskatchewan owes much of its success to a small group of beer enthusiasts who started brewing at home and eventually made a move to commercial production. Over time and through friendly competition, this tightly knit group of friends have not only ushered in a whole new industry to the province but are starting to influence other major industries, such as agriculture and tourism.
This friendly competition stems from a shared passion but also benefitted from having the opportunity to share ideas, build trust, and taste each others’ beers.
It Started at Home
“We all were part of the Ale and Lager Enthusiasts of Saskatchewan, which is one of the biggest and longest-running homebrew clubs in Canada started by the famous Bev Robertson of Bushwakker fame,” says Mark Heise, president and CEO of Rebellion Brewing Company. “So, we all have him to thank for all of this stuff that’s happened in Saskatchewan.”
Bev Robertson was a physics professor at the University of Regina who got a taste of German craft beer while on sabbatical in the late 1970s. When he got back, he started brewing at home, won numerous awards for his beer, and eventually helped make Saskatchewan one of the first provinces to pass legislation allowing brewpubs. In 1991, Robertson opened Bushwakker Brewpub, and quality craft beer officially entered the province.
Surprisingly, this move is not what started the rise in craft brewing in the province.
“Craft beer as a business was exploding across North America [in the early 2000s],” says Heise. “And as great as the Bushwakker was and had been around for a while, [craft brewing] really hadn’t exploded here.”
Instead, Robertson brought the right ingredients together and sparked an entirely new industry in the province simply by hosting the homebrewing club.
The club is a loosely organized group of a hundred or so brewers with varying degrees of skill. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the group met monthly in a backroom at the Bushwakker to share tips and ideas and try each others’ brews.
This club is where many of the big craft brewing names in the province, such as Rebellion Brewing, Nokomis Craft Ales, and Pile O’Bones, met and challenged each other. The resulting craft brewing industry in the province is as unique as it is innovative.
“It came out of a passion for what we do. It came out of friendship. It came out of community,” says Heise.
Rebellion Brewing recently won the Beer of the Year at the Canadian Brewing Awards for Heise’s Cherry Lambic. This beer got its unique start in Heise’s apartment in the early 2000s. That it has won a national award while Rebellion’s business is taking off indicates that Saskatchewan’s craft brewing industry is on to something.
“We are creating an ecosystem,” says Heise. “It’s a humbling feeling. I was just some guy brewing beer at home, and I just really like beer, and then you’re like, oh, I’m actually making the economy grow here.”
Hop to It
Beyond creating a whole new industry and the economic impact that comes with it, the 25 craft brewers in the province are also influencing other industries. One obvious sign of this impact is Saskatchewan’s first larger-scale hops farm near Moosomin, JGL Shepherd Farms.
Justin Shepherd, president of JGL Shepherd Farms, says he got interested in craft brewing about six years ago but wasn’t ready to get into it himself. What he did have is farmland and deep family agricultural know-how behind him. So, “it was sort of an easy decision” to get into hops,” he says.
“There were a few other smaller growers across the prairies, but nobody else in Saskatchewan at that time,” says Shepherd. “So, it seemed like a good opportunity for us to try a new crop that hadn’t been done on a larger scale.”
Shepherd says there was a steep learning curve to bringing a new crop to the province and his relationships with craft brewers are an essential part of the process.
“It’s taken us time to really start to build the market and to build trust with brewers that our quality is at least as good as what they would be expecting to get from another region and if not better,” says Shepherd. “We’ve created some great relationships. And I think we’ve really shown that the quality that can come out of Saskatchewan can be excellent.”
Heise and Shepherd both agree that this industry is just getting started, and there is lots of room to grow.
“We haven’t hit the ceiling, like not even close,” says Heise. “So, the future is bright.”