I Survived Canada’s Most Intense Beer Festival

March 15, 2019

By Ryan Newhouse, March 15, 2019

“The coldest places breed the warmest people.” These are the words printed on a label of One Great City Brewing Co.’s Falcon Blonde Ale. The beer is omen or, perhaps, a litmus test to be sure I’m aware of what I’m getting into. My mission is to visit Winnipeg, Manitoba, in the dead of winter—with highs of minus 12 degrees Fahrenheit—and discover its warmth, its beer, and its appeal.

Beer First, Business Later

Only hours off the plane on a Friday afternoon, I step on board of a “brew bus” run by Winnipeg Tasting Tours. The first stop is Little Brown Jug, which is laid out as practicably as possible. Inside the brick building—a former government livery for horses. It’s the first brewery I’ve been to that is open to the public and pours one beer, 1919 Belgian Pale. 1919 was the year that Brewer’s Gold hops was created, a cross between a Manitoba hop and an unknown English hop. Along with using this hop for the beer, it also made by using traditional German kräusening, or double-fermentation technique, giving this Belgian Pale Ale its signature clean finish.

Next we head to One Great City Co., where dinner and a flight awaits us. Seated at long wooden tables, the brewery is as much grand beer hall as it is a taproom. With high ceilings, shades of gray décor, and sharp-edged chairs, it has a textbook modern design aesthetic. Bustling in one corner is the kitchen, serving a large menu of “sammies,” chicken wings, and bar snacks. The flight of four beers includes the infamous Falcon Blonde. One can also pot for the brewery’s other flaships, such as Tipsy Cow Milk Stout and Belgian Esprit, or a more seasonal and experimental brew, such as the Resolution Breaker Milkshake Sour.

Half Pints Brewing Company is one of the oldest breweries in Winnipeg. Prior to 2015, it was one of three breweries in Manitoba, along with Fort Garry Brewing Co. and Farmery Estate Brewery in Neepawa. Since then, that number has increased to 16, thanks to 2015 legislation making taproom legal. This taproom’s lone bookshelf is filled with beer books and board games, which cues a round of Cards Against Humanity (Canadian edition) paired with Humulus Ludicrous double IPA. Stop by on a Sunday for one of their small-batch Staff Series Sunday beers, which previously featured a Peaches n’ Cream IPA and Chocolate Raspberry Stout. I’m also told, 0n a small room adjacent to the bathrooms are four pinball machines is home of the Manitoba Pinball Club.

Lastly we arrive at Torque Brewing Company, a car lover’s paradise. The taproom is one of the largest in Winnipeg. With beers like Red Line, Bumpershine, and Diesel Fitter, a visit here is like walking through a showroom full of hot rods. In fact, there’s a half of a restored 1957 Lincoln that’s been converted into a couch where you can throw back a couple of tasters and dream about RPMs. After trying most of the 12 beers on tap, I was ready to race through the rest of the weekend.

Winterlong Strong Beer Festival

If there’s one piece of advice people have touted as a proven way to survive winter, it’s to do so with a stiff drink in hand. By September 2018 the Manitoba Brewers Association hosted its first brewfest, an Oktoberfest with a small “cask corner.” “Everyone enjoyed the small batch beers offered,” says John Heim, President Torque Brewing Co. & President of the Manitoba Brewers Association.. “So we decided to build on that momentum and help carry Manitobans through the spring with another festival.” This led to the inaugural Winterlong Strong Beer Festival, which sold out soon after tickets were available.

“Rather than just simply showcase everyone's existing beer, we thought that a strong beer festival would be well received,” Heim explains. “There a several winter beer festivals around Canada but we wanted a different bent on the event.” Every brewery in Winnipeg, in addition to only bringing beers 7% ABV and above, also crafted one unique festival beer.

While there were several styles represented as expected from a strong beer festival (barrel-aged stouts, quadruples, Imperial porters, and IPAs) they were far from average expressions of those styles. I dipped into an Imperial Black Forest Cake Stout from Devil May Care Brewing, poured by a pair of fellows wearing custom hockey jerseys donning their brewery’s name. Trans Canada Brewing Co. tapped its Cranberry Stout and Half Pints Brewing Company laid down a rich, recent bottling of Le Temps Noir, a Russian Imperial Stout that has an overall score of 100 on Ratebeer.

One beer that quickly became the brewfest murmur—you know, when you start overhearing people ask their friends, “Did you try that one?”—was an Imperial Radler from Nonsuch Brewing Co. This brewery was already known for producing some of the strongest beers in Winnipeg, so it came in as an expected favorite. Mark Borowski, the brewmaster, was on hand to pour and chat. The same people talking about Nonsuch’s beers also remarked on its taproom, where dozens of gold umbrellas hang from the ceiling. Attention to detail in beer and in presentation. Unfortunately, for me, the brewery is open Tuesday through Saturday, so I would have to live vicariously through others’ grandiose descriptions of the space.

Hot, Cold, Rest, Repeat

Thermëa is a Nordic spa in Winnipeg that can set right anyone’s proclivity for late nights drinking imperial IPAs. Founded on the 2,000 year-old principle of the thermal cycle (hot, cold, rest), it takes at least three such cycles and a salt scrub to bring me around.

Part of the experience here is an Aufguss ritual. Aufguss is German for “infusion.” In this ceremony, a large dry sauna is packed with guests. In the corner of the room is a 3-by-3-foot rock bed. This is the heat source. A towel-wrapped guide enters the room backed by moderate-tempo, ambient music playing. She is carrying two wood buckets, one filled with oil-infused snowballs and another with water and a wood ladle. The ceremony consists of rhythmic dancing, smashing the snowballs over the rocks to increase the temperature and release different scents. Air is circulated by careful movements of towel-swinging by the guide. It’s a series of spinning, wafting, and twirling. After it’s over, the brave jump into a cold plunge tub fed by a waterfall of 60-degree Fahrenheit water.

Leaving pleasantly revived, it was time to check out the area known as “The Forks,” where the Red River and Assiniboine River join together. Nearby is the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and The Forks Market. This marketplace is where you can find food, shopping, a perfect oat-milk Cortado at Fools & Horses, and something to drink at The Common. The bar offers 20 wines and 20 beers, five beers of which are local to Winnipeg and rotate monthly, and the remaining 15 are made up from top Canadian and worldwide selections.

Winnipeg is winning right now, and I’m not just talking about its Jets hockey team. It is vibrantly growing a beer scene where the newness of its taprooms allows for experimental releases and face-to-face time with patrons. Winnipeggers don’t survive winter; they embrace it and those who come to explore during it. There is little doubt that by next year’s Winterlong Strong Beer Festival, the beers will be stronger, perhaps Manitoba will be colder, but the people will always be just as warm as I found them.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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