When Manjit Minhas was 13 years old, her dad, Moni Minhas, an engineer in the Alberta oil fields, was laid off. Alberta had just announced the deregulation of government-run liquor stores and Moni saw an opportunity. “It wasn’t ever what he thought he’d be,” she says. “He graduated with a mechanical engineering degree and he worked in oil for 15 years. But after he was laid off he still had to pay the mortgage.”
Within just six months of the announcement all of Alberta’s government-run liquor stores had been shut down and the age of privatization was in full swing. No other province has totally privatized since, although B.C. has a dual public/private system, making Alberta unique in Canada.
Manjit’s family is Sikh, but she points out that her parents, Moni and Rani, are cultural, not baptized. “Baptized Sikhs don’t eat meat or smoke or drink alcohol, but culturally everybody does.”
Moni’s OK Liquor Store opened in 1993. “He knew nothing about liquor or about being an entrepreneur,” Manjit says. Within three years Moni had three stores. Young Manjit, and her brother Ravinder, began working there after school. “I was mopping floors, stocking shelves. That’s where I learned my accounting skills. We did everything ourselves, just a regular family business.”
She never could have dreamed that she and her brother would grow up to become the world’s youngest beer magnates, with a company worth $550 million.
Manjit and Ravinder fully intended to follow in their dad’s footsteps—in the oil fields. “Being born and raised in oil and gas country, and with our strengths in math and science, we saw ourselves as engineers too. That’s where we thought we would be,” says Manjit.
Both enrolled at the University of Calgary, but soon Ravinder was looking for a change. “‘Do we want to work for dad again this summer?’” he recalls asking. “I didn’t want to do that, or go flip burgers. I said, ‘Why don’t we try something on our own?’”
Having spent years stocking OK’s shelves, they knew the liquor market better than the average teenager and they were intrigued by one product in particular: Bailey’s Irish Cream. “Customers would buy it with their eyes closed, we could never put enough on the shelf,” says Ravinder. Bailey’s was pricey, and while it had lower-priced competitors, none of them sold. “The others didn’t have the same quality. Bars and restaurants would buy well stock for everything else but they’d always buy Bailey’s.” They decided to make their own Irish cream, of the highest quality, and sell it at a lower price.
The only obstacle was money. “I probably had $8 in my bank account,” recalls Ravinder, who was 18 at the time. “I had to convince [Manjit] to sell her car.” But before jumping in with both feet she did a risk assessment. “What she discovered was that if everything failed we could still sell it out of mom and dad’s stores and just go back to school.”
Manjit sold her purple RAV 4 for $10,000 and the siblings used the money to hire consultants who worked with them to create a recipe. In 1999 they released Blarney’s Irish Cream, made with real cream, in direct competition with Bailey’s. The Minhas kids sold their version for $15 cheaper.
Initially they thought that, because of OK’s bar and restaurant clientele, they had an in. And those folks were eager to support the kids in their new endeavour. Unfortunately, none of those potential customers used more than a few bottles of Irish cream a year.
“That’s how we discovered tastings,” says Ravinder. “We had a lot of people try it and that became our philosophy for business - tastings, working with retailers, marketing direct to customers, and offering consistent quality.”
“Within a year we knew we had hit the nail on the head. We knew to spend more time on this,” says Manjit. They soon developed premium vodka, rum, tequila, and whiskey. And in 2003, after graduating from the University of Calgary, Manjit knew what she wanted to do with her life. She had been selling premium spirits as a side hustle for four years, while going to school full time. That experience meant that the lifelong vision she’d had of working in oil and gas had given way to an entirely new one: beer.
“We had some money in the bank and we knew there was an opening. Consumers were looking for an independent beer.”
With engineering in their blood, they knew they needed to craft their beer with the expertise of a brewmaster. “We believe it is a science to brew beer and you can only do it well if you know it inside and out,” Manjit says. “Just because you love something doesn’t mean you know everything about it. We left it to an expert to get the desired beer.”
Their first beer, Mountain Crest, was released in 2003 and is still their flagship. Once it was launched Manjit and Ravinder went back to school at Chicago’s Siebel Institute of Technology. “We went to beer school and can school and Moonshine University. It was important to learn these things,” Manjit says. They contracted out brewing but they kept a lot of services in-house, including a graphics department to make labels and promotional materials and a video production company for their advertising. Their operation now includes trucking, construction, and even glass production.
In Canada at the time, the majority of “independent” beers were independent in looks alone. From Mill Street to Creemore, they were all brewed by the big guys—Molson and Labatt. And all Canadian brewing operations brewed for those same companies. There was no contract brewing available in Canada.
The Minhas siblings outsourced their brewing to the States, where there were plenty of contract brewers. With spirits, they had wanted to sell quality products at reasonable prices, and they intended to do the same with their beer.
Canadians love beer. From Strange Brew to the Trailer Park Boys to Letterkenny, it is a big part of the cultural identity. And cheap beer has always been the domain of the States. Because of government regulation, cheap beer in Canada just hadn’t been possible. But with deregulation in Alberta, as the siblings learned with their spirits, they could set their own price. And they did. Mountain Crest would sell for a buck a bottle.
“We knew right away we had a hit,” says Manjit.
Sales initially took off because of the price, but it grew because of their marketing campaign. “We focused on rural areas. The big guys only focused on the cities,” says Manjit.
After Mountain Crest, they soon launched Boxer Lager and Boxer Pilsner. In 2006 they purchased the Joseph Huber Brewing Company in Monroe, Wisconsin. Originally called Blumer Brewery when it opened in 1845, it is the oldest brewery in the Midwest, and second oldest in America. It has survived Prohibition and the Great Depression.
“It had size and capacity but it was definitely not flourishing at that time,” Manjit recalls. They renamed it Minhas Craft Brewery and, according to the Brewers Association, in 2019 it was the 18th largest craft brewer in the US by sales volume. The Minhas siblings now have two breweries, a restaurant, a beer museum, and three distilleries operating in Alberta and Wisconsin. You can find their products—from Blackstone Vodka to Boxer Watermelon Beer to Alamo Tequila—across North America. California is their biggest market outside of Alberta.
Ravinder is blunt when he talks about the challenges they’ve faced. “We’re brown, ethnic, in a business that’s predominantly older white males, and Manjit has always had to overcome a bigger hurdle for beer than I have because of the perception that beer is a man’s drink. She wants to be known for her business acumen, not that she’s a female in beer.”
In 2015, Manjit debuted as one of the new “Dragons” on Dragon’s Den, the Canadian version of Shark Tank. She made it clear right out of the gate that she was not to be messed with. In a promotional clip from that year Manjit sits on the panel, calmly but firmly putting hopeful entrepreneurs in their place: “I’m not here to fund your mistakes.” Fans have dubbed her “the Beer Baroness.”
“I never thought that I’d be on TV,” says Manjit. “You never know what’s around the corner. It’s about being ready for opportunity and having the courage to say yes.” She credits her dad with giving her that courage.
And it has served her well since quarantine came into effect. The first decision Manjit and Ravinder made was to put production on pause at their three distilleries. Then they set about reconfiguring production to start making hand sanitizer. Since the world went into lockdown, they have hired 110 new employees.
“We are running 24 hours a day, seven days a week to keep up with demand,” she says.
Most of the sanitizer is being donated. “The list is long; hospitals, senior centers, women’s shelters, food banks. Everyone who reaches out.” They are also selling the sanitizer at grocery stores. “I don’t see things slowing down. We are full steam ahead.”
Since becoming a Dragon she’s invested in 31 companies. And she’s learned a lot from the aspiring entrepreneurs who appear on the show. “That nimbleness, that amazing energy and unbounded creativity that you have when you’re just a startup, because you don’t know the real world yet—I want to bottle it.”
She’s especially impressed by those who have an “openness to take advice and be teachable.”
If her dad hadn’t been laid off, Minhas Breweries and Spirits wouldn’t exist. Instead of being devastated by the news, he jumped into an opportunity in a business he really knew nothing about and the family worked together to make it a success. Now his children own an empire worth $550 million that was built on the sale of a purple RAV 4 and the knowledge they gained by stocking shelves with Bailey’s.
The siblings are still beer drinkers. “To me, it’s the greatest beverage in the world,” says Ravinder. “It’s a gift from the gods.”
Top photo courtesy of Minhas Craft Brewery.