Dec. 21, 2010 - Issue #792 : In Case of Holiday Break Glass
Under the surface
Winnipeg has a thriving beer culture, once you find itRecently my day job sent me to Winnipeg—not generally regarded as a prime junket location. But I didn't mind it. As a prairie boy I appreciate the cities that formed on the flatlands. The hardy, utilitarian, determined spirit of the West is reflected in its architecture and design. Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon and Edmonton all share more qualities than each might like to admit.
At any rate, most people might consider Winnipeg a wasteland for a beer lover. Well, I am here to report that those people—whoever they are—don't know the first thing about Winnipeg. I had no trouble finding good beer at funky beer places in the city.
On the surface, the naysayers might appear right. Winnipeg only has two breweries. One offers watery commercial lagers that are slightly better than Molson and Labatt. The second, on the other hand, is one of the hippest, fastest growing and most highly-regarded craft brewers in the country.
I have spoken of Half Pints Brewing before. A number of its beers are available in Alberta. What few may realize, however, is that it is growing by leaps and bounds. The brewery opened in 2006 with a small brew system, little money and big ideas. Four years later, it has already been forced to move to a bigger space, won numerous brewing awards and earned acolytes from a host of beer connoisseurs. Half Pints is still quite small—producing about 350 000 litres a year which is a fraction of what the big boys make in a day—but its growth is exponential.
I visited the brewery straight from the airport and got a great sense of the range of product. The biggest seller is a light-bodied ale that goes down way too easy. Unfortunately it is only available in Winnipeg. However the brewery also produces an IPA, a solid stout and a host of one-time beers, including barrel-aged ales and insanely hopped double IPAs, many of which make it to our province.
What Winnipeg lacks in brewing capacity it makes up in beer spaces. There is an interesting combination of impressive beer lists and comfortable drinking spots. The highlight among the former is Luxalune, which calls itself a Gastropub. Its beer menu is long, spanning every continent. You can get more than 100 different beers in the bottle. The list is a bit erratic, with many duds and gaps, but it is an admirable attempt at offering beer selection.
And then there is the art of relaxed, pub-y drinking. I was in a handful of pubs that exuded relaxed, hip beer consumption. Allow me to mention a couple of highlights. The most famous location is the King's Head Pub in the central exchange district. Tucked in a period building, it has over the years slowly expanded, now taking up three buildings and two floors. Twenty-six beer on tap, although mostly your standard fare. However it has the entire Half Pints line available. The décor is welcoming; old wood floors, lots of burnished brass and an overall British feel. The crowd was familiar and hospitable, making an outsider feel welcome. Pub grub plus decent Indian food on the menu.
For a smaller, "local" feel, head over to the Yellow Dog. Only a handful of tables fit into this narrow pub, but that's okay because everyone knows each other. The owner is personable, eccentric and not afraid to offer a friendly jibe at even the newest of customers. Again the only beer highlight is a good selection of Half Pints (OK, I admit all I drank while in Winnipeg was Half Pints; why choose a standard macro-beer when delicious local beer is readily available?), but it was fun to feel like a regular.
The last place I visited may be the coolest, and not just for its atmosphere. The Lo Pub, which his located in the Winnipeg Hostel International (HI), has become a hang out for the hipster crowd. Lounge-like in its feel, it offers little in the way of add-ons. However the chalkboard sign declaring "no crappy beer sold here" informs the new visitor that you are not in any regular hostel bar. The beer list is not extensive, but all first rate stuff—quality Canadian micros (yes, Half Pints too) and decent imports.
But what really makes this pub is its back story. The hostel is a reclaimed skid row hotel turned anchor for the local redevelopment. The hostel sparked a push to create a park across the street and today instead of drug dealers, prostitutes and men down on their luck, the block teems with travelers, politically engaged youth and hipsters. The Pub was a run-down "old man's" bar with sad men sipping glasses of watered down OV all day. And look at it now.
The more I travel across Canada the more I come to the belief that every city has a decent beer culture hiding under the surface. Winnipeg is just the latest example—you just need to know where to look. V
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