Words by Crystal Luxmore. Photos by Conor McCreery
Originally published in Taps Magazine in January 2016.
In 1999, a few years after opening Yukon’s first brewery since the Gold Rush, co-owners Bob Baxter and Alan Hansen answered the call of their customers, “We like what you’re doing, but can’t you just make beer?”
Their two flagship ales, the easy-drinking blonde ale, Yukon Gold, and its slightly nutty, amber sister, Yukon Red, came as a shock to the people of Whitehorse. The city, at that time, was populated by a mix of miners and government workers who were happy drinking Molson Canadian and Labatt Blue. So Baxter and Hansen scrapped their original homebrew recipe for a snappy German-style pilsner, and made Kokanee instead—well almost. They brewed an easy drinking lager to satisfy their local customers and called it Chilkoot. “Chilkoot was designed to be a knockoff of Kokanee. We blind-tasted it until we couldn’t tell the difference,” says Baxter.
It wasn’t the beer the pair of former engineers had pictured people embracing when they launched—but the pair had dug a big financial hole and were sitting at the bottom of it. Every nickel coming in was going into buying another fermenter or brite tank. Early on they’d learned that to survive they needed to win over local beer drinkers. “Our initial plan was to sell bottles in Alaska and Washington,” says Baxter, “but we quickly realized that you’re only the home team in your home town—and that if we were going to survive, we needed to sell more beer in the Yukon.”
Sure, they were the only microbrewery in the territory—but when the territory’s entire population is only 37,000—every customer counts. So they came up with a simple strategy to win over locals, one by one. “Our philosophy was, ‘If you need something, come see us, and if there’s any way we can help, we’ll be there,”’ says Baxter. The pair sponsored every local happening from a dogsled race to a jazz festival, and they continue to do so today. “Eventually the cash-flow caught up to all the beer we were giving away.”
In early 2000 Yukon Brewing started canning their beers. Yukon’s extreme all-year camping culture means two thirds of beer is consumed from a can. “Oskar Blues in Colorado claims to be the first microbrewery to can their beers but we started about a year before them,” says Baxter.
Eighteen years later, Whitehorse is full of fiercely loyal Yukon Brewing drinkers. On draught, Yukon Gold outsells Molson and Labatt combined—taking 70% of that market. Go anywhere in the Yukon and you’ll see a pint of Gold on at least one table. Most evenings at Whitehorse’s Klondike Rib and Salmon, a bustling restaurant that looks like a hunting lodge crossed with a saloon, frothy mugs of Yukon Red or Gold are on nearly every table.
At Klondike Kate’s, a rustic eatery in the eccentric, gold-mining town of Dawson City, I tucked into a Tin Roof Pie and chocolate cake baked with Yukon’s Midnight Sun Espresso stout—with a bottle of the coffee-forward stout on the side. The pairing was almost perfect—except the beer came to our table in a frosted mug, straight out of the refrigerator. Ice-cold was how any beer, from a lager to a 6.2% espresso stout, was served nearly everywhere we dined.
“Up here beer is blue collar,” explains head brewer Rob Monk, who started his brewing career at Yukon Brewery gift shop, before assisting in the brewhouse. Later, he moved to Victoria where he became head brewer for Spinnaker’s Brewpub for ten years until Baxter convinced him to return. “Spinny’s was a high profile job. I got a lot of interview requests from media—but not here—the culture of the rock star brewer doesn’t exist, and that’s just fine with me.” The Yukon Brewing brewhouse is nearly maxed out—Monk keeps the 25 hectolitre brewhouse on a tight schedule; when the morning brew is in the kettle, the second ale is in the mashtun, allowing for two to three batches to be brewed over the 18-hour daily schedule.
It’s possible that Alberta’s new export tax could give the brewery a bit of a break in the gruelling production schedule. Alberta is a major export market for the brewery—so the recent announcement by that province’s Government to hike taxes on all craft beer brewed outside of B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan (all part of the New West Partnership) came as a major shock. “We’ve already seen changes in the flow of both kegs and packaged beer,” says Baxter. “We understand their goal (to increase production of craft beer in Alberta) but shake our heads the poor execution of a system to achieve that goal.”
Along the back wall of the brewery, behind stacks of fresh beer awaiting shipment, whisky barrels sit four rows high. They’re part of Yukon Spirits, the brewery’s sister distillery (and Hansen’s baby) that turns out experimental liqueurs and whisky. The distillery works as part of the existing brewhouse: the two engineers worked with a supplier to fashion a helmet that sits on top of the brew kettle. “We use it to the first distillation rather than using our still, says Bob. “The beauty of that is that our brew kettle is five times bigger, so we do in a day what would otherwise take a week. As far as I know, we are the only brewers in the world that use our brewing kettle in this way.”
The first batch of whisky is due to be released this month—and Baxter says northern conditions of extremely dry, cold air are giving the batches a unique character. Their first batch, for example, has a complex, bright nose with fresh melon, honey and cream, deeper malt tones and astringent oak.
Visit any private or government-run liquor store in the Yukon and you’ll see a pathetically small handful of imported microbrews on the shelves (a smattering of Russell, and occasionally a beer from Quebec). If that doesn’t inspire tears, the price of those beers will—a six-pack of Dieu du Ciel! Moralite is $27. The lack of easy-to-access microbrews means Yukon Brewing is the territory’s beer tastemaker—but they’ve moved cautiously, slowly shifting the collective palate and introducing drinkers to styles from around the world, from kolsch-style ales to double IPAs.
Most Yukoners travel to Vancouver regularly—and the West Coast brewing culture is starting to permeate northern tastes too. The brewery is getting requests for seasonals and hoppier beers (its mainstay IPA is just 40 IBUs). Those styles come out in the brewery’s Friday firkins, and in its bomber bottles—they’ve released 14 different varieties in the last two years. But despite the recent developments in the big picture of Canada’s craft brewing scene, Yukon Brewing has moved closer to the centre. “We haven’t changed our beer recipes in 18 years, so even though we’re still hitting the same point, we’re being perceived as more traditional,” says Baxter.
Enter Winterlong, the second craft brewery to open in the territory. The three-barrel nano-brewery is located 20 minutes outside of Whitehorse in an industrial park along the road to a ski hill. Opened by husband and wife, Marko and Meghan Marjanovic, the tiny outfit is setting itself apart from Yukon Brewing by making bold, West Coast-style pale ales and IPAs. “I’ve been homebrewing for nine years and there’s always been a big hole in the market,” says Marko. “It was only last year that we finally started to get Fat Tug and Russell’s IPAs up here—before that, there was nothing like it.”
In the first 12 weeks they’d made nine different beers—selling nearly 1000 growlers. After four weeks of trying to be the brewmaster and the chief business owner (Meghan is keeping her gig as a biologist for now) things got hairy. Everything they brewed flew off the shelf, despite only being open three days a week. So, they hired brewer Matt Waugh, who honed his skills at Yukon Brewing, and by the end of 2015 Winterlong bombers started hitting liquor store shelves.
The recipes are still in the experimentation phase, tweaking is constant as Marko and Matt collaborate on recipes, add tanks, and learn a new systems. They’ve got work to do before their beers are pitch perfect but already, they have diehard fans. One couple swears the Red IPA is the best beer they’ve ever tasted, and another customer vowed never to drink any other brewery’s beer again. That kind of passion is what inspires the Marjanovics. “We absolutely love it,” says Meghan. “It feels amazing when people come in and say they love the beer.”
And how does Yukon Brewing feel about the new guy? “Someone new coming along is an opportunity for the craft beer share of the pie to get bigger,” says Baxter. For Yukon’s growing legion of craft beer fans, the future looks tasty—and it can’t come quickly enough.