You’re all right, Saskatchewan

People who know me outside of the beer scene, know that I have a long history of wisecracking about Saskatchewan.

There’s no sense trying to deny it. The internet is forever, and there’s a long online breadcrumb trail of taunting and trolling that leads back to me. But in my defence, I’d say that my animus is aimed mainly at the Saskatchewan Roughriders rather than at the province in general.

I became an avid Stampeders fan after living nearly 20 years in Calgary, where hating the Roughriders is serious business. I have a longtime friend whose father played for the Stamps in the 1950s and 60s and whose mother was once the reigning Miss Stampeder. My friend’s mother has the graceful and dignified bearing of Jackie O, but would yell “Dirty old Saskatchewan!” from the stands when the Roughriders came to town. It’s probably the closest she has ever come to using profanity — and the Green Riders drove her to it.

Given my track record, it was fodder for many jokes when I took a road trip to Saskatchewan in October with my wife, Lea. Admittedly, it was a Plan B after the pandemic scuttled plans to visit her family in Nova Scotia (where there was a 14-day isolation requirement for out-of-province visitors) and spiking case numbers in Toronto made it too risky to visit my folks there.

Our main reason for going to Saskatchewan was to research some of Lea’s family history: her father was born in the small town of Rabbit Lake, north of the Battlefords, and her grandfather and great-grandfather farmed in the area for decades.

We expected our legwork would be confined to taking pictures of old headstones and rifling through some yellowed documents if we were lucky, but we ended up spending a fantastic day talking to several longtime residents — many of whom had vivid memories of Lea’s great-grandfather, who was also the town doctor. We also heard Doc Storry was a habitue of the bar at the local hotel, and the current owner swears his ghost haunts the place to this day. (Lea wrote about our visit on her site if you want to read more about it.)

The old journalist in me was eager to help Lea, who’s also a former journalist and who keeps a hand in the craft with her writing business. However, in the spirit of marital give-and-take, Lea asked if there were any breweries I wanted to visit during our swing through Saskatchewan and I was happy to add a few beery stops to our itinerary.

Before I go any farther, I want to caution that this isn’t meant to be a detailed travelogue of beer destinations in Saskatchewan — rather, it’s a totally selective snapshot of a few places we enjoyed visiting in the short time were there. Case in point: we passed through Saskatoon on a Monday, when many of the city’s breweries were closed. We also missed dining at Ayden Kitchen and Bar, a critically-acclaimed restaurant owned by chef Dale MacKay, a former Top Chef Canada winner.

Although we didn’t get to experience Saskatoon’s beer scene, we had a fantastic meal the following night in Regina at another of MacKay’s restaurants, Avenue. Lea’s a Maritimer who rarely eats seafood unless she’s within shouting distance of the ocean, but she was blown away by the trout from Lake Diefenbaker, served with beets and a dill cream sauce. I didn’t order it because I don’t like beets, but Lea shared a beet-free bite and I was equally transported: it was so fresh, moist and flaky. We also had an amazing appetizer of pork belly pieces glazed with gochujang and tamari and served atop little rectangles of rice, like sushi, topped with cucumber kimchi shavings and sesame seeds — a vivid collision of flavours and textures in a neat little bite-size package.

When we visited Malty National Brewing in Fall 2020, the taproom was closed for renovations. Customers ordered at the front door and could enjoy their beer on the patio out front.

Our first beer-related stop in Regina was Malty National Brewing, tucked away on a quiet side street in the central Heritage neighbourhood. The taproom was closed for renovations when we visited in October, but it was still mild enough to sit on the patio out front — which, to me, was the ideal place to enjoy this brewery and feel how much it’s a piece of the fabric of the community. As much fun as it can be to hop from taproom to taproom in one of Calgary’s brewery districts (for example), an outing like that is appointment drinking — an event. That type of experience has its time and place, but I personally get more enjoyment from spending time at the kind of place where visiting is part of the regular routine for people in the neighbourhood. As we sat on the patio at Malty National, a steady stream of people walked over to grab a seat, buy beer to-go or order takeout from a food truck parked in the alley next to the building.

We enjoyed sitting on Malty National’s patio and watching the comings and goings on the charming residential street outside the brewery.

By dwelling on the ambience at Malty National, I don’t want to give the impression that their beer isn’t the main attraction. It is. The only reason I didn’t mention it sooner is that Malty National is one of those breweries with a constantly rotating line-up, so it’s unlikely anything I enjoyed back in October is due to reappear anytime soon. For what it’s worth, I consider lagers to be a good bellwether of a brewery’s capabilities, and Malty National had a solid pilsner called Instant Classic when I visited: a nice balance of bready malt and just the right amount of bitterness. I also took home an assortment of beer that included a New England IPA, a West Coast pale ale and an oatmeal stout with cocoa and raspberries. After enjoying them all, I feel comfortable saying Malty National has a creative and versatile brewing team.

When we started planning our trip, I had been especially looking forward to visiting Rebellion Brewing. I’d exchanged a few friendly words with the brewery and its founder, Mark Heise, on Twitter, and grew to appreciate the combination of authenticity, fun and community spirit that seemed to come through loud and clear across the miles.

My visit to Rebellion lived up to what I had sensed about the company’s approach — and they make great beer, too. It’s easy to see why Zilla IPA is Rebellion’s #1 seller: it’s a well-balanced IPA that ticks all the boxes, with orange, grapefruit and pine hop characteristics, a nice malty counterpunch and a building bitterness on the palate. Of the mainstays, I also enjoyed the Amber Ale, which begins with a big, round caramel flavour but avoids getting too sweet, finishing instead with some pleasant toasty malt notes and a small whiff of floral hops.

I was fortunate to be passing through during the narrow window of time when Rebellion’s fresh-hop beer was available. Part of the brewery’s Solo Crush series of single-hopped beers, it was made with freshly-harvested Comet hops from JGL Shepherd Farms in nearby Moosomin, SK. The beer was not only a great example of the style that showcased these local hops in all their bright, herbaceous glory; to me, it’s another example of how Rebellion walks the talk in terms of supporting local. This is a brewery that established itself, in part, by making a beer with lentils — a crop that is tremendously important in Saskatchewan, which is the world’s largest producer and exporter.

Some correspondence between us led to an invitation to come onto Rebellion’s weekly podcast for a chat with Matt Barton, the brewery’s communications manager. We’re both former journalists with a passion for craft beer, so you can imagine the hour flew by. We chatted for a couple of hours after the microphones were turned off, and Matt showed me around. He told me about how the wood lining the walls was reclaimed from grain elevators in the area and that the bricks came from local school buildings that had been decommissioned. Rebellion is a brewery where the connection to its community isn’t only part of the company’s ethos: it’s literally built into the place.

On our way back to Alberta we stopped at Rafter R Brewing in Maple Creek, which opened in August 2020. What caught my interest about Rafter R is its small-town locale. Although craft beer in Saskatchewan has grown tremendously since my last visit in the early 2000s, much of that growth has been concentrated in Regina and Saskatoon. The province hasn’t experienced the rural brewery boom Alberta has — at least, not yet.

A good-looking flight at Rafter R Brewing in Maple Creek, SK.

Maybe it’s not surprising, then, that a veteran of Alberta’s rural brewery scene is behind this foray into small-town Saskatchewan: Ryan Moncrieff, who owns Rafter R with his wife, Teresa, was the former head brewer at Ribstone Creek Brewery in Edgerton.

While chatting with Ryan during our visit, he said opening their own brewery was an opportunity to do things their way: small batches of beer sold and mainly consumed fresh at the brewery (or close to it, in the case of growler sales).

Rafter R Brewing’s Ryan Moncrieff

Rafter R’s offerings span a range of styles, and the samples I had were well put together. I enjoyed a flight that included a slightly toasty and easy-drinking English-style mild — not surprising, considering Ryan’s the architect of Ribstone Creek’s award-winning mild, Abbey Lane. I also sampled a nice red ale with nice caramel malt character and some lightly floral hops, as well as a refreshing hefeweizen that brought the requisite banana and clove traits.

Many people, all smarter than me, have extolled travel as a means of broadening one’s horizons and fostering tolerance and mutual understanding. Going to Saskatchewan hardly qualifies as a cross-cultural experience — and I’m not trying to portray it as one, but the trip served as a good reminder to me to revisit, both literally and intellectually, some of the places I’ve been. I lived in Calgary for nearly 20 years before moving to Edmonton, and both cities are far different than when I moved to Alberta in the mid-1990s.

I’m glad I went to Saskatchewan and saw how much has changed, and I enjoyed some great beer and met many friendly people along the way. And dare I say it? I’m looking forward to going back sometime.

But I still hate the Roughriders.