Beer making in the Yukon has a somewhat shaky history, the underlying theme being one of survival and perhaps good timing.
These were some of the takeaways on Jan. 9, when the MacBride Museum hosted its first instalment of its Beer Series, a weekly event that takes a chapter from the territory’s long relationship with the beverage and pairs it with the craft of more modern, local brew masters.
Organizer and presenter Jessica Tofflemire discussed how beer making followed the trajectory of the boom and bust of the Klondike Gold Rush, with Thomas O’Brien’s Klondike Brewery — formerly across the river from Dawson City — going belly up after license restrictions were implemented and those who had turned their sights to the gold fields came and went.
In 1902, for instance, there were 21 saloons, she said, six by 1909.
“Drinking was an important part of the culture during and after the Gold Rush,” Tofflemire said. “Many people quickly discovered that it would be much easier to make their fortune from behind a bar rather than out on a creek.”
While beer making couldn’t be molded into a sustainable venture in the Klondike then, it has been over a century later, but not without its own set of challenges.
“Be too stubborn to fail,” Bob Baxter, co-owner of Yukon Brewing, told audience members when asked what the ticket to success is in the territory. “We had 1,700 opportunities to say, ‘Screw it, lock the door and walk away.’ You gotta find a way.”
Baxter recounted his company’s growth from a fledgling enterprise in 1997 to one that supplies its products to the Northwest Territories, Alberta, British Columbia and, recently, Quebec.
Initially, the plan was to get the beer out of the territory as quickly as possible because of the small population in the Yukon at the time.
Alaska, to Yukon Brewing, originally called Chilkoot Brewing Company, became the next frontier, given its close proximity and because craft beer was burgeoning in the United States in the 1990s, particularly on the west coast.
But getting the product there was far more complicated and expensive than anticipated.
Only one freighting company enabled independent companies to load up their products en route.
“We were paying from Minnesota to Anchorage because that was the only way it would work,” Baxter said.
“It was a labour of love, you could say,” he said, noting that it took roughly 10 years to finally start filling in a financial hole that got deeper by the year.
“You wait, you keep doing what you’re doing, you get help, from people like MacBride, and slowly but surely the dirt goes back into the hole,” Baxter said.
Diversifying products helped, too, he added, which was possible because profit had started to roll in.
Yukon Brewing ordered a still from Germany and began making single malt whisky, which is essentially beer at first blush, he said.
To the museum, the event is a way to spark intrigue about little known histories and maybe appeal to a somewhat younger crowd, Tofflemire said.
“I think there’s so much more interest in it now as an artform, almost,” she said in an interview. “A lot of people are interested in trying different craft beers and, like, making their own beer, homebrew and stuff like that. I think it’s a good way to reach out to people who have that interest and maybe provide them with some more historical context around it, especially in the place they’re living.”
After the presentations, which also included delving into the ancient past of beer in China and the Middle East, audience members were provided with complementary beer and spirits samples from Yukon Brewing.
On Jan. 16, the focus will be on roadhouses and how beer played into them. The co-owners behind Winterlong will follow the same course as Yukon Brewing did this week.
The third and final event, slated for Jan. 23, will be about the Whitehorse Inn. A brewer has yet to be determined, Tofflemire said.
The events are $5 for museum members, $15 otherwise.
Contact Julien Gignac at firstname.lastname@example.org