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Yukon Brewing holds its own among Old World beer

Arriving in the UK armed only with a recipe for Lead Dog Ale, Yukon Brewing's head brewer Alan Hansen won the hearts and minds of the beer-savvy nation in just a couple of weeks.

Arriving in the UK armed only with a recipe for Lead Dog Ale, Yukon Brewing’s head brewer Alan Hansen won the hearts and minds of the beer-savvy nation in just a couple of weeks.

At the UK-based Real Ale Festival, Canada’s northernmost brewery recently scored second place among 50 competitors from three continents.

International beer festivals traditionally hand a raw deal to out-of-country competitors.

Overseas breweries are forced to ship their product by container ship.

Exposed to time, vibration and heat, the beer quality is severely diminished by the time it arrives at the festival.

“You’re trying to showcase the beers of the world, but they’re old and not very tasty anymore,” said Bob Baxter, president of Yukon Brewing Co. Ltd.

“The (Real Ale Festival) came to the conclusion that, instead of trying to import the beer, they’d “import the brewer,’” he said.

Chief brewer Alan Hansen was whisked away to a brewery at Wolverhampton, just northwest of Birmingham.

Working “80 hours a week,” Hansen was unable to make the interview for this story.

Temperature is directly proportional to beer consumption, and Whitehorse’s hot summer is doing wonders for beer consumption.

“You can tell what kind of day it’s been by how busy it’s been at the store,” said Baxter.

At the height of summer demand, the workaholic beermakers at Yukon Brewing rarely get the opportunity to venture outdoors.

Lead Dog was a natural choice to go head-to-head against British beers.

“It was actually kind of a homecoming for that beer; it’s an old English ale,” said Baxter.

A stock ale to be precise: a strong, aged, full-bodied dark beer.

In the heyday of the Royal Navy, British sailors would always keep a few casks of stock ale on hand and use it to strengthen the weak lagers they encountered abroad. Hence the “stock” ale moniker.

Heavy and high-alcohol, Lead Dog was originally meant by Yukon Brewing to be a winter-only beer.

Lead Dog’s growing fan base soon gave the brew year-round appeal.

Like a beermaking MacGyver, Hansen was immediately faced with a stack of last-minute obstacles at his Wolverhampton base.

Proper ingredients weren’t available, forcing Hansen to improvise with locally available strains of grain.

Hansen was used to the tiny microbrewery set up of Yukon Brewing. At Wolverhampton, Hansen had to deal with equipment having capacity six times larger than those at Yukon Brewing.

For some reason, festival officials also forced Hansen to bring down the brew’s alcohol content—from a stronger-than-average seven per cent to a normal five per cent.

Yukon Brewing staffers derided the low-power recipe as “lead chihuahua ale.”

And of course, the sparkling waters of the Yukon River weren’t within easy reach.

UK brewers, on the other hand, were on home ice.

British competitors were using the same recipes, ingredients and equipment from Victorian times.

As the name suggests, the Real Ale Festival was a celebration of “real ale,” a style of beer that hearkens back to the days before preservatives and artificial carbonation.

The competition received the backing of the Campaign for Real Ale, a UK-based drinker’s advocacy group that rails against the homogenization of beer.

To qualify as a real ale, the brew can’t even be pressurized.

Beers, therefore, can’t be served out of traditional taps. Instead, specialized kegs (firkins) need to be placed on sloped racks and served by gravity.

Yukon Brewing itself has been somewhat smitten with real ale’s charm.

As soon as the summer season cools off, Yukon Brewing is hoping to tinker with its own homegrown set of “real” ales.

Brewers would skim off a select quantity of a Yukon Brewing beer prior to final processing.

“It could be (Yukon) Gold, Yukon Red or any of our other beers,” said Baxter.

Unfiltered and uncarbonated, the beer would then be aged in a specialized firkin.

Unlike a pressurized keg, however, an opened firkin can go stale within 24 hours.

“Firkin Fridays” may soon be a fixture of the Yukon Brewing schedule.

Right before the weekend, beer drinkers could fill their growlers at a just-opened firkin.

The pleasures of real ale would be first come, first serve.

“When it’s gone, it’s gone,” said Baxter.

Contrary to expectations, beers at the Real Ale Festival were not evaluated by a panel of tweed-suited beer tasters.

Rather, selection of the top brews was delegated to the English masses.

Each of the competition’s 50 competitors produced 30,000 litres of real ale—for a total of 1,500,000 litres of beer.

The beers were then shipped to pubs across Britain.

After thousands of beer-swilling Brits had tasted the competitors, they were asked to submit their vote online.

Voting accuracy was appalling, even by Iranian standards. Competitors were openly encouraged to skew the final results.

“What you probably want to do is sit down and start voting for your beer,” said a festival representative to Baxter when online voting kicked off in mid-April.

The writers of the Magna Carta—buried only a few hundred kilometres away—were likely spinning in their graves.

Ever the champions of democracy, Yukon Brewing decided to opt out of ballot stuffing.

Opting out of faulty electioneering made Lead Dog Ale’s second-place finish all the more significant, said Baxter.

Altogether, 60,000 pints of Lead Dog Ale made their way down the gullets of English beer drinkers, and struck a chord among the country’s most ardent pub-crawlers.

Every morning, Baxter found his inbox deluged with e-mails from enthusiastic beer drinkers.

“Half of the e-mails I got, you could tell the person wrote when he got home in his taxi,” said Baxter.

“Some interesting use of grammar and spelling, and odd uses of capital letters,” he said.

When a squadron of vintage Bentleys made their way to a Yukon Brewing beer tasting last week, many of the British drivers had heard about the Whitehorse-based brewer.

At the Real Ale Festival, the Yukon name was definitely a boon for the Jack London-obsessed European public.

Promotional posters advertised guest brewers from New Zealand, Finland, Australia and “the Yukon.”

“It wasn’t from Canada, it was from ‘the Yukon,’” said Baxter.

International attention isn’t a new thing to the brewer, but export costs are what keeps Yukon Brewing a strictly domestic company.

Harsh border restrictions seem to hearken back to the days of rum running.

“I’m sure it’s easier to send drugs,” said Baxter.

The price of shipping beer is so astronomically high, that markups can quickly become prohibitive to even the most ardent lover of Yukon Brewing.

Recently, the Midnight Sun Espresso Stout became the first out-of-Quebec microbrewery to get general listing in Quebec liquor stores.

After paying off a gauntlet of cross-Canada truckers, a single bottle of the stout runs in at $3.95 in Quebec liquor stores.

Baxter has his doubts.

“Don’t be scared,” assure his Quebec contacts.

Contact Tristin Hopper at