By Jeff Gaye
Beer in the Yukon ain’t what it used to be.
In the 25 years since Bob Baxter and Alan Hansen opened their brewery in Whitehorse, the world of beer has exploded into a galaxy of styles and varieties, with small local breweries offering unique beers you can’t get anywhere else.
Today, Yukon Brewing is a leader in the beer world and a pioneer of the territory’s burgeoning brewing industry.
Baxter remembers when they were getting started, someone at the Yukon Liquor Commission had a blunt, direct question for them: Why? With Molson and Labatt quenching Yukoners’ thirsts, what was the point of a local brewery?
But the craft beer movement was about to gather steam, and Bob and Alan thought Yukon was as good a place as any to make beer.
“Our timing was good. We say we plowed the road and now there’s some other people driving up behind us,” Baxter said. There are now five breweries in Whitehorse, making Yukon the Canadian jurisdiction with the most breweries per capita.
“What’s really interesting is that for those five companies, the five ‘beer worlds’ they live in are quite different,” Baxter said. “If you can’t find a beer made in Yukon, you’re not looking hard enough because there’s so many different styles that are made here. And I will say for all of us, they’re very well made.”
You don’t have to take his word for it, at least as far as his own products are concerned. When the business was just two years old, the Chicago-based Beverage Testing Institute rated Yukon Brewing’s amber ale as the best in the world.
“That was a turn of a corner for us,” Baxter said. “And probably the next corner we turned was we started talking quietly about, you know, ‘who wants to drink their dad’s beer?’ If you’re drinking a Bud or a Blue Lite, you’re drinking your dad’s beer. And I think that resonated with people — I don’t drive my dad’s car, I don’t want to drink my dad’s beer.”
That was over 20 years ago.
“What’s really funny is that that’s come back to bite us a little bit. Now we are your dad’s beer,” he said with a laugh.
The awards didn’t stop with the amber ale. The brewers have since branched into single malt whisky, and have picked up their share of bling from whisky competitions as well.
“Every year we win awards at the Canadian Whisky Awards, including Single Malt of the Year,” Baxter said. They have also won Single Malt of the Year at the World Whisky Awards.
A whisky has to be aged three years in wood before it can be sold as Canadian whisky. That means that once you’ve distilled it, you don’t know what it’s going to taste like when it’s ready. It also means that if you wanted to tweak your recipe or your technique, you’d have to wait years to see if you got it right.
Baxter says a small distillery has an advantage over the major brands. For Yukon Brewing’s “Two Brewers” whisky brand, each batch is aged and sold as a distinct product. The whisky has to be consistently excellent, but every batch doesn’t have to taste the same.
“Every time we do a whisky release, it’s different from the one before,” he said. “We categorize it into one of four categories: Classic Scotch style; Peated; Special Finishes if we finish it in the sherry barrels or rum barrels or what have you; or Innovative, which doesn’t fit one of those categories.
“Each one we do is unique, usually about 1,200 bottles at a time. They’re all individually numbered for exactly that reason.”
This year the company is adding fruited sour beers and a line of seltzers to its offerings.
And to celebrate 25 years, they’re running a special promotion — but Baxter says they’re giving, not selling.
“We’re taking 10 per cent of our store revenues every Tuesday and giving it away to a different charity every week. So it’s a different way of going about it. We’ll write 52 cheques to 52 different nonprofits here in the Yukon.”