After 10 years of complete brewing stagnancy, the Winnipeg beer landscape is finally changing. Fueled by a major legislative change making taprooms legal, three new breweries have opened this year with more (some reports say about 10 within the province) on the way. For Manitoba craft beer drinkers, this has been a very long time coming, and the growth is palpable at bars and restaurants. I’d place money on Winnipeg having the most rapid craft brewing growth of any city ever: a 250% increase since July.
The most notable addition to the brewing scene is PEG Beer Co., a brewpub in the city’s hip and growing Exchange District, northeast of downtown. Owner Nicole Barry comes with experience as co-owner of Half Pints Brewing Company, and many of her staff have experience there, as well. However, this operation will be entirely distinct.
PEG opened its doors in April without their own beer, but with an impressive line-up of bottles and guest taps, curated by Barry and her staff. The food, too, was enough to come back for, with from-scratch baking and pickling plus wood-fired pizza. But for many months, locals and beer tourists were asking, “where is the beer?” — a question they certainly got tired of answering.
That is all behind them now, though, as the brewpub has been serving four house beers for a week as of today. PEG opened its doors to members last Tuesday and to the public during the evening of the same day.
During a visit on October 8th, we were afforded a sneak peek at three of the available beers, plus insight into the brewhouse, kitchen, and operations. Brewer Scott Sawatzky is part of a three-person team behind the beer.
While Sawatzky shows us around, he underscores the confusion on the part of inspectors who are currently licensing the up-and-coming breweries. “No one has really done this before,” he says, pointing out some of the small changes to the brewhouse layout that they were asked to make. “They used the same rules for us as they do with a meat packing facility.”
The layout was designed with capability for expansion, but the space isn’t huge. Housed in a former skate park, the brewing area and tanks are about the same size as Boom Island Brewing Company, for Twin Cities readers. The beer will be served out of bright tanks but can also be kegged.
At the moment, beers are approachable and seasonally appropriate. Sawatzky is quick to mention that he is interested in pursuing kettle sours in the near future, and would like to have a Berliner Weisse and similar styles as part of the regular selection.
Marilyn, a red rye ale, was one of the first three beers available to the public. It showcases a grain none of us had previously heard of – chocolate rye. At first the aroma isn’t enticing, but we tasted this one before it was carbonated. It quickly grows on me, though. The depth of flavor from the roasted grain means that the rye isn’t just spicy, it’s deep and more developed, contrasting with the West Coast hops. The recipes are collaborative, and in this case another brewer had brewed something similar in the past, re-creating and perfecting it on the PEG system.
Sawatzky is invested in recipe evolution. “One small change can lead to a major improvement in a beer.” This is especially true when using brand-new equipment. The staff are often tweaking and critiquing their current recipes in pursuit of better beer. “We don’t always agree,” he says, “and each of us has a different area of expertise.”
In an impressive showcase of drinkabiliy, The Countess Stout displays classic toasty aromas. The body is medium at most but avoids being too thin or boring. The balance of chocolate, roasted coffee, and dark fruit means that no single flavor dominates. After taking a few sips, it is clear that the aroma actually makes the beer seem bigger than it is, and instead the entire picture is moderate in alcohol and bitterness.
Chef Aaron Epp runs the kitchen where the team is making nearly everything from scratch. As if the smell of beer brewing isn’t enough, the kitchen is filled with the aroma of bread baking when the place opens at 11. Although it may not be expected at a brewpub, Epp, whose background is in university catering and fine dining, would have it no other way. “If I can make it myself why would I buy it?”
He is hard at work on a 5-course menu with pairings from the upcoming Pan-Am Brewing Competition Brewers Dinner. As a beer drinker with no brewing experience, the chef is learning how beer evolves day by day throughout the fermentation process, affecting flavor and pairing possibilities. He is also hoping to expand the kitchen’s use of spent grains.
Contrary to the classic pitfall of many Canadian craft beers, PEG’s hoppy selections are promising in their amount of hop flavor and aroma. For example, the Life Coach Session IPA which is dry hopped with Mosaic and Centennial additions is very aromatic, fresh and juicy. While remaining only moderately bitter, the beer has wonderful citrus notes and a beautiful balance of bright, cereal-like malt but no residual sweetness.
Over the course of a few visits, the food has never disappointed. One favorite is the pickle plate, which goes above expectations in that each of the items is created with a unique brine rather than a single one. The Mushroom Flatbread is creamy and rich with smoky bacon on top, while the Roasted Beet Flatbread is earthy and unique. Finally, don’t miss the bread, which changes daily.
PEG Beer Co. is of course notable for opening in a veritable beer desert, but they don’t slide by on that alone. The beer is very well-made and the food isn’t merely acting in a supporting role. Many of the guest beers are offered in large format bottles, perfect for sharing, and the staff are trained in helping guests select one.
Photo Credits: Rick Didora