Interview with Portage Avenue BrewWorks' Darren Wanless

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I had the honour of meeting Darren Wanless, creator of the upcoming brewpub Portage Avenue BrewWorks a few months back. Like me, Darren grew up in South Western Manitoba, me - Pipestone, him - Wawanesa, just a stones throw away from me down the Number 2 highway. Also, we both dreamed of a brewpub to finally return to Manitoba after a ten year hiatus, but he had the initiative to make that dream a reality. It's crazy that a province with as many beer geeks and as large of a population as Manitoba doesn't have a single pub that brews their own beer! Even Kenora, Ontario and Minot, North Dakota have their own brewpubs.

I was lucky enough to get a one-on-one interview with him recently and ask him about beer and updates to his proposed Portage Avenue BrewWorks Brewpub.

Hello Darren, who are you? I hear you're from Wawanesa of all places. Were you interested in beer in your youth?

I'm just a small town Manitoban boy who moved to the big city when I was 18 to go to school. It's a familiar story for many, and like most rural teens I was interested in beer but not for the flavour aspect. But that changed when my rugby team (the Brandon Barbarians) got a Moosehead sponsorship. It was my first non-traditional beer for me and lit a fuse. When I moved to Winnipeg I hung out at the Toad in the Hole and started trying English and European beers.

What is your favourite beer?

There is too many to name, and my tastes change with the seasons.. but if I had to be hard pressed for an answer, I like Half Pints' St. James Pale Ale and Granville Island's Winter Pudding.  But if I'm somewhere and Guinness is on tap, I have to have one.

Why are you starting up a brewpub in the first place? What interested you into starting a brewpub and why is it time for a brewpub in Manitoba?

I'm starting one because I've been waiting for someone else to do it and everyone I've told my plan to thought it was a great idea. I've been interested in one since I was a regular in River City Brewpub back in 2000. I like the aspect a brewpub can supply a unique beer in small batches you can't get anywhere else and combine that with quality food, my two loves together. It was time a decade ago but sadly it didn't last because of a variety of reasons, but a small factor was Winnipeg hadn’t fully embraced the craft beer culture as they have now but that was not the only reason.

Why do you feel that there haven't been any brewpubs in Manitoba since 2003?

It's something I coined as the gopher effect. The first brewpub in Manitoba was actually back in 1984.  It was also the first in Canada but it was too far ahead of its time and had its issues from the get go.  You can read more about it in Bill Wright and David Craig’s book, 300 Years of Beer.  Anyways from 1984 to 1999 no-one tried it again and since 2003 there hasn't been another one since.  I had the same effect in technical sales where people are leery about adopting new technologies or processes because of past failures or high uncertainty.  I liken this to a gopher sitting on a field edge watching his cohorts get killed by the farmer as they go for the crops.  Once one successfully completes the task, the rest rush in to take advantage of the situation.  this doesn't mean that Manitobans are afraid of innovation, quite the opposite as can be seen that we had the first one in Canada back in 1984, it's just that we learn and remember from past failings and are more cautious for it, which isn't a bad thing. 

As a beer geek from Western Manitoba, craft beer is under-appreciated here more than almost any other region in Canada, why do you believe beers like Bud Light are so incredibly popular while beers brewed within a 6-hour drive away just sit on the shelves at the MLCC?

I think it's education. No one is born a generic beer drinker, they are raised one. So many people chose their brand based on what their parents drank or that it doesn't fill them up when they have many at an event. But if you are wanting flavour and style in a beer, you can easily find and appreciate quality beers without it "filling" you up, but the giant marketing machines of the big breweries keep telling people they have to drink the name brands and sacrifice quality. I've been a big fan of Half Pints' St James Pale Ale for giving to friends to convert them into the craft scene. It always impresses for that purpose.

The question that everyone has been wondering for months: when will Portage Avenue BrewWorks be opening up?

Sadly we won't be opening up until spring at the earliest as we had to leave our location on Portage Avenue at the end of August and have been trying to secure another location since.   The lease we had for Portage Avenue was conditional with the landlord having a deadline for his conditions and we had our own, the most important being the MLCC license.  We had begun the MLCC license process which included public notification and advertising but we could not finish the process until he finished his conditions.  Sadly in the end the time had expired and we were left with a tough decision that the timeline was going too far and we did not have confirmation if the brewery would be able to fit and work in the space so we couldn't afford any more resources on it.  Since then we have been quiet in the hopes of making an announcement of a new location but so far no luck.  but we don't want to rush into any location as we want it be right for everyone.

What styles of beer do you hope to brew right off the bat? As you also want to have great cuisine at same time, what sort of food do you hope to have too?

It depends on the time of the year we open.  The plan is to have a lager, red, brown and wheat ale and one or two seasonals to start.  We don't want to scare anyone away but we want to have something unique that can set us apart.  As for food, we want upscale comfort to contemporary food.  Good hearty comfort meals withs the standard soups, salads, appys and entrees and a few with flair.  Again integrating beer into some of the dishes but not all of them is the goal.

Do you home brew? Do you have a brewing team? If so, who?

I did years ago, but along with most people and their hobbies I haven't afforded to keep it up with moving around the country and sadly haven't spent the time I wanted to on it.  but This will change that.  I do have a great brewing team which is the hardest thing for other brewpubs to acquire.  I have 4 members each with their own uniqueness.  I first approached Doug Saville who after a long tenure at Molson's started up Two Rivers and Merged it with Fort Garry Brewing.  His history alone and knowledge of the big brewing systems and running a successful brewery gives a wealth of knowledge that is hard to match in the province. 

I also have from the technical side, the CMBTC in downtown Winnipeg which we will become a member of.  It's a organization set up to promote Malting Barley around the world and is headed up by Rob McCaig, a former co-worker of Doug’s.  They have an on site brewery, and lab which we can contract out testing and recipes that we may not be able to do in house.  Also, since our brewery we ordered is larger than theirs (10bbl vs 4bbl) they would like to use our system for training and testing purposes as well so its a joint relationship.

Next our assistant brewmaster is Jared Carlberg.  He is a phenomenal home brewer who keeps racking up awards at home brew competitions across Canada.

Do you plan on sourcing any ingredients for your beer locally if possible? (Hint hint: such as barley from your friend Jeff Elder out of Wawanesa!)

Yes of course! Our goal is to buy as much local produced and sourced ingredients as possible.  Our mandate is even if it costs more within an allowable percentage, we buy local, because even the old beer barons like Shea’s had a saying “once the money leaves the province, it doesn't come back”

Are there any laws hindering the growth of the industry?

No, I don't feel so.  The laws change with time and how the public demand it.  For example, look how long it took after prohibition for things to change in Manitoba to where they are today.  Other provinces are perceived to be more progressive in their laws because they listened to public demand, that is how I look at it.  Manitobans need to demand it, but In all my meetings with the MLCC I feel they have been more than accommodating to the industry’s needs.

What do you think needs to be done to encourage more microbreweries, nanobreweries and brewpubs to start up in Manitoba? Look at almost any other city in Canada and you see brewpubs and microbreweries all over the place, but not in Manitoba.

It has to be a change in public culture and education on the industry’s part.  You can't legislate people to drink craft beer, they have to be introduced to it.  My dad had the big three brewery swill in his fridge when I was young, but that is not the case in my house, nor in my friends.  So our kids will grow up in a craft beer house so it may take a generation.

Do you plan on having any community involvement and has there been any interest by other beer-based organizations?

Yes, I visited with the Great White North Brewerianist Collectibles Club, great group!  Also the Winnipeg Brew Bombers.  Everyone seems really excited for this.

If you could name a beer after a Manitoban celebrity, who would you pick? Westman-wise, Ron Hopson in honour of the late great Ron Thompson would be awesome, or else a Bourbon Cummings-cask ale.

Those are great ones. You need to submit them for our naming the beer contest. If I had to pick I would want Riel-rebel or Louis' Lager after Louis Riel.  But after my favorite Winnipeg Jet Dustin Byfuglien and my idol Homer Simpson who is from Winnipeg, I would say “Buff’s Duff Beer”


‎Have you been getting any inspiration from any other brewpubs? I know our region is lucky enough to have Lowbrewco in Kenora, Souris River in Minot and Bushwakkers in Regina

So far we have made connections with them, but we want to have our own identity for Manitoba. We've been getting lots of advise from Manitobans and drawing from those brewpubs and other brewpubs across Canada and in the States. We also made a tour of brewpubs in The Twin Cities to develop relations with them as well.

Will you be selling beer in growlers for customers to take home?

Of course! That's the best part and main reason for doing a brewpub instead of a taphouse or craft beer pub. we have to get approval for all containers by the MLCC but the plan is to have growlers and kegs, and eventually have bottles, and mini kegs.  But everything has to be pre-filled according to MLCC, as we cannot fill growlers form the tap like they do outside the province.

Lastly, what sort of atmosphere will the brewpub have? Live music? big screen TVs to watch the Jets games? or just a simple ale house where people can sit around and chat with their friends?

We want to have at least two distinct areas in our location, lounge and dining room.  The lounge will be more lively with TVs and music, while the dining room will be quieter with TVs only for special events but also a private area for meetings and parties.  But again that all depends where we finally place our feet.

Thank you to Darren Wanless for taking time out of his busy schedule to do this lengthy interview. I wish him luck and hope to see Manitoba's first brewpub since 2003 open up in 2014, with possibly a different name as it may not be located on Portage Avenue afterall.

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13 November 2013 at 23:23 delete

Great interview. Can't wait to try some of these new Manitoba beers if they ever make it out to BC or if I make it out to Winnipeg (Shout out: Euclid ave, North Point Douglas!)

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