FOOD AND DRINK
A Thirst for Superior Beer Rises in Thunder Bay
Northwestern Ontario's appetite for well-made beer has been a sleeping giant all along, as local breweries and beer bars are discovering
For evidence of Thunder Bay’s longtime demand for local-centric beer, all you have to do is ask someone at a bar about Labatt Crystal. Thanks to a huge and regionally specific advertising push in the 1980s, Crystal became the iconic beer of choice for Thunder Bay. Despite the international ownership, it was a beer that was distinctly local, and acted as an icon of Northwestern Ontario identity for itself. The beer with a waterfall on the label has inspired continued demands by the public for Labatt to keep making it.
But as the times change, so do people’s tastes. Over the past several years Thunder Bay has been shaking free its reputation as a meat-and-potatoes kind of town, and has crystallized (as it were) into something it knew it was all along: a central hub for the Northwestern region and a destination for the trappings of a big city, even with a population hovering around 120,000. It’s all here: Fussy coffee shops, locally made cocktail bitters, boutique shopping experiences, world-class fine dining – all with a little Thunder Bay twist. A more interesting and urban Thunder Bay needs more interesting and urban beer.
As Billy discovered on a recent visit, Northwestern Ontario is clamouring for good beer, especially if it’s local.
What to drink
Since 2012 Sleeping Giant Brewing Co. has been creating the pre-eminent Thunder Bay beer, from using Lake Superior water to buying its malted barley from Canada Malting, located on the port a five minute’s drive away. For years the folks at Sleeping Giant have been doing their bit to circle Thunder Bay on beer lovers’, maps and have done some good for the community all the while. This past Father’s Day, a picture of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wearing a Sleeping Giant Northern Logger beer shirt made national news. Taking advantage of the publicity, the brewery immediately began selling the shirts on special, with all proceeds going to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Thunder Bay. It was a small gesture, but the kind that sticks in consumers’ minds and makes them want to support that business.
Courtesy the Prime Minister's Office
Sure enough, demand is high for Sleeping Giant beer. You can’t walk into any bar or restaurant without seeing a tap pouring Sleeping Giant Northern Logger, a kölsch-style beer with grassy hop presence and notes of honeyed biscuit, or the brewery’s 360, a pale ale with notes of tangerine marmalade and a supporting malt backbone. In fact, under the leadership of co-owner Matt Pearson, the people at Sleeping Giant have already expanded to a much larger facility, where they hope to step up distribution in and around the Lake Superior area.
Sleeping Giant’s slogan, “Drink Superior Beer,” is meant as a wake-up call to all breweries in the region to band together to make the beer scene in the region something the locals can be proud of. Last February saw the opening of Thunder Bay's second brewing operation, Dawson Trail Craft Brewery, whose many beers – brewed at its very small facility – tend to vanish quickly on taps.
Northern Ontario solidarity helps other beers of this (sometimes unfathomably large) region enjoy a place in Thunder Bay. The beers of Lake of the Woods, of Kenora, Ontario – some 500 kilometres west of Thunder Bay – are a regular presence in bars around the city, as are the beers of Sudbury’s Stack Brewing (some 1,100 kilometres east).
Where to drink it
Most of the best options are all in the heart of Thunder Bay’s Waterfront Entertainment District. For the best beer selection in the region, the Red Lion Smokehouse should be your first and last stop. With more than 100 beer options from Ontario and as far away as Germany and Belgium, you’ll never have to order the same thing twice. This large, homey venue regularly hosts live concerts and is famous city-wide for it’s stick-to-your-ribs delicious barbecue.
If you enjoy the whole dive bar vibe, The Sovereign Room is a former Chinese food restaurant that’s finding a new life as a bar, with the furniture, decorations, and even the original sign remaining. While the decor is dark and grungy, the food and beer is anything but, with its award-winning dishes and celebration of local beer. It’s not uncommon to see cans of Northern Logger in hands all across the bar.
The Foundry Gastropub is a spacious two floor building that has the classic old style Irish pub feel and is something of a central hub, attracting folks of all ages with its excellent food, vibrant and eclectic live musical performances, and respectable selection of beer for all tastes, catering to the Coors Banquet crowd as much as they do for local breweries like Sleeping Giant and Lake of the Woods.
Robin LeBlanc / Billy
Finally, if you’re planning a late summer getaway to Thunder Bay, grab tickets to the BrewHa Craft Beer Festival – but hurry, they disappeared quickly for last summer’s second annual event.
Robin LeBlanc is an award-winning Beer writer and owner of thethirstywench.com. Along with her regular beer columns in Torontoist and Muskoka Life Magazine, she is also the coauthor of The Ontario Craft Beer Guide, available in stores now.
This article was originally published on Dec. 20, 2016.