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Northern Superior Breweries Revives History Through Beer in Sault Ste. Marie

The city’s largest independent brewery taps into a long brewing history to deliver a fresh yet familiar new beer

To say that craft beer has experienced a boom in recent years is an understatement. In towns all across the continent, independent craft breweries are springing up and brewmasters are rustling cheek to jowl with their brethren in barley to bring public attention to their brand. It’s a hops eat hops world out there.

But in Sault Ste. Marie, ON, an industry town on the cusp of Lake Superior, the city’s largest local brewery needs little introduction. Having been in production since late 2015, Northern Superior Breweries pours the kind of beer that fathers and grandfathers would have picked up on the way home from a long day at the steel plant.

Which is no coincidence: Northern Superior is an attempted reincarnation of Northern Breweries, beloved of generations of Northern Ontarians in the Sault and beyond since the early 20th century. Somewhat famously (at least among beer history geeks), it was a unique employee-owned co-operative between 1977 and 2004. (Scroll down to the end of this story for a more in-depth look at the fascinating history of Northern Breweries.)  

Northern Superior Breweries

Old school brews from Northern Breweries.

For Northern Superior partner Mike Oknianski, adding a new chapter to the city’s storied beer history was the impetus for reviving and reinventing the brand.

After Northern Breweries closed in 2006, Oknianski, a government employee by day, would drive by the shuttered building and lament its loss. “It bugged me because I said, ‘Look at all the brewing history in Northern Ontario we’re losing.’ It had a big impact on the community for the longest time.”

It wasn’t just the history that intrigued Oknianski – he was motivated by possibilities for the future. “I was like, what about all the intellectual property and the recipes? Can that be resurrected?”

It was helpful that Oknianski also had experience with patents and trademarks. He was able to secure the trademark for Northern Superior and acquire the recipes. He talked to old brewmasters for their wisdom, redesigned the logo, and – along with three partners – set out to recreate a local favourite.

Northern Superior Breweries

You can spot this truck all over town.

“We tweaked and tested [the recipe] for seven months because a hops variety they used when they were brewing Northern is no longer available. [Eventually we] came up with a recipe we liked,” he says, adding there are no additives or food colouring in the brew. “Then we had some prior Northern employees test it, and got rave reviews.”

Billed as an “American-style amber lager,” Norther Superior Lager is an easy-drinking beer – clean and crisp, it goes down smoothly. It’s less a stereotypically wonky craft beer, more a true blue collar microbrew.

That’s what the market likes, Oknianski says. Two new craft breweries (OutSpoken and Union Jack) have opened in town in the past few years, offering more adventurous pours, and and are doing well. Yet there’s a strong working-class history in the Sault, where men went to beer halls after a day at Algoma Steel (now Essar, the success of which – or lack thereof – is a constant worry for the local economy) and drank pints of Northern.

This was the target demographic Oknianski had in mind with Northern Superior: “The people who drank at the New American or the bowling alleys. Those people are older now because they’ve got to remember a [brewery] that closed 10 years ago.”

But it seems like the younger crowd appreciates the nostalgia, too. Oknianski expected measured growth by appealing to those familiar with the beer. Instead, the brewery is breathlessly trying to keep up with demand and pivot the business plan as opportunities arise.  

Northern Superior Breweries

Taps for Northern Superior's three regular beers: 11 P.M, Northern 55, and Northern Superior Lager.

The initial strategy involved selling kegs to restaurants, says Oknianski, whose day-to-day title is vice president of operations. By the end of 2016, the beer was in more than 40 restaurants. The retail plan was to sell growlers from the brew house’s storefront. Within the first few months the shop was nearly out of growlers, with demand increasing.

The distribution plan was to stay local since shipping up north was costly. Northern Superior is now pouring on St. Joseph’s Island, on the shores of Lake Superior in Batchawana Bay, on the Agawa Canyon train, in Wawa, and it’s on tap at Wacky Wings, a local chicken wing chain that has six locations across Northern Ontario.

The brand hosts events (including weddings and yoga and beer classes) in its space, and has sponsored music festival and concert series – all with a giant novelty blow-up beer can as a calling card.

Northern Superior Breweries

Yoga in the tap room is an elevated experience. Presumably the compressor is only ornamental.

“One month we sold over 8,500 litres. We reached [production] capacity in eight months,” says Oknianski.

If Oknianski was shrewd in his revival of old recipes (throwback brew Northern 55 is also among the offerings, alongside a new black beer, Northern 11 P.M., and Q, created exclusively for steakhouse Quattro Vinotecca), he was inspired in his attempts to capture all the physical artifacts from Northern Breweries.

“I got a lot of memorabilia from a guy who bought a bunch of stuff when a storage locker went up for auction.” This collector, Oknianski says, was going to start a museum but instead started selling his trove on eBay. The haul included watercolour paintings of labels from Soo Falls Breweries and wooden cases from 1925. He landed old records from old Doran’s radio ads from the 1950s, deliriously sexist fare. He has old posters and rows of old bottles, and people regularly donate their own souvenirs of the past.

“It’s fantastic stuff. It’s stuff that would have been sold off and would have been lost. I don’t think anyone’s ever seen these watercolour paintings; they’re one of a kind,” he says.

Northern Superior Breweries

Memorabilia and historical artifacts fill the tap room. Also, people.

A selection of these historical finds, including old doors and other paraphernalia – like an old compressor that was salvaged from the old brewery’s ice house floor before it was demolished – are installed in the tap room of the Northern Superior brewery giving it a retro industrial feel. The tap room also conveniently opens up to the Bushplane Museum – which showcases Northern Ontario’s bush flying and forest protection heritage – an excellent location for thirsty tourists, history buffs and locals alike to amble into.

“Some of the big tour ships that travel on the Great Lakes are stopping in the Sault now, so they’ll go there for a tour and then boom! They’re in the brewery. So it’s nice, we’re selling a lot of beer out of town,” Oknianski says.

But the pièce de resistance of Northern Superior’s retro revival has to be the draft ball.

What is a draft ball, you say? It’s a creamy white pressurized orb that holds the equivalent of 56 beers that’s placed in a box, filled with ice, and dispensed with a pump. It’s a vessel for instant draft at home – or while hunting, or fishing, or at camp (that’s Northern Ontarian for a cottage). Draft balls were a hugely popular Sault beer tradition, one that vanished with the closure of Northern Breweries.

Northern Superior Breweries

The draft ball then and now.

When rifling through the old brew house before its demolition, Oknianski happened upon 1,000 branded draft balls and jumped on the chance to bring them back to market.

“I tracked down the original patent holder down in Florida and he had the last two machines that make them sitting down in a warehouse,” he says, noting that Budweiser had once distributed the draft ball in U.S. markets. “We’ve found someone who could make the box again, the guy who had the original cutouts.” The draft balls were relaunched in fall 2016 after some significant R&D to improve the pump mechanism, as the old one had a clamp that damaged the ball after three uses.

To ask Oknianski what he hopes for Northern Superior Breweries is to tempt fate. The beer may have been revived because it was a part of the community that he missed, but since opening its trajectory has been determined by how the community has responded to this piece of history, carefully laid plans be damned.

Still, the fact that all three of the town’s independent breweries are racing to keep up with demand speaks to the fact that in the age of craft beer, there’s always a thirsty market.

“I think it’s the right timing for this now. There are a lot of craft breweries out there, but there aren’t that many in the north,” Oknianski says. “Even though San Francisco had craft beer 20 years ago, it’s just starting to roll here now. We were lucky that it was going to work right now.”

Northern Superior Breweries

The old Soo Falls brewery block.

Coda: More than a century of brewing in the Sault

In 2006, with the shuttering of Northern Breweries, Sault Ste. Marie’s local brewing history came to a halt – a history that had stretched back more than 100 years.

Back in the early 20th century, North Bay hotelier J.J. Doran decided he’d like to make beer for his guests, so he got into the beer business. In 1907, Doran joined two other families in starting a brewery in Sudbury, called the Sudbury Brewing and Malting Company. It purchased Soo Falls Brewing (established in 1899) in 1911. Two years later, Doran and company added another brewery, Kakabeka Falls Brewing in Fort William (now part of Thunder Bay), and then opened Doran’s Brewery in Timmins in 1919. Finally, in 1948, the company acquired the Port Arthur Beverage Co. This loosely knit group of Northern Ontario companies was brought together under the banner of Doran’s Northern Breweries in 1960.

These were heady days for beer in the north. For a time, the transport of beer was regulated by the Wartime Alcoholic Beverages Order of 1942, a temperance move enacted by William Lyon Mackenzie King to curb drinking and divert resources, like bottles and vehicular transportation, to the war effort. When the order ended after the War, the LCBO continued to honour the agreement that restricted beer from crossing the 46th parallel. The policy effectively gave Doran’s a monopoly on Northern Ontario, as the big southern brewers were not permitted to distribute there.

Northern Superior Breweries

Doran's, back in the day.

But when Doran’s was sold to Canadian Breweries (while retaining the name), that agreement dissolved, and big players Molson and Labatt entered the Northern Ontario market. After some troubled years, the brand surged again when, in 1977, the Doran’s employees bought the company from Canadian Breweries, creating the first employee-owned brewing co-operative in North America. Ownership changed hands again in 2004, and in 2006 the company filed for bankruptcy.

This story is important because it was during this later era that Northern Breweries solidified its footing as a point of local pride. If communities in the north felt as if they owned Northern, it  for a time they actually did.

It’s this sense of connection and nostalgia that brought Mike Oknianski and his business partners to revive the local brewing tradition.

Published Wednesday, February 15th 2017

Header image credit: Courtesy, Northern Superior Breweries



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