Bushwakker co-founder and president, Dr. Robertson passed away on November 19, 2017. His values and fierce devotion to quality food, beer and service remain strong in his immediate and extended Bushwakker family who still operate your Bushwakker.
The Robertson family spent the year 1976/1977 in Stuttgart, Germany while Bev was on sabbatical at the Universitat der Stuttgart. When the family returned home Bev decided that domestic North American beer was no longer acceptable. He took up home brewing and his efforts soon evolved into the Bushwakker Homebrewers. The Bushwakker Homebrewers consisted of a few individuals who produced roughly 250 imperial gallons of beer over each winter, for their own use. Their beers won several prizes, such as best Continental Dark/MÞnchener Dunkel in the 1985 Great Canadian Homebrew Competition for Arctic Dark. In 1985 Palliser Porter took Best in Show at the Great Canadian Homebrew Competition, Best Porter at the American Homebrewers Association competition and the Cape Cod Brewers Award.
Eventually, they began to tire and Bev decided to "go commercial" in 1986. He was able to convince the government of the day to pass enabling legislation to make Saskatchewan one of the earliest Canadian provinces to allow brewpubs. The Bushwakker received its license in 1990 and opened its doors in early 1991.
The sequence of events that lead to the existence of what the Globe and Mail considers to be one of Canada's top five brewpubs, and what some beer hunters consider to be North America's best brewpub, including a regular from Florida, started in 1976 in Stuttgart, Germany. The Robertson family spent the year 1976/77 in that city while Bev was on sabbatical leave at the Universitãt der Stuttgart. He gradually learned to appreciate the local Dortmunder style of beer, but soon moved on to the locally produced premium Pilseners.
On returning to Canada, Bev purchased a bottle of Canadian industrial beer in the Toronto Airport. His first reaction was that someone had accidentally filled the beer bottle with water, but a burp confirmed the presence of carbonation. He decided not to let his beer taste buds deteriorate to the point that he could taste Canadian industrial beer. He purchase European imports for home consumption. However, they were expensive and almost always stale. By 1979 he was looking for an alternative source of beer.
It was suggested during lunch at the University of Regina Faculty Club by Dr. Alex Kelly, Economics, that it was possible to produce full flavoured beers at home. Bev went to Harvest Brewing. He pointed to a picture on the wall of Neueschwanstein Castle, (around which the family had spent many hours on foot and skis and which can be seen in the Club Room) and said "I want to purchase whatever it takes to brew the beer that is brewed where that castle is."
He began brewing with beer kits, using malt extract. Within six weeks he was beginning to supplement the extracts with malt, and within six months he was brewing only full mash beers. He was eventually joined by two others (Keith Wolbaum and Dr. Lynn Mihichuk; several others joined on an occasional basis.). The group normally brewed from 4:00 PM until 12:00 midnight on Mondays during the winter, with a 70 liter batch size, producing typically 15 brews over the winter, or 3,000 12 oz. bottles. Wolbaum, Elaine and Bev had been part of a group that traditionally went for a 10 km. ski trip every Friday in winter, from the university, down Wascana lake and under the Trans-Canada Highway, through the Wascana golf course, over to University Park, past the cemetery, around Douglas Park to the Science Center and back to campus. They called themselves "The Bushwhackers", meaning those who ski making their own trails. The brewing group called themselves the "Bushwhacker Brewers".
During the period 1988 to 1992 Bev was chairman of the Saskatchewan Health Research Board, reporting directly to the Minister of Health. In 1988 he suggested to the conservative government that Saskatchewan should not be the last province to allow brewpubs. Legislation and regulations were put in place in 1989.
The government in power at the time had already been involved in promoting several business initiatives that had proven unrealistic. In order to make brewpubs more successful, they decided to give brewpubs a piece of the Saskatchewan monopoly on the off-sale of cold beer. Of course, those who held that monopoly, the hotels, screamed that it was their God-given right to monopolize off sale. A compromise was reached, allowing two brewpubs in Saskatoon and two in Regina. A competition was held. Many groups were formed to make application for these four brewpub licenses. All made it clear that they were only interested in the access to off-sale. They had no knowledge of the brewpub industry and no interest in gaining any. Several asked Bev to join them to look after the installation of a brewery, which they would actually use if pressed. They had all committed to buying malt extract breweries, which were already showing signs that they were not capable of producing beers of acceptable quality. Bev was encouraged by Grace Lipinski (then manager of the Faculty Club) to go it on his own. He applied for one of the four licenses and was not successful.
One year later a new minister became responsible for the Liquor Board. Bev explained to her that the limit on brewpubs derived from the fact that they had been allowed access to off-sale. He had not asked for off-sale, and it made no marketing sense because brewpubs were, in effect, a protest against the blandness of industrial beer, and now access to something he didn't want was nevertheless preventing him from getting his business started. As a consequence, more brewpubs were soon permitted, but they were not allowed to have off-sale. He applied again for permission to proceed and this time was successful. Work began in the summer of 1990 and the Bushwakker (The spelling of the name was changed at the suggestion of Keith Wolbaum to avoid any trademark problems.) opened on January 25 1991. It has been making its own trails ever since.
During the period 1988 until 1991 in which the legislation was created and the license finally obtained, it had been agreed that Elaine would be the general manager of the Bushwakker. It was decided during 1990 that both Scott and Kelly would also be part of the team.
Developments since 1991 include:
- All brewpubs have been allowed off-sale if they are 1.6 km from an existing off-sale. (The Bushwakker is not but we have been asking for special permission.)
- Brewpubs have been allowed to sell their own product for off-premise consumption.
- Brewpubs have been allowed to wholesale their product in kegs.
- Our kitchen sales have more than doubled and the size of the kitchen has been doubled. Our brewery is also approaching its full capacity. One reason that our beers are better is that we age them longer. They become more mellow and we don't need to filter them. We can do that because we have the space and we have 25 used tanks from old British pubs. Roughly ten are used for serving and 15 for aging. We also have six double sized new tanks which will add 40% to our production capacity.
The Bushwakker Brewpub was created on the main floor of the Strathdee Building, a classic warehouse in what is known now as Regina's Old Warehouse District. The area contains many restaurants, nightclubs, bars and pool halls.
The Strathdee was built in 1913 out of the rubble of the Great Regina Cyclone (actually a tornado) of 1912, on the site of a former Chinese laundry, and opened in 1914. It was the "Cadillac" warehouse of the area. The front of the main floor housed offices and a display area, with a beautiful pressed tin ceiling. The ceiling was restored to its original glory as part of the Bushwakker development.
History of the Strathee Building by Stewart and Lillian Mein
Whether you need to or not, take a trip to the washroom before you leave Bushwakker. Now, Heads Up! because on the wall is a framed front page of the Leader Post featuring an article about the city's regiment, the Regina Rifles. One of the workmen who helped renovate this place presented it to the management around the time of Operation Desert Storm, in which Canadians were involved.
The article, dated 27 July 1942, tells about Saskatchewan men going off to the Second World War where they picked up the moniker, "Johns." When these men from the prairies were brigaded with their more sophisticated city cousins in 1940, they became known as "Farmer Johns," a name they came to carry with justifiable pride as they became the toughest, best trained fighting unit in the Canadian army. They proved it by being among those chosen to lead the invasion of Normandy on D-Day. Incidentally, they were the only unit in the entire Allied invasion force to reach and hold their objective.
Of course the regiment has since been given the title "Royal," in part because of its gallant actions on D-Day. On that day Lieutenant Bill Grayson carried out an action not atypical of those taken by many others over the long and honourable history of the Regiment.
The following excerpt from Up the Johns! The Story of the Royal Regina Rifles, currently available in local books stores, tells the story.
At 0830 hours, A Company, still on the beach, reported that it was pinned down and taking casualties from heavy machine gun fire and by rounds from an 88 mm gun from inside the emplacement. In those first few critical minutes the fate of the company's assault hung in the balance.
However, Lieutenant Grayson, commanding 9 platoon, had jumped from his landing craft on crashing the beach and had hurried across the bare expanse of sand through a gap in the wire strung along the beach, to the edge of the first row of houses facing the sea. There, he took cover behind a corner of a house near the German concrete gun emplacement where he could not be observed by the crew inside. The emplacement was at the far end of an alley from the house behind which he was hiding. Between the gun emplacement and himself was more barbed wire and a German MG42 machine gun post. He noticed that the firing from the machine gun came in bursts at timed intervals along a fixed arc of fire.
Grayson checked the timing of the bursts and estimated that he would be able to get past the machine gun and run to the side of the emplacement where he could toss a grenade through the gun slit. Immediately after the next burst from the machine gun, he made a mad dash for the emplacement only to become entangled in the wire that formed the protective barrier for the gun. Miraculously, the next burst of fire was delayed. Grayson tore himself free and tossed in his grenade. On hearing the explosion, he dived in after it through the aperture. He leaped up just in time to see the last of the German gun crew disappearing through the back door of the emplacement.
The rear man, on seeing Grayson, turned and threw a "potato masher" grenade at him, which landed between his legs. Coolly, Grayson reached down, grabbed the handle and threw the grenade back at the German who left abruptly before it exploded. Grayson then followed the Germans into a trench which zig-zagged along to a covered underground protective area. On looking into this dark hole he could make out three or four figures. He heard shouts of "Kamerad," so he motioned with his pistol for them to come out. Out came 35 men whom he promptly took prisoner. By then, other men from A Company had reached the emplacement, and they disarmed the prisoners and led them away. For his daring action Grayson was awarded the Military Cross.
STRATHDEE, THE MAN
*The following is an article on the history of the Strathdee building. It is the second in a series of articles on the Strathdee building, its builders, and the city of Regina at the time it was built. They are prepared in close collaboration and with great assistance from the staff of the Regina Plains Museum, whom we gratefully acknowledge.
The story of James Strathdee is one of personal accomplishment and tragedy. He rose to prominence as one of Regina's first citizens, but died by suicide.
James Strathdee was born in 1876 in the Kincardineshire region of Scotland. His father was a tailor, and he trained and worked as a tailor, but James sought other challenges in life. He and his new wife moved first to Winnipeg after his father died in 1902. He started in the new world as a floor worker for the Campbell Brothers and Wilson Co. in Winnipeg. James worked his way up in the company and won the position of manager of the newly formed Campbell, Wilson and Strathdee Company in Regina in 1911. Strathdee was the third largest shareholder, after Campbell and Wilson. He moved to Regina in 1913, after the Great Cyclone of 1912, to oversee the planning and construction of what we now call the Strathdee building.
His home was at 3151 Angus Street and is now a heritage property, along with the Strathdee warehouse. Some of his family still live in Regina. Strathdee was very much a Regina booster and involved himself in community activities, through his church, the Assiniboia Club, the Canadian Club, the Red Cross and others. He was particularly active in the affairs of the Regina Board of Trade, which evolved into the Regina Chamber of Commerce. The Campbell, Wilson, Strathdee company expanded to Moose Jaw and Swift Current.
In 1933 James Strathdee suffered a head injury in a car accident while travelling in Alberta. He ignored the injury, but others thought that it was serious. His behavior changed after the accident. At the same time he had to face in the company, which he did not control, a new "young Turk" who was rising quickly through the company ranks, J. M. Sinclair. Sinclair gained enough power to squeeze Strathdee out of the company. Strathdee's life had been his company, and he did not take retirement well. He tried to escape to a new life on the coast, but his wife would not leave Regina and her old way of life.
In 1936, Strathdee was found shot to death on the train tracks near the Strathdee building. It was first thought to be a case of murder, but the police later ruled that his death was a case of suicide. The accident, the loss of his business, and the conflict between his plans and his wife's needs are all thought to have contributed to the depression that led to his death.
STRATHDEE, THE BUILDING
*The following is an article on the history of the Strathdee building. It is the first of what we hope will be a series of articles on the Strathdee building, its builders, and the city of Regina at the time it was built. They are prepared in close collaboration and with great assistance from the staff of the Regina Plains Museum, whom we gratefully acknowledge.
The Strathdee building bears witness to Regina's importance as a major wholesale distribution center at the beginning of the twentieth century. Plans for the building began shortly after the Great Cyclone of 1912 levelled many buildings in the Warehouse area. It was opened in March of 1914. The building was designed and built by a Winnipeg architect named J. H. G. Russell. It was named after its owners, the Campbell, Wilson and Strathdee Company.
The Campbell, Wilson, Strathdee grocery warehouse was one of Regina's first warehouses. Russell's design combines aesthetic taste with the classical revival tradition of the late nineteenth century. This style was common in the design of commercial buildings in Canada in the 1910's and 1920's. The style often used architectural form in a symbolic manner. The design of the Strathdee building attempts to unify form and function. The facade has decorative interest, but also reflects the dignity and importance of the use of the building, as a wholesale business with offices.
The two front entrances have heavy stonework, part of which is designed to suggest columns. Scrolled brackets are designed to appear to support the horizontal stone over the entrances. The stonework along the base of the building suggests Italianate influence. The stonework that appears to reinforce the corners of the building is typical of the classical revival tradition. Many other features, such as the large arched first floor windows, the stone belt above the first floor, and the brick masonry patterns and diamond shaped stone inlays support the strong impact of the building.
The offices were located in the area of the first floor which has the pressed tin ceiling. Two important offices were located on either side of what is now the entrance to the BUSHWAKKER BREWPUB. One was occupied by James Strathdee himself. A sample room attractively displayed the "Royal Shield" of goods such as teas, coffee, baking goods and powdered jelly, extracts and spices.
A large walk in vault is located on the main floor. Its entrance is near the door to the annex on the west side of the building. Another large vault is located in the basement. The shipper also had an office on the main floor. The space behind the offices and the upper floors were used as general warehouse space and was usually busy with many workers. The building was originally served by three freight elevators and a dumbwaiter, originally called a "lowerator". It is no longer used, but it sits next to the entrance to the bar in the north east corner of the BUSHWAKKER BREWPUB. Two of the freight elevators are still used, and one may eventually become a personnel elevator.
A railway spur originally served the loading dock at the back of the building and the freight cars that were parked there were easily accessible from the freight elevators.
After its service as a grocery warehouse, the Strathdee building housed the Saskatchewan Liquor Board. Later it became the home of Crescent Furniture, then Modern Home Furniture. Now that it has been restored, it houses a number of diverse businesses, including a unique mall, a software company, a book publisher, a modelling agency, and of course, Regina's only full-mash brewpub.
The massive density of this wood and brick structure conveys a sense of strength and solidity. The Strathdee Building is an impressive representative of the classical revival tradition and of Regina's first generation of warehouses.
The earliest relevant event in the history of the Bushwakker was probably a conference in Prague, in what was then the country of Czechoslovakia, around 1975. We arrived late and hungry. I rushed to a pre-conference evening reception that was just winding down. But first I needed to find a bathroom. I knew that the most common international phrase for bathroom in Europe was the German “WC”, pronounced “vay say”, but I was exhausted from many hours of air travel, and I forgot. Instead I used every English euphemism that I could think of, washroom, outhouse, loo, toilet, lavatory, water closet, etc.
The volunteers from the local university, The Czechoslovakian Agricultural University of Prague, had obviously been warned that they would be dealing with voracious North Americans, spoiled with obscene overconsumption. The visitors would eat everything in site and ask for more. My request for a place to take a leak was met every time with a clearly rehearsed chorus of “It has all been eaten!”
But this being one of the world’s four great brewing nations, there was still a supply of beer available. (Other great brewing nations are Germany, Belgium and Great Britain.) I still remember my first reaction to drinking real Czech beer. It was simply too different from the watery North American product to which I had become accustomed. It’s difficult to confess now, but I drank wine.
Some people adapt to the full flavour of traditional beer styles when they first try a sample of one. Bushwakker brewer Mitch is in that group, but I needed some intermediate beer styles before I was ready for the bigger beer flavours of Europe. That is why the Bushwakker offers intermediate or “cross-over” beers, like Northern Lights Lager, Cheryl’s Blond Ale, Last Mountain Lager and Dungarvon Irish Red Ale.
The food issue did not go away. The cafeteria food was mostly starch. Meat was rarely available and when it was it was nearly inedible. The only thing approaching vegetables or fruit on the menu was a vinegar cucumber salad, served with every lunch and dinner.
The conference was ten-days long, and had a break in the middle. The conferees were treated to a full-day trip and an extended picnic at a beautiful castle and its lush grounds a few hours south of Prague. The conference dealt with new developments in the calculation techniques and software used in my research, which is crystallography. At that time Canada punched above its weight in crystallographic computing, and Canada, Czechoslovakia, Great Britain, and the United States had nearly equivalent and strong representation at the conference.
A group of younger scientists formed at the picnic from those four nationalities and we drank beer and wine together. With the assistance of the locals, we talked one of the buss drivers into staying behind with his bus and we caroused and shared stories into the early hours.
Our co-opted bus eventually made its way back to the University through downtown Prague. As it happened, the popular movement to free Prague from Russian control and the dead weight of communism was already seeded. In the west, folk songs were being inspired by the civil-rights movement, and to our great surprise we discovered that some of these protest songs had become anthems of rebellion against their oppressors with our Czech friends. The bus became a drunken chorus of songs of protest.
I will never forget our bus rolling through Wenceslas Square in central Prague at 3:00 AM, with everyone singing as loud as they could, the then popular civil-rights folksong “If I had a Hammer”, written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays, and made popular by the group “Peter Paul and Mary”. We knew the consequences of attracting attention from the police and we were ready to accept them.
As a side note, several people who had been eating carp livers together at the picnic, including my wife Elaine and Herb Hauptman and Jerry Karl, both Nobel Laureates, woke up next morning with a case of food poisoning. They all recovered.
We left Czechoslovakia by train through Nürnberg, Germany. The entire group of North Americans had spent ten days together on what was for them a severely restricted diet. We literally ran from the Nürnberger train station to an adjacent fruit market that anticipated our precise cravings. The owners had seen the reaction to fresh fruit of other people returning from the east block and had set up their business to serve them. Oranges never tasted so good!
In 1976/1977 the Robertson family (myself, Elaine, son and original Bushwakker brewer, Scott, and daughter and current Bushwakker General Manager, Kelly) spent a sabbatical year in Stuttgart, southern Germany. I quickly developed a strong appreciation for German beer and moved from the more familiar styles, like Helles and Vienna, to the full-flavored premium southern German Pilsners. I eventually wrangled an invitation to speak at a University in Prague and this time my palate was ready to enjoy the wonderful traditional beers of Czechoslovakia. I would never go back to Canadian or Blue, except when required to, as a professional beer judge.
When the Robertson family returned from spending a sabbatical year in southern Germany in the summer of 1977, I still remember getting off the plane at the Toronto airport and ordering a beer while waiting for the flight connecting to Regina. I don’t remember which of the standard industrial North American beers it was, but I do remember how it tasted. Basically it didn’t! There was a hint of alcohol, but malt and hop flavour were below the taste detection threshold. I burped and the burp produced the slightest hint of beer flavour. (The air in the burp was warmer than the beer and malt and hop are more easily detected at higher temperatures.) It also was my first realization that perception of beer flavour is highly malleable, and depends on recent experience.
When we left Canada one year earlier, industrial beers were my normal drink. But after becoming acclimatized to the more full-flavoured beers in Europe, I found them wanting. If industrial beer has more flavour at higher temperatures, why do people who drink it try to first get it as cold as possible? One contributing factor may be that they really don’t like beer and if it’s cold enough they wont be able to taste it. But there is an additional reason.
Any distiller knows that alcohol boils at a temperature lower than that at which water boils. That means that as a water/alcohol mixture is warmed, the ratio of alcohol and water in the vapour above the beer tends to move toward an increasing amount of alcohol, and that impacts on the perception of taste. As the beer warms, the alcohol begins to dominate taste and any malt or hop flavour is overwhelmed. However, the more full-flavoured beers have enough malt and hop flavour to keep the alcohol flavour in balance at higher temperatures.
That incident is significant because I immediately decided to not let my taste perception change back to where it had been before leaving Canada, when I had been satisfied with drinking industrial beer. This meant spending the extra money to buy imported beer to meet my beer supply needs. But I soon grew tired of not only paying the extra cost, but also of drinking beer that was either skunky or oxidized or otherwise reflecting its long life in the bottle, just to have access to a full-flavour beer.
It was late 1977 and at that time I ate lunch in the University of Regina Faculty Club, now the University Club. I became involved in conversations over lunch with someone (Alex Kelly, Economics) who had tried a neighbours “home-brew” and in general, he had found the brews to be quite drinkable and varied in flavour. Perhaps I could make beer myself that would meet my needs.
I dropped in at Harvest Brewing at the old address north of the China Doll Restaurant on Broad St. I was surprised to find a large poster on the wall featuring the Neuschwanstein Castle in southern Bavaria. I told the proprietor, Ron Thomsen that I wanted to learn to make beer like they served in that castle on the wall. Stuttgart is only a few hours from Neuschwanstein and we had visited it many times, taking visiting relatives to see it and cross-country skiing in the area around it. (It also served as the inspiration for the Disney castles.)
Ron and I planned my brewing strategy, which involved starting off with extract kits, then adding partial full mash steps to the brewing. In three months I had switched to complete full-mash brewing, which meant that my starting materials were now malted barley, hops, water and yeast, the four classical ingredients allowed by the Rheinheitsgebot, the German purity laws.
Ron talked about starting a home-brewing club. He was aware that other home-brewing supply stores had started brewing clubs as a means to promote increased sales of brewing ingredients and he wanted to try the same. I agreed to participate in any such club and help get it up and running if there were anything that I could do. I think that my only real contribution to the club was to give it a name.
It has been the tradition of brewing clubs to choose names that produce an acronym that is itself a word related to beer. And the Ale and Lager Enthusiasts of Saskatchewan amateur brewing club was born. ALES has now become the second most successful amateur brewing clubs in North America, after the Quality Ale and Fermentation Fraternity (QUAFF) of San Diego California, in terms of awards won per year. Given the lead that Canada and the U. S. have over the rest of the world in serious amateur brewing, this really means that the ALES are also the second best in the world.
I continued brewing and soon encountered a problem familiar to most amateur brewers. The standard brewing volume for amateur brewers is roughly five gallons or 23 liters. That will fill about five dozen standard size beer bottles. If one is sufficiently interested in beer to be actually brewing it, five dozen bottles of beer is probably no more than a three-week supply. If one is also proud of ones beer and offers it to others, cut that down to a two-week supply or less. It takes six to eight hours to produce those five dozen bottles of beer. After a year of brewing, one begins to think about productivity. Is it worth that much time just to have access to good beer?
The obvious solution is to increase the batch size. I gathered new equipment so that I could brew with 70 liter batches. But 70 liters of beer weighs 155 lbs., and it is necessary to move that full volume of open liquid during the brewing process. I needed help.
I recruited my daughter’s husband at the time (since divorced), Keith Wolbaum, who was the technician in my university research group at the time, and is now one of the Bushwakker owners, and a junior research colleague, Dr. Lynn Mihichuk, now head of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Regina.
Wolbaum, Mihichuk, my wife Elaine and I and others had been part of another tradition at the U. of R. For several winters we began the weekend with a hearty trek on cross-country skis, starting at the loading dock of the Laboratory Building, then traveling east on the lake and under the bridge on the Trans-Canada highway, through the grounds of the Wascana Country Club, across Wascana creek to the east side of the Riverside Memorial Park Cemetery, along its northern side to Douglas Park and back across the lake to the starting point. The distance is roughly 10 km.
We made our own trails, and we had a tradition of never canceling our trek because of the weather. After finishing we gathered at a local pizza restaurant for pizza and beer. When skiing hard in stormy weather a cross-country skier in good condition (and I was in good condition back then) can build up a layer of ice across his/her upper back and icicles will hang off his/her toque and his mustache. Our appearance was sometimes strange and from the reaction we got from other patrons at the Pizza restaurant, perhaps a little scary.
Cross-country skiing without prepared trails is known as Bushwacking. We were the original Bushwakkers. (We later changed the spelling for copyright and symmetry reasons.)
Through the winter, starting in late November, four of us gathered every Monday evening to brew roughly the equivalent of 17 dozen bottles of beer. I went home from the university an hour early and started the water heating at 4:00 PM. The rest joined by 6:00 PM. We usually worked until midnight. We often ordered in pizza during the evening.
The Bushwacker Brewers and the ALES amateur brewing club prospered during the 1980’s. Other brewers, or would-be brewers, asked to join us in order to gain experience. We invited two or three aspiring brewers to join us every third Monday evening. We put them to work bottling the beer from three Monday brews, usually 600 bottles. We had purchased a new stove for the kitchen and we re-installed the old stove in the basement. My son-in-law at the time installed a hood and exhaust system over the basement stove.
On winter Monday evenings our home became a brewery, with both stoves being used and up to seven people working in the brewery. My job was to keep records and to schedule the crew’s tasks so that hot water, brewing ingredients and clean vessels were ready when needed.
We decided to give ourselves a name and we chose “The Bushwacker Brewers”, given that most of the core group also cross-country skied together, making our own trails. Over each winter we bottled around 3000 bottles of beer, all in the unattractive but efficient “stubbies”. I built a corner room in the basement, insulated from the rest of the basement, for storage.
The Canadian Amateur Brewing Association (CABA) claimed to be a national organization and its web site listed amateur brewing clubs from across the country. Otherwise it seemed to be a central Canada organization. Nevertheless, we decided to enter some of our beer in its annual competition held in Toronto in 1986. At the time I was a member of an advisory committee of the CBC on science and technology content. (Other members included David Suzuki and Vaira Vikis-Freibergs, who was the president of Latvia from 1999 until 2007)
The committee met in Toronto and I was able combine a trip to a committee meeting with the annual CABA competition. I was present when it was announced that our Palliser Porter had taken gold in the best of show category. I was “flabbergasted”. Nevertheless that gave us confidence later when we decided to “go commercial.” The two-handled beer mug over the bar marks that occasion. Other mugs over the bar are also for awards won at CABA competitions.
In the late 1980’s the ALES began to run out of steam. Ron Thomsen set up other home-brew supply stores in western Canada and operated out of Saskatoon. His Regina managers were not as supportive of the club as had been Ron himself. At the same time the work of creating our own beer supply was becoming less exciting and more like real work. We were brewing over three times as much beer as I had brewed while working alone, but we had four times as many people to share it. We hadn’t really increased our productivity, but group brewing is certainly more enjoyable than working alone.
How do we maintain access to real beer without so much work? The obvious answer was to go commercial. We were just beginning to learn about brewpubs and microbreweries at that time. Spinnakers had opened in Victoria in 1984 and the Kingston Brewpub in Ontario in 1985. At the time I was chairman of the Saskatchewan Health Research Board and I had access to the provincial cabinet. I started lobbying key cabinet members to create the legislative framework for brewpubs in Saskatchewan.
The key issue was to find a way around “tied-house” legislation. Up until the days of prohibition in the U. S., many licensed establishments and nearly all drinking establishments in most parts of the world, were owned and operated by breweries. They were called “tied houses”. (Independent licensees were called “free houses”, the name we gave our other restaurants; see www.thefreehouse.com.) This tended to limit the choices of beer available to the customer, but the bigger problem was that the big breweries competed for market share by pushing consumption in their own establishments, encouraging what we now call politely “over-consumption”.
Prohibition was one response. The other was tied-house legislation. A brewpub contravenes tied-house legislation by definition. According to the American Brewing Association; a brewpub is a “A restaurant that has an in-house brewery”. (No, not “A pub that has an in-house brewery”. The average American brewpub and The Bushwakker see more sales out of the kitchen than from the bar.)
The provinces and states found various ways around tied-house regulations. Saskatchewan regulations provide that a restaurant or pub may brew its own beer if its total annual production does not exceed a proscribed limit. Alberta regulations say that every brewery may operate one restaurant and no more.
The campaign for the 1986 election was just beginning and my cabinet contacts didn’t want to bring up any issue involving alcohol during the campaign, but they promised to address my ideas immediately after getting re-elected, which they did.
In anticipation of being offered the chance to open a brewpub in Regina I started preparations. I attended meetings of the Craft Brewers Association. The first was in Milwaukee. Less than 200 people attended, but it was there that I met Brad McQuhae, who at the time was the brewer at Spinnakers in Victoria and who continues to be an important contact for us in the industry. Attendance at craft brewing meetings now exceed 3000.
I sought business advice on starting a brewpub from a Regina business consultant and met with him several times. When the Saskatchewan government did eventually start working on brewpub regulations, that same consultant was engaged to advise the provincial government with regard the creation of new brewpub regulations.
I eagerly awaited the announcement of the regulations, while looking for opportunities to raise the financing. Reality descended and I learned that it would take a lot more money than I had hoped, and had available, to start up a serious business.
Rumours circulated about the expected content of the new regulations. I was out of the province for two weeks attending scientific conferences. I returned and was told that the new regulations would contain a provision that would allow brewpubs to join with hotels in operating cold beer stores. At first I was delighted. Our brewpub would have a secondary source of income.
Then I learned that the beer to be sold in these brewpub beer stores was conventional mass market beer, not the brewpub’s own beer. At first I didn’t believe it. It made no sense that a business dedicated to the sale and promotion of high quality serious beer would want to sully its image by being associated with “industrial beer”, as I came to label the mass-market North American product. It became clear that in my conversations with the consultant I had not adequately conveyed the idea that brewpub and microbreweries were popular because they offered an alternative to the blandness and sameness of industrial beer.
In its first term the conservative government had promoted a number of business initiatives, contrary to conventional conservative ideas about the direct involvement of governments in business, and most of their initiatives had been failures. The newly elected government wanted to give brewpubs a “leg up” by cutting them a share of the cold-beer market. I tried to explain that giving a brewpub a license to sell industrial beer was the equivalent to giving an anti-abortion group a license to operate an abortion clinic to raise money for its lobby efforts. And anyway, North American industrial beer was an abortion to anyone who had become accustomed to drinking the more full-flavoured beers available in most of continental Europe.
I made no headway.
However, I suddenly started to receive phone calls from others with a new interest in the brewpub concept. Meetings were arranged. The conversations went something like:
Caller: “We’re interested in the new regulations that allow brewpubs in Saskatchewan and we hear that you know something about brewpubs.”
Caller: “Okay, we could use some help. We want to set up the bar and the off-sale, and we would like for you to join us and help us set up the brewery.”
(To the person not from the prairie region of Canada or the northern tier states, “off-sale” is the local phrase for “retail beer store”, beer sold for consumption off premise.”)
BR: “And what do you have in mind for a brewery?”
Caller: “We’ve already agreed to purchase a malt extract system.”
BR: “But malt-extract systems produce poor quality beer and the ingredient cost is high. The industry has already established that full-mash breweries are much better investments.”
Caller: “That’s okay. We don’t intend to sell much beer. We see the off-sale as the source of profit!”
I declined to participate.
The hotels in Saskatchewan held the monopoly on the sale of cold beer, outside the monopoly of the government liquor stores for warm beer sales. The hotels would not give up their control without a fight. A fierce lobby against the whole concept of brewpubs was launched by the Saskatchewan Hotel Association. A compromise was reached. Only four-brewpub “endorsements” would be allowed, with two each in Regina and Saskatoon. Those who wanted those endorsements would compete for them.
I joined the fray.
In retrospect two things became obvious.
The first four brewpubs made token attempts to produce drinkable beer, but on average their brewers did not have the right backgrounds to be able to learn to make brewpub quality beer and they brewed beer that few drank. The owners used the brewpub regulations to operate lounges and beer stores. The alternative was to build a hotel to gain access to the same privileges and a small brewery was cheaper than hotel rooms. The hotels were justified in their opposition to the introduction of brewpub regulations.
From our perspective, the ersatz brewpubs gave the whole concept of brewpub a bad reputation in Saskatchewan, and we’re still dealing with that bad reputation 20 years later.
Secondly, if we had been given a brewpub “endorsement” then, we would have almost certainly failed. When we did get to proceed with the development of the Bushwakker five years later, we just made it through the first year. We were short on business knowledge and experience. Without what we learned in those five intervening years we would not have had enough knowledge to survive the first year.
We did eventually manage to find the money to build The Bushwakker, and it opened its doors in January 1991. We struggled for the first few years, but we gradually learned the things we needed to know about operating a restaurant and brewery from the school of hard knocks, and we survived, then grew, then prospered. In addition to basic business knowledge, I brought my experience from managing a university research group and Elaine brought her background in educational psychology. Popular books on the “new styles of management” at the time we were getting established recommended what we were already doing.
Our success and our reputation grew. People came to us for help with their own new businesses in the hospitality industry and they still do. We agreed to assist a group headed by Regina’s well-known restaurateur, Fred Soofi, in creating a pub environment to serve people living in Regina’s Cathedral District. That led to the development of what is now known as the Freehouse Restaurant Group.
We re-established the Ale and Lager Enthusiasts of Saskatchewan and they have moved on to fame and fortune, at least as measured by reputation. The ALES and Bushwakker together host the annual Canadian Amateur Brewing Competition, which is itself the gateway to international competitions for Canadian amateur brewers. ALES wins more awards than any other Canadian amateur brewing club and the second greatest number for any club in North America.
The City of Regina asked us to create a Business Improvement District in the area in which we operate. Regina’s Old Warehouse Business Improvement District (ROWBID) now promotes new businesses around the Bushwakker, bringing us new customers.
In 1997 I took early retirement from the University of Regina to devote full time to the Bushwakker and Freehouse restaurant groups. Our son and head brewer, Scott, was seconded several times, by our friend Brad McQuhae, to set up breweries and train brewers for craft breweries in Japan. In 1998 he was hired away from us by a group in Singapore, who had seen his work in Japan. We have been fortunate in finding strong replacements for the position of head brewer since then.
The Singapore group continues to expand. They are now putting a brewpub into Changi Airport’s new Terminal 3 in Singapore. Elaine is now general manager emeritus of the Bushwakker and our daughter Kelly is the new GM. One of our granddaughters works part time in the office. (We have, on occasion seen three generations of the family working behind the bar during a particularly busy Friday lunch, when everyone joins the fray.)
We have received numerous awards for our beer, for the creation of ROWBID and for our generation and promotion of a Jazz culture and Jazz bands in Regina. Our serving team regularly wins the gold medal in the reader’s poll conducted by the Prairie Dog magazine, and head server Cheryl wins or ties for the title of top server every year. (Last year she tied with fellow Bushwakker server Jody) Last year we received a total of six reader’s-poll gold medals in the Prairie Dog annual reader’s vote. We have been named in several compilations of top Canadian craft breweries.
The Bushwakker has been featured on national radio and television programs. (CTV’s segment on our Blackberry Mead and our Firkin Taping ceremony was aired nationally several times over the Christmas period, 2006.) This is being written in a hotel room in Stockholm, where our beer is representing Canadian craft beer at the Stockholm Beer and Whisky Festival, at the request of the Government of Canada.
Our annual single malt scotch tasting event, our annual lobster dinner, our annual Chilean night, our annual brewer’s dinner, our specialty beer tastings, all sell out weeks in advance. Our newly introduced Mexican Night, featuring a tasting of 100% Agave Tequilas, will do so soon.
Based on our continued strong sales growth we expect to be around for a long time.