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.