Coastal craft beers are coming to Lake Superior

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“Craft beers inspired by Lake Superior.

It’s like that Sleeping Giant Brewery describes its menu. Founded in 2012, this Canadian beer brand was the first independent brewery to open in Thunder Bay, Ontario. And his beer is more than just inspired by the lake.

Sleeping Giant uses about 50,000 liters of lake water a month to produce beers with colorful names like Northern Logger and Mr. Canoehead, said general manager Kevin Brewer.

Another local brewery along the north shore of Lake Superior, Slate Island Breweryis located about two hours east of Thunder Bay in the city of Terrace Bay, Ontario, and shares a similar history.

Slate Island beers are also made with Lake Superior water. According to owner Brian Doig, Slate Island uses about 3,600 liters of Lake Superior water per month. “The Lake Superior chemical compound is different and therefore could create a different taste than other beers,” Doig said.

It’s not just the water that makes these breweries special, it’s also their location. Sleeping Giant and Slate Island are part of a growing culinary tourism scene around Lake Superior. Craft breweries have become an important element in attracting visitors to the area and they also enhance existing tourist activities. For example, 18 breweries, including Sleeping Giant and Slate Island, are part of the Lake Superior Circuit Ale Trail.

Dan Bevilacqua, executive director of Superior Country, the organization behind the Lake Superior Circle Tour, says the Ale Trail is an “add-on” for tourists who are already hiking the 1,200-mile journey around the largest and of the coldest of the Great Lakes. He also notes that the Ale Trail attracts a niche market that specifically seeks Ale Trail stops.

The Ale Trail makes it easy for visitors to find breweries through listings in the 80,000 Circle Tour guides posted to locations around Lake Superior. An online trip planning tool allows tourists to personalize their experience and a “passport” program encourages stopping at places along the Trail.

A bright future for beer tourism

Sleeping Giant Brewery. (Photo credit: Capri Cafaro)

Doig of Slate Island Brewing confirms that the Ale Trail is an effective way to attract new customers. Participating in the Ale Trail, he said, has been a “very effective way to get traffic” for the brewery because the Trail is so well publicized.

Brew-Ha, an annual craft beer festival in Thunder Bay, is another draw for beer lovers visiting the area. Kerry Berlinquette, one of Brew Ha’s organizers from 2015 to 2019, said the festival attracted around 4,000 patrons each year.

Brew Ha has been on hiatus due to the pandemic, but new management plans to bring it back in 2023. Berlinquette hopes next year will bring new tourism opportunities for craft brewers in Thunder Bay. She plans to present a local craft brewery tour in Viking Cruises as a shore excursion option for their passengers visiting Thunder Bay.

Ontario government invests in the growth of craft breweries

According to Ontario Craft Brewers Associationthe microbrewery industry employs over 2,000 people in the province and generates approximately C$150 million annually through tourism-related activities.

This economic impact has been noticed by the Ontario provincial government, which has invested in growing craft brewery production in the less populated northern part of the province.

The Federal Economic Development Agency for Northern Ontario, or FedNor, has allocated hundreds of thousands of dollars to breweries to improve or expand their manufacturing capabilities, make capital improvements and create new jobs.

According to Brewer, Sleeping Giant received CA$100,000 in 2017 from FedNor’s Women’s Entrepreneurship Strategy Program to “create huge efficiencies in [the] Brewery.” In 2022, Sleeping Giant obtained another C$100,000 grant from FedNor used to get a new canner and pasteurizer for their plant.

The Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation, or NOHFC, has also provided financial support for start-up craft breweries. Since 2018, the NOHFC invested approximately $5.2 million CAD to 16 craft breweries in Northern Ontario.

According to Doig, Slate Island Brewing Company went through a rigorous application process to receive a grant of approximately CA$150,000 from the Fund, which was used to help start the brewery in 2021 and offset capital costs. Sleeping Giant, also benefited from the Fund’s program in 2017receiving a CA$800,000 grant to relocate to their current location and quadruple in size and capacity.

Northern Ontario is part of the culinary tourism map

Breweries are just one piece of the Northern Ontario tourism puzzle built around refreshments. A greater culinary tourism effort promotes a greater variety of food and drink related attractions. Paul Pepe, Director of Tourism Thunder Bay, estimates Northwestern Ontario brings in C$63 million annually through food and beverage sales.

There are “very unique, eclectic global influences in the food that people don’t expect to find in a small town,” Pepe said.

He credits the recent growth in immigration from Southeast Asia as a contributing factor to Thunder Bay’s changing culinary landscape. Pepe also noted the role of indigenous communities and a commitment to farm-to-table meals as key elements of the region’s unique food offering.

Last summer, Nicole Brown, director of marketing for the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance visited 30 of these “Food Tourism Value Chain Suppliers” in the Thunder Bay area to identify partners to participate in the Great taste of Ontario passport program.

She and her colleagues visited several of Thunder Bay’s five breweries as well as unique restaurants such as the Lady Bannock which serves burgers between traditional native Bannock fried bread. Visit Thunder Bay and the Ontario Far North Beer Tour are two examples of passports offered by Great Taste of Ontario aimed at driving visitors to these types of destinations.

Brown says she sees the passports as a “great opportunity to celebrate and encourage people to discover or re-explore the taste of the North.”


Catch more news at Great Lakes Now:

Insects, shorter winters, climate: Great Lakes vineyards face changing circumstances

Great Grapes: Soil and climate have made the Great Lakes a premier wine region


Featured image: Sleeping Giant Brewing Company. (Photo credit: Capri Cafaro)

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