Since opening in January 2013, Wood Buffalo Brewing Co (affectionately referred to as Brew Pub by locals) has been serving up cold brews and great eats in Fort McMurray. It’s had its ups and downs as have many establishments with the economy, and especially those downtown. Things are starting to pick up again, though, and General Manager Isaac Van Nie credits a new emphasis on bringing in live bands regularly on Friday and Saturday nights.
“It’s been awesome and it’s nice to have a bit of a local flair in the place. We’ve always looked at ourselves as a community melting spot and we have a great room for it and a great stage,” Van Nie says, quick to point out that the music doesn’t detract from the conversational vibe in the room. “There’s some other great spots downtown that do live music as well but we have more of a restaurant vibe.”
Van Nie says regular live music has not only attracted some new clientele, but has helped to prolong customers stays. “We always had a great dinner rush but then a lot of people want to migrate uptown because that’s where most of the population lives right now. We start the music a little earlier so it’s a nice transition once you finish dinner, a band starts up and then maybe you stick around for an extra beer or so.”
When Wood Buffalo Brewing first opened its doors in the winter of 2013, it had almost a nightclub vibe. “We started off really bar-heavy when we opened. We had DJ Q-Pid on Saturday nights. He’s amazing, and it worked out really great at the time, but we have three other locations with more of a pub feel and we wanted to be more in sync with that.”
Those other locations, under the umbrella of Bearhill Brewing, started in Jasper in 2005 and Banff in 2010 (a fourth location, Last Best, recently opened in Calgary). No doubt many an eyebrow was raised when the third city was announced as Fort McMurray. “We always joked let’s keep opening pubs in the most expensive places in Alberta.”
“(One of the biggest reasons for coming to Fort McMurray) was our previous General Manager Steven Sachse was a benchmark of the community up here from working at Earls and such. He was friends with our owners and they thought it was a great concept.”
One of Wood Buffalo’s more recent ventures was into the home market with their Babe Blueberry Vanilla Ale and Northern Dark Light Lagerwhich are now available in cans all across Alberta. “It’s helping our exposure first and foremost, but also we always had guests say that they love our beer, but complain they couldn’t get it anywhere else because of how transient the population can be.”
The Babe Blueberry Vanilla Ale has always been a top seller which Isaac says “kind of bucks the stereotype that Fort McMurray is just big mean burly guys drinking Budweiser all the time”.
During the month of May, a dollar from every six pack sold went to the Hub Family Resource Centre. Community involvement like that is near and dear to Van Nie’s heart since moving to Fort McMurray full time last December after being back and forth since he helped open the Brew Pub in 2013.
“It’s definitely one of the most rewarding parts of the job, but it’s a lot of time and effort to be out in the community. Our pub in Jasper kinda set the tone on that by being involved with minor sports and charities pretty early on.”
One of Wood Buffalo Brewing Co’s best partnerships remains with the Fort McMurray Firefighters Association. A big thanks in part to the now-famous The Beast Whiskey. By now you probably now the story of how a pallet of malted barley was left on the patio during the wildfire and evacuation of May 2016. The brewers noted a new smoky taste, and after conferring with health officials, determined it was safe to distill into a whiskey.
Even though it is still several years away from being bottled, it’s still the talk of the town. After raising $27,000 at the first Whisky Auction, Van Nie expected the bottles to go for a little less at the second annual auction, but he was surprised to see the demand grow even stronger. Some bottles will be auctioned off at the Big Brothers Big Sisters Wine Auction in September, and Van Nie says plans are already in the works for their third Whisky Auction in the late fall.
But it’s certainly not just the firefighters. This spring alone Wood Buffalo Brewing Co has partnered up with charities like the SPCA, Some Other Solutions and the Fort McMurray Shriners Club who Van Nie says we can look forward to a seasonal beer that the Shriners helped the brewers make this summer.
It’s partnerships like these that will lead to Wood Buffalo’s next big endeavor, the 2018 ATCO Fort McMurray Food Festival in support of Waypoints. They will be the official beer sponsor of the Festival and provide the after party for Boots n’ Brews, the Saturday night Country concert headlined by Dan Davidson and the Dungarees.
Some other great initiatives including pairing beer with yoga at Oranj Fitness and a new Games Night hosted by DJ Q-Pid. “It’s always fun to have those kind of events and think outside of the box when it comes to partnering up”.
Van Nie credits the hard work of his brewers Jackson and Tayna on a lot of the bar’s success. “They help out quite a bit as well with Brewmaster’s Dinners which are a great silent auction item because you can’t really put a value on them”.
“A lot of people don’t realize but brewing is a lot of cleaning. Everything has to be sterile all the time. It sounds glamorous, but three quarters of your day is scrubbing stuff and fixing things.”
Van Nie says the future looks bright for Wood Buffalo even after some hard times. Van Nie cites the initial downtown arena deal as disappointing but says they’ve learned to work around it.
“We still see quite a bit of overflow from events at Macdonald Island and Keyano Theatre. I love this town because it opens up and it gets exciting. We have a nice little circuit of bars downtown so people can cab down and make a night of it by bar hopping…there’s always something happening.”
“Summer’s a little slow but the patio is open and the beer is cold. Come on down!”