Taproom travels

Out and about in the great north woods.

What could be better than a flight of beers, a window to watch the world from, and a traveling companion to share it with? Supplied photo

The closing, opening, reclosing, and reopening of taprooms over the last two years, has been hard on breweries—and us-—to say the least! Traveling to a new city, and looking up a few breweries on the way, has been a pastime of mine for years. For the rest of 2022, the Ontario government will be incentivizing residents to take a “staycation” by offering reimbursement on money spent on accommodations; which means, it’s time for a road trip!

Sleeping Giant Brewery is located in Inner City (the in-between area of Port Arthur and Fort William, the two cities that made up Thunder Bay prior to 1970). As with all great attractions, you enter and exit via the gift shop, which has over 50 local vendors’ wares on offer. The taproom opens up to an expansive space that houses a bar with lots of seating, the production area and a second floor gallery.   

The gallery is a special place—grab your pint downstairs then head up the steps to see an impressive display of beer bottles from international, domestic and long gone Ontario breweries, such as Union Jack. Two features of the gallery are a handmade canoe with Edison lights, and a bar stool overlooking the production area—the best seat in the house. Grab a seat in the taproom and ponder the staff’s secret pairing of Beaver Duck Session IPA with Sour Peach candy.

While both the nature surrounding Thunder Bay and the brewery are beautiful, there are aspects of the community that are not. Thunder Bay has complex, long-standing issues with systemic violence faced by Indigenous people that come to the city for education and employment. The Wake the Giant Festival is a grassroots community response to make Thunder Bay more welcoming and safe for Indigenous people. While Wake the Giant is a dry festival, Sleeping Giant pays their staff to participate, attend and learn.  This “yes company” is there to support the community and make change.

When collecting bottles, it’s of vital importance to make sure the wattage on your canoe based lighting fixture is adequate. Not available at IKEA. Supplied photo

While you are in Thunder Bay, check out the original licensee of Sleeping Giant, the Mad House, which has great food on offer. You have to try the fish tacos with a Sleeping Giant Northern Logger. Learn about the brewery name’s origins by grabbing some takeaway beers and hiking the Sleeping Giant trails or visiting the Terry Fox memorial and lookout—one of the best vantage points in the city to see the Sleeping Giant rock formation.

While you are in Northwestern Ontario, you must venture down highway 11 or 17 to Kenora. Kenora sits on the Ontario-Manitoba border, is in a different time zone (still in Ontario) and is the home of Lake of the Woods Brewery.  The LOW team recommend listening to the Tragically Hip as you roll into town. Gord Downie, the band’s lead singer, drew Canada’s attention to Kenora through his album The Secret Path, focusing on the story of Chanie Wenjack’s escape (and subsequent death) from a residential school in the town. The Hip, known for their Canadian nostalgia, are very much a reflection of LOW’s lifestyle.

As you pull into Kenora, keep your eyes peeled for “town deer.” It is quite common to see deer walking downtown, snacking on flowers and laying down on front lawns, lazing the day away.  In the centre of town and on your way in, you will see lake after lake, equipped with boat launches.  Kenora is a paradise for those that love fishing, the outdoors and adventure. While the winter is not for the faint of heart, the opportunity to drive on an ice road to a cottage or an ice fishing condo is part of everyday life in the small town and something special for visitors to experience.

Winter in a northern town might seem long and daunting, but for LOW, the ice on the lakes is an opportunity to create a cellar. Using an idea from their brewer’s South African homeland, Lake of the Woods put a thousand bottles on the bottom of the lake last autumn, and is eagerly waiting to retrieve them. This is only the second time that LOW has done their Deep Six beer and it sells out fast.

Lake of the Woods Brewery has reclaimed the downtown fire station. Within this huge footprint is a production facility, kitchen, wrap-around bar, tonnes of tables, a gift shop, and a speakeasy style bar with premium top shelf spirits upstairs. LOW’s kitchen is second to none in town, and pairing their brewed-on-site beers with menu items comes naturally for the staff. The chicken fingers are well worth both a drive and time zone shift.

Lake of the Woods’ flagship beer is Sultana Gold, a beer found on tap all over Northwestern Ontario, and named after one of the many gold mines in operation in the area when the town was founded. The current Lake of the Woods is in fact the second brewery to use that name in Kenora (the original was in operation from 1898-1954), and Sultana is a throwback to both the mine and the original beer brewed by the first brewery. The crew at LOW live the northern lifestyle; grab a seat at the bar, and you might get fishing tips or find out if a band is playing on a dock somewhere (yes, this happens).

Taprooms have always been a place where we gather, talk and visit, while traveling is something that we have longed for since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Travel across this great province, visit an area (and a taproom) that you have never seen, and get a tax credit! Great beer and great taprooms are yours to discover.

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