While craft beer continues to expand across Canada at a startling rate, the large brewers continue to take up a huge portion of the market (nearly 80%) with their national brands. In one small pocket of Canada, however, craft is winning hands down. It’s something that could only happen in Whitehorse.
Yukon Brewing has been around since 1997 and is an illustrative example of what can happen to craft beer in a vacuum. Their Yukon Gold Pale Ale makes up 60% of the draught beer sold in the Yukon Territory. The market is small enough that larger brewers tend not to advertise and the playing field is leveled down to quality. When quality is king, craft beer wins hands down.
The Yukon Gold Pale Ale itself is very understated. It pours a gentle gold colour. It’s English style pale ale with the hops coming across herbal and grassy. The malt character is very straightforward with a hint of floury biscuit. The beer is in no way overpowering, designed as it is to be the competitor for other breweries’ flagships. Yukon Brewing acknowledges this, referring to it as practically “non ale.”
Like the majority of craft breweries, success has come here on the basis of giving the market what they want. The difference is that without competition, customers have been very willing to go along with the local brewery on their more sophisticated offerings. The English style beers that Yukon makes are well chosen to fit the hard water the brewery has access to; hard water tends to make malt character stand out.
Yukon’s real strength comes from leaning into the malt presence in their beer. Yukon Red is incredibly full-bodied and, while it claims to be an amber ale, it’s richer and darker than that name suggests. The caramel notes are pervasive and you can practically taste the husk of the kilned barley. The Lead Dog Ale is similarly a little bit husky. At 7.0%, it’s larger and where the Yukon Red remains fairly simple, Lead Dog develops dried fruit characteristics with prune, fig and raisin sneaking in after the chocolate in the body recedes. The most widely-known beer in the lineup is the Midnight Sun Espresso Stout: It’s aroma of is completely representative of a solidly bitter freshly roasted Espresso; it’s marvelous.
While Yukon’s beer is currently available on the west coast and in Alberta, I hear rumours that it may soon arrive in Ontario. This is good news for us all, as we can always use additional reminders that good beer doesn’t have to be overly complex. The secret to winning additional market share for craft beer might be as simple as covering the basics expertly.
Jordan St.John writes about beer at saintjohnswort.ca; He’s truly sorry about the husky joke.