Interview With Fort Garry’s Brewmaster Matt Wolff

I got the opportunity to meet with Matt Wolff, the head brewmaster of Fort Garry Brewing Co.  I had a conversation with him about brewing in Manitoba and the future of craft beer.  I’ve been curious about Fort Garry’s take on the direction our province is going. As the largest brewery in Manitoba I wanted to see what plans they have and how these changes have impacted their brewing.

History of the Brewery

Fort Garry is Manitoba’s oldest Microbrewery and really does have a storied history.  Established in 1930 by B.W. Hoeschen it produced two brands of beer to start; Frontier Beer and Frontier stout.  These beers gained recognition when they won best in class in England against other commonwealth breweries.

In the 1960s Fort Garry was sold to Molson and was brewed under the label Molson’s Fort Garry Brewery Co.  This company ran for 30 years until 1990 when Molson merged with Carling-Okeefe and closed the facility that was Fort Garry Brewing.

Bringing it back into the family, Richard Hoeschen, the great-great grandson of the original owner, who Matt Wolff describes as “a true visionary”, and John Hoeschen Sr. resurrected the brewery under the original Fort Garry name.  As well original beers like “Frontier Pilsner” they also introduced a family of full flavor beers to the market.  At this time really starting to crave something besides the status quo.  To keep up with demand they built a state of the art facility at 130 Lowson Cresent in 1998 taking up a full 25,000 square feet. This facility was unique as it was built to be a brewery rather than a warehouse space renovated to fit the bill.

In 2001 Richard Hoescehn passed away.  Under his leadership Fort Garry had become a household name.  Matt told me that there were some struggles at this point within the brewery but people wouldn’t stay quiet long about their desire for something different.  In 2006 the President of Russell Brewing in BC sampled some of Fort Garry Dark and fell in love with the beer.  He was sol captivated by the quality of the beer and the love Manitobans had for their local brew that in 2008 Fort Garry Brewing amalgamated with Russell Brewing Company with a goal to build on the legacy of the Hoeschen Family.

About Matt

Matt Wolff is an interesting character and brings a long history with Fort Garry to his role as Brew Master.  When he was just 18 and a new graduate from high school, his brother’s future father in law started the Two Rivers brewery.  Being essentially a dream job for an 18 year old he started working their part-time.  Starting with remedial tasks he worked his way up to doing the packaging and filtration.

When Two River amalgamated with Fort Garry in 2003 he continued to work there part time while doing a degree in air craft maintenance at Red River College.  When he graduated he took a job at the St. Andrews air field for a couple of years but found that job wasn’t for him.  He came back to work at Fort Garry full-time, this time in the brew house.  Matt uses his skills as an aircraft technician to solve mechanical issues on the fly, “We don’t have to always wait for someone to come fix it, I can usually either do it myself or I have a connection.”

When the brew master and president retired Matt was given the opportunity to take over as Fort Garry’s brewmaster.  This also was when we started seeing the craft beer movements from the east and west starting to make inroads into Manitoba.

Still, it wasn’t until after the amalgamation with Russel Brewing Co. that Fort Garry started coming out with their first new beers.  Fort Garry saw great success originally with its Munich Eisbock which then expanded into the brewmaster series.

With this success and the introduction of the growler bars there was more of a demand for fresh and new beers. This year Fort Garry is putting out 2 new beer every 6 weeks.  A huge step forward in drawing in the demand for new beers.  This isn’t easy, Matt told me that “On top of maintaining our flagship beers, finding time to sit down with the guys and hammer out a recipes is one of the hardest parts of brewing.

About the Brewery

As I had mentioned, in 1998 the location still used today by Fort Garry was built.  This doesn’t mean they’ve stayed stagnant.  The brewery itself is completely automated running on a computer system that monitors the process at every stage of production.  Today they don’t even need to clean the tanks by hand as the computer system will measure out the proper cleaning solution and do an over the top job in cleaning every aspect of the brewing process.  Matt said that “when we are inspected they say we clean as well as Dairy Farms, which is a pretty high standard”.

The brewery even has a lab so that they can do tests on the beer at various stages and make sure that there are no hiccups along the way.  Spot tests are done on the tanks at different stages to be certain that the cleaning was done well and the beer is brewed to the highest possible standards of quality.

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With a 4 vessel system and a 100 hectolitre kettle they can brew 10,000 litres of wort which translates into about 8,000 litres of beer for fermentation.  They have two different fermentation tanks, 15,000 litres and the other at 8,000.  This allows for some versatility in batch sizes.  The smallest batch the tanks can brew is 1,500 litres. This limits their ability to do some niche small batch brews which plays a role in the recipe choices by Matt and his team. “We can’t do something like a Triple IPA, so instead we make a really good IPA”. During peak production time in the summer Fort Garry employs 22 staff incl20150525_145517510_iOSuding part-time and temp staff.  On the brewing side there is Matt and 3 others.

At any given time they have all of their core brands brewing in various stages with seasonals and new beers entering into the mix as needed.  They have a cellar comprised of 21 tanks hold beers in various stages of the brewing process.  The total capacity of this cellar is 2000 HL which means they have a lot of space and gives them the ability to have some in the hopper ready to go.

Growler Bars and Creativity

This is still one of the main reasons I wanted to meet with Matt as well.  The growler bars as we saw from my previous interview with David Rudge have had a huge impact on the ability for brewers to be creative.  Given that Fort Garry is larger and run a bit differently, I wanted to see what the translation was.

One of the hardest things about brewing for Matt is recipe development on top of maintaining a presence with the core beers.  Because they can’t brew batches under 1,500 litres they really need to consider not only creativity of the beer but also accessibility.  They don’t want to produce a beer and then just have it sit on the shelves.  As a company it is a combination of being creative but also being able to sell beer.

It has been really important for Matt and his team to get new beers out.  They want to keep the taps moving and the ability to produce beer without having to worry about packaging and labeling has made this a much easier process.

Wanting to supply the growler station every 6 weeks has really opened up the creativity of the brewing team and has pushed them to be innovative.  The process at Fort Garry starts with brain storming.  The team tastes a lot of other beers from around Canada to find good examples of styles.  They take notes on what they like and what they feel they could improve on.  Matt said that “the ideas often start simple like let’s make a wit, then become more complex like with our Sassy Saskatoon”.

Matt said they “don’t want to make just another beer they want it to be big and bold while at the same time accessible to a large group of people.”

Their first test is done in their small 20 gallon pilot system and this is sometimes a big flop which means going back to the drawing board.  Once they have something they think it at the level it needs to be they present it to the General Manager, some of their reps and even bring it to the Winnipeg Brew Bombers or River City of Manitoba Brewers for some feedback.  This isn’t a yay/nay process that would impede the creativity, rather so long as they do the best they can do, that’s the goal.  I asked Matt about expansion plans and he said it’s always something they need to look at.  Maybe with the next expansion we will see a small brewing unit for those specialty beers!

Still, with the need to be putting out so many new beers in short times, the growler bars have given them the opportunity to brew new beers but also gauge the success and decide which could be put out in cans as well.  Matt told me that the next two new brews coming down the pipe, Maple Cream and Sassy Saskatoon, will be released in cans and growlers.  Growlers are a lot of beer and “being able to pick up a couple of cans after you’ve tried it out makes the beer more accessible”.  It also allows for you to try multiple different beers at a given time.

This has been really important for Fort Garry in peaking interest in their beers.  Matt said that “when you see the same thing on the shelf over and over it’s easy to want to try something new.”  Fort Garry needs to keep fresh and trying new things otherwise those people seeking new tastes and new beers will grab something else.

At the same time, growler bars have certainly helped to increase sales for Fort Garry and bring people back to them.  I think Manitobans crave good local craft beer and with Fort Garry working hard to deliver I understand why they are seeing an uptick in sales.

They will be tasting there new beers at Flatlanders on June 4th and 5th, and I know I’ll be there with bells on.  I got to see the mock up for the Maple Cream Ale can, and it looks and sounds tasty!

Craft Breweries Initiative

I’ve talked a bit about the new initiatives coming from the province.  With the ability for breweries to open tasting rooms and the confirmation I received from the MLCC that growler bars are here to stay, this opens the doors for more craft breweries to enter the market here in Manitoba without the immediate concern for packing and shipping.

Matt believes that there is still room to grow here in Manitoba and is excited about the breweries that could be opening.  He said that “if we look west and we look east we see how many breweries they are able to support.”  This growth is putting pressure on big breweries to let go of franchise places and allow for craft breweries to move in.  Matt doesn’t believe this is competition but rather “more good beer on tap”.

I think we will also see the breweries will feed off one another and as Matt said he hopes the “complacency will be gone.”  New beers also means we might see more collaboration.  Matt and I talked about the “Brews Brothers” mixer pack from Parallel 49 and how it’d be really cool to do something like that here in Manitoba.

Matt is also a really strong supporter of new breweries in general.  He told me that he “wished I knew who all the players were. I’d love to talk to them and help them out.”  This is really the kind of guy Matt seems to be.  He wants to help people brew beer, something he is obviously passionate about.  He provides space for the Winnipeg Brew Bombers and the River City of Manitoba Brewers, two home brew groups in the city, offers courses and even orders malts and hops from distributors that will only deal with brewers.  So when Matt says he just wants “more good beer on tap”, I believe him.

With Peg City Brewing being officially announced by Nicole Barry and the possibility of a couple of more down the road, Matt says he “wouldn’t be surprised that if in one year there might be 10 breweries”. That would be a sight to see.

I think that a lot of this boom we are seeing has to do with the loosing of laws and the fact that a brewery can now be entirely profitable without sending a single bottle or can out the door. Things still have some movement, but Manitoba is getting with the times in respect to liquor laws.

Overall, meeting with Matt was fantastic.  He was a down to earth and really friendly guy.  Given all he knows and all his work he still finds time to help out the local home brew clubs.  As the biggest brewery in Manitoba Fort Garry still has a passion for quality Manitoban beer and with Matt at the helm of the brewing side they’ve started producing some unique and tasty beers.  I hope that this trend continues and that we see more of what this brewery has to offer.  I for one will be doing my part to support local craft beer here in Manitoba, I hope you’ll do the same.

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