Hometown Brew

Sleeping Giant Brewing Co. makes good—and does good—with a proudly local spirit

It perhaps isn’t big news that Northern Ontarians like to drink beer. But up until relatively recently, nearly all of the suds consumed in Thunder Bay came from down south. That was until Sleeping Giant Brewing Company came along and brought the beer game back home.

Pre-2012, a local beer available at a local restaurant was unheard of; today you actually have to search pretty hard to find an establishment in Thunder Bay that doesn’t offer Sleeping Giant. If you look at the local-centric, youth-led, foodie renaissance that’s been unfolding over the past several years in Thunder Bay, it’s easy to see Sleeping Giant Brewing Co. positioned at the vanguard of that movement. “You’re on an island up here,” explains owner and operator Matt Pearson. “It forces us to entertain ourselves.”

How do you convince a dyed-in-the-wool corporate light lager town like Thunder Bay, whose inhabitants love their Labatt Crystal—and don’t get me wrong, I too love very much a Labatt Crystal, preferably at camp—to consider converting to something hyper-local, perhaps a bit more robust in flavor, and even a bit, dare I say, artisanal? First, you create a damn good product. Enter 2012, and phase one of Sleeping Giant Brewing Co, the original three: the year-round 360 Pale Ale, the Summer Elevator Wheat, and the winter-only Skull Rock Stout. Each was uniquely delicious, but all three captured a particular Thunder Bay essence, a specifically Northwestern Ontario terroir that many locals didn’t even realize was missing from their beer. And Thunder Bay took notice in a big way.

From the start, Sleeping Giant made it their overarching ethos to focus on local first and foremost. And while their beers (they now produce six varieties) are now available all over the province in LCBOs, grocery stores, and some Beer Stores, the company’s energy is still focused very much on the local. In fact, owner and operator Matt Pearson says that 90% of their volume is still consumed within 50 km of their brewery. And while they certainly have an interest in (and great potential for) expansion, keeping the real action close to home just feels right. And it’s been the key ingredient to their success.

Ingredients-wise, local only makes sense. With the world’s largest fresh water lake, Lake Superior, in your backyard to supply your water, and Canada’s largest malting company—a big local employer, the appropriately-titled Canada Malting Company—a five minute drive from the brewery, there’s no reason to stray far for ingredients.

But above and beyond the actual components that go into the beer, this is one company who go above and beyond to prioritize their local community over all else. Pearson explains that “you can be a great local company, but if you aren’t keeping your money within the community, then people don’t get behind it as much.”

For just one example: when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was famously spotted on Instagram repping a Sleeping Giant Northern Logger tee, the brewery channeled the inevitable hype-fueled windfall of orders back into the community by donating all proceeds from the shirts to a local Boys and Girls Club chapter. Further, in 2017, Sleeping Giant launched its Grass Roots lager, which through a partnership with the Staal Foundation (led by Thunder Bay NHL golden boys, the Staal brothers) would raise over $14,000 to help children with cancer in Northwestern Ontario.

These high-profile examples of philanthropy aside, you need not look further than the Sleeping Giant Brewing Co.’s shop to catch a glimpse of their commitment to the local community. The brewery’s shop is chock-full of interesting products that represent collaborations with other local businesses, farms, and orgs. To name a few, there’s 360 Ale Beef Jerky, a partnership with Bay Meats Smokehouse; there’s bagged Beer Bread Mix, a partnership with Brule Creek Farms; several varieties of Beer Jelly, a collaboration with Head Acre Farms; Beer Soap, a partnership with Lovely Body Products, and the list goes on.

Even their manufacturing waste goes back into feeding the community. In addition to a plethora of edibles and snazzy beer gear, the shop also features a number of products that make use of repurposed spent grain, a by-product of beer brewing that would otherwise be discarded—spent grain can comprise up to 85% of a brewery’s total by-product. You can buy spent grain dog biscuits for your furry friend. You can even buy beef from local cattle that were raised on spent grain feed donated to farmers by Sleeping Giant Brewing Co. I’ve heard of “farm-to-table,” but “farm-to-brewery-to-farm-to-brewery-to-table”? Hey, if beer’s involved, sign me up!

With their gorgeous tap room, excellent selection of beers for all tastes, and unwavering community spirit, Sleeping Giant Brewing Co. is a must-visit destination for beer-loving visitors to the region. And if you can’t make it to the brewery, you’ll have ample opportunity to try their beers—well, basically everywhere. Thanks to Sleeping Giant Brewing Co., the beer game has officially come back home.

About Adam Waito

Adam Waito is an illustrator, musician, and writer, based in Toronto via Montreal via Thunder Bay via Manitouwadge. His 2008 lo-fi indie rock concept album about Thunder Bay—Amethyst Amulet by Adam and the Amethysts—was called "the pop hit of the summer" by the Toronto Star. His illustrations appear in Vice and elsewhere. Check out his illustrations at adamwaitoiscool.com

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