Thunder Bay, Ontario, Should Be on Your Craft Beer Bucket List

Thunder Bay, Ontario craft beer should be on your beer-bucket list.

In 2021, people wondered if Thunder Bay could support five craft breweries. This northwestern city in Ontario, Canada, has just over 110,000 people. It was a legitimate question back then because we were in the clutches of a pandemic that closed restaurants and bars worldwide. Along with other small businesses, the future of craft breweries was uncertain.

But as it’s been said, beer brews prosperity. In Canada, where beer is the most popular alcoholic beverage, that prosperity translates into more than 149,000 Canadian jobs and over $13.6 billion in real gross domestic product. And, according to the Conference Board of Canada, it brings in at least $5.7 billion in tax revenues for federal, provincial, and municipal levels of government. In Ontario, 90% of residents have a brewery nearby.

Does that prosperity extend to craft breweries? From 2010 to 2019, it was the fastest-growing part of Ontario’s manufacturing sector. Before 2010, there were just 40 craft breweries; today, there are over 400 if you count contract brewing. Those numbers suggest there are enough hops and barley for everyone!

However, it may not have seemed that way a few years ago. Fast forward to today, and I’ll give you several reasons why you should put Thunder Bay on your Craft Beer Bucket List.

Passionate People Fuel Craft Breweries

inside of the brewery on a craft beer bucket list in thunder bay, ontario
Craft brewery owners take a lot of pride when building a space the community will enjoy. ©Dawn Damico

Belly up to the bar in any of Thunder Bay’s craft breweries and you’ll be greeted by a host or hostess with a big smile, perhaps a beard and a few tattoos, colorful and funky labels, and shiny silver tanks. They serve up a wide range of beer flavors and hues to tempt your eyes and taste buds.

You learn about the beer, local causes the brewery is passionate about, and the community and people who live there. In a few pours, you can quickly meet your next new best friend and find a new flavor to add to your list of favorite craft brews. Even if you are alone, it’s hard to feel lonely in a craft brewery.

That’s because the people behind the bar and those colorful labels are creatives. People who are passionate about the liquid gold, amber, or browns they pour into your glass or growler. They tend to attract and surround themselves with like-minded people who enjoy time well-spent with friends, food, and flavorful brews.

Most craft breweries start in a garage somewhere with an idea like, “Hmmm…I wonder if I can make my own beer?” They buy a kit, mix up some barley, hops, yeast, and water, and then wait. While the beer is fermenting, their minds are already thinking about building something bigger, something their friends and perhaps even the entire community (might we say world?) would love.

At some point, their passion transforms into a business, and that’s where the real fun begins!

“…five craft breweries can survive in Thunder Bay because it is the kind of place that supports its own.” ~ Kerry Berlinquett, co-founder of Brew Ha Craft Beer Festival

Craft Breweries Pivot and Thrive Under Pressure

display of craft beer bottles, thunder bay craft beer bucket list
Small operations allows creative brewers to discover unique flavors. Thunder Bay craft beer scene celebrates the diversity of tastes in their suds! ©Dawn Damico

The question is always in the back of a craft brewery owner’s mind, even if it’s not on the tip of their tongue. They know they can make beer, maybe even great beer, but can they make a living doing what they love?

As many small business owners quickly discover, the art of business is an entirely different skill set than the art of creating whatever they do. Transitioning from home beer brewing as a hobby to operating a craft beer business is always a leap of faith, not for the faint of heart or pocketbook. Pressure builds up fast when a worldwide event cuts your business in half overnight, removing many options to continue your operations.

By definition, a craft brewery is small, and many of them are family-owned. They are independent, locally owned, and not significantly controlled by a large beer company. Members of the Ontario Craft Brewers (OCB) must locate and run their primary breweries in Ontario, close to the markets and communities they serve. Many are deeply involved in their communities and contribute to local causes. These breweries are open to the public, other brewers, and beer enthusiasts.

Challenges faced during the pandemic

The smallness of craft breweries is a benefit for creating unique beers and being able to make decisions quickly. It can be a hindrance when your business model is upended. During the pandemic, craft breweries in Canada faced enormous challenges:

  • Supply chain costs
  • Pressure on consumer spending
  • Small brewers’ lack of the efficiency of scale
  • Disproportionate taxing for small craft brewers vs. corporate breweries
display of craft beer ingredients
The basic ingredients for the best craft beers are simple; operating a brewery, however, has its challenges. ©Dawn Damico

Plus, unique to craft brewers, the closed bars and restaurants wiped out half of their business overnight. Taprooms accounted for a large percentage of their business pre-Covid, so closures were tough on their business model. For example, Beau’s Brewery revealed in an interview that they had one million dollars of inventory sitting in kegs that they couldn’t use.

Many craft brewers produced beer meant for the taproom; it wasn’t packaged for delivery direct to their customers. That was a problem.

Craft breweries reinvented their businesses

So they pivoted. Although beer in cans is taxed in Canada more than draft products, some breweries began to ramp up, or start, their canning process. And that was just one way breweries reinvented their businesses to survive and, finally, thrive.

Today, you’ll find breweries that include taprooms, tours, tastings, and selling wholesale. They also embrace a collaborative spirit whose foundation is the idea that success for craft brewers equals success for the community.

Beer isn’t created in a vacuum. It’s about people and places. You want both to be engaged and enjoy the experience. For craft breweries, engaging with the community is key.

That is why, when you enter a craft brewery in Thunder Bay, a community that supports its own, you will find enough craft brewery tap rooms to tour, taste, and explore, satisfying your need for suds and a friendly face on the other side of the bar.

Craft Brewers Create Flavors for Every Palate

beer taps diplayed in the foreground, steel vats in the back ground. Craft beer bucket list scenes in Thunder Bay
Delivering small batches of craft beer in their taproom is the perfect way to test a new brew. ©Dawn Damico

Let’s talk about places in Thunder Bay where you can experience craft beer bucket-list worthy sips!

I recently visited Thunder Bay as a guest of Visit Thunder Bay. There are incredible opportunities for hiking and exploring, stories and legends passed down through generations, and a thriving cultural and culinary scene. And, there is craft beer, designed and made with crystal clear water from Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface volume. How large? Three thousand cubic miles, according to the Great Lakes Commission. That’s a lot of (future) beer!

One of the regulations for craft breweries in Ontario, Canada, is that they must have an operating brewery with those beautiful steel tanks on site to have a taproom. This is a substantial investment, so not all of the over 400 small craft brewers in Ontario have taprooms. For that reason, you can find more craft beer labels and brands in outlets like LCBO retail locations, The Beer Store, and even featured in some restaurants and breweries. Be sure to ask about local craft beers when you dine at a Thunder Bay restaurant or shop at one of the stores. You may not get that taproom experience, but you can enjoy and appreciate the beers created by brewers across the province.

The Brew Pub at Prospector Steak House

beer flight with small glasses and various colors of beer.
The Brew Pub at Prospector Steakhouse serves up flights in their remodeled Pub. ©Dawn Damico

Walking into the cozy pub inside the Prospector Steakhouse is like stepping back in time. It operates inside a former bank in the historic downtown district. You can see the vault, admire pictures from the past, and sip crafty suds while listening to live music, sampling their menu, and meeting the locals.

Dawson Trail Craft Brewery

Grab your golf clubs or hockey sticks, and you’ll get a chance to take a swing at the virtual indoor golf experience On the Links, located adjacent to Dawson Trail Craft Brewery. You’ll find a large variety of canned beer in addition to what they have on tap.

Lakehead Beer Company

craft beer tap room
The owners of Lakehead Beer Company worked together at another brewery before launching their own venture in downtown Thunder Bay. ©Dawn Damico

The Lakehead Beer Company is inside a historic downtown building where you can find pan pizzas created onsite by Tomlin Subdivision. You’ll love the exposed brick the owners uncovered beneath the plastered walls when they opened a few years ago.

Sleeping Giant Brewing Company

interior display of local merchandise at sleeping giant brewery - craft beer bucket list destination
Craft beer breweries are connected to their communities. At Sleeping Giant Brewing Company, local products are on display. ©Dawn Damico

Sleeping Giant Brewing Company is another must-do. It is named in honor of the large rock formation on Lake Superior and the legend surrounding that rock. It offers alcoholic and non-alcoholic options. They offer tours and space to enjoy family and friend time in a spacious blue building on the edge of town.

Red Lion Smokehouse

full bar and beer taps at Red Lion Smokehouse in Thunder Bay
Local restaurants support small craft breweries. Ask your server which beers on their menu are created by locals. ©Dawn Damico

It’s not a brewery, but this downtown restaurant has an extensive selection of local craft beer. Check out the menu board at Red Lion Smokehouse to find what’s on tap.

Brew Ha Festival

craft beer food truck - part of the culture for celebrating craft beer bucket list brews
When you can’t get to the taproom, craft beer events allow the brewers to come to you! ©Dawn Damico

In the summer, the Brew Ha Festival is a celebration for those aged 19+. It pairs your favorite beverages with local food and music. The event began in 2015 and has been growing each year. Next year’s event will be at Prince Arthur’s Landing in July, 2024.

When you’re ready for more craft beer in Ontario, you can drive one of the Ontario Craft Beer Trails. Your beer-filled adventure will take you through epic scenery from mountain to lake.

Check out our other craft beer articles.

Thank you to Visit Thunder Bay and Destination Ontario for hosting me.

Dawn Damico

Dawn is a Florida-based freelance travel writer and photographer and believes we can reimagine our life at every stage. Writing from a 50+ woman's perspective, traveling solo and as a couple, multi-generational travel, experiences with her granddaughter, or pet travel with her black lab, she understands there is more than one way to travel. She's always looking for a unique story angle, asking how she can write to inspire others to live and thrive at every age.