North·FEATURE

Bush Pilot's Brew Pub remembered for atmosphere, 'sometimes terrible' beer

With the delay of the long-awaited opening of NWT Brewing, we take a 'hop' down memory lane to remember the first time beer brewed in the Northwest Territories: the Bush PIlot's Brew Pub.

'You name it, someone's wearing a glittery outfit... a mascot head... full on leather'

Mike Bryant played at the now-defunct Bush Pilot's Brew Pub with his band, Small Town Rhino: 'lots of people would be crowd surfing, people jumping on the stage, throwing giant stuffed plush toys.' (Submitted by Mike Bryant)

The owners of NWT Brewing, the Northwest Territories' long-awaited microbrewery and brew pub, recently announced that their planned summer opening will be delayed.

But while beer enthusiasts wait patiently for their first taste of the Northwest Territories' new brew, we're taking a "hop" down memory lane to the last time beer flowed in the territory.

Nestled in the heart of Yellowknife's Old Town, the Bush Pilot's Brew Pub was a community staple in the early 1990s. The pub was known for its unique décor, waterfront location, live music, and of course, the beer — for better or worse.  

Yellowknife locals Victor MacIntosh and Doug Strader opened the pub in 1993, in Old Town's old Canadian Pacific Airlines building, a former float plane base. Victor "was looking for something to do for a living, and wanted to go the entrepreneurial route," said his brother, Nick. "His first idea was to open a cloth diaper business but somebody else got there first.
The Old Canadian Pacific Airlines float base was the home for the Bush Pilot's Brew Pub. The building, which has since been repainted, was used as a home for its owner, David Metcalfe, after the pub closed. (Elora Braden/CBC)

"So he thought about it and he realized that he should pursue one of his passions, which was home brewing."

After convincing territorial lawmakers to allow the sale of microbrewed beer, Victor had to find investors, which, according to his brother, he had the skills to do: "If there is one thing my brother Victor can do, it's talk," said Nick. "He could talk his way out of a bullet." Twenty-five locals ponied up to open the doors, and the territory's first brew pub was officially in business. 

Location, music, décor the big draws

The pub's location was ideal. With a large back deck facing the shores of Back Bay, the location of the pub was popular with locals and tourists. "The deck would be just packed, you know," said Mark Bogan, a former pub employee. "The people enjoyed the lakeside view."

On the inside, the pub was decorated in true "northern chic" fashion: with whatever was lying around. Most memorably, a bush plane wing, found in storage, was used as the bar top — fitting, given its name. Patrons drank, listened to music, and enjoyed a seemingly endless supply of free peanuts (the shells were encouraged to be thrown on the floor).

Almost as colourful as the décor pub's were the patrons, according to Indio Saravanja, a northern musician who served as both entertainment and bartender. "You name it, someone's wearing a glittery outfit," Saravanja remembered. "Someone is wearing a mascot head. Someone is wearing full-on leather."  

You name it, someone's wearing a glittery outfit, someone is wearing a mascot head. Someone is wearing full-on leather.- Indio Saravanja

The Bush Pilot's Brew Pub became quickly known for its music scene. "There was tons and tons of live music, which was sort of what attracted me." said Leela Gilday, a Juno award-winning singer songwriter who frequented the pub, Gilday didn't just take in the acts, though — she also took home the top prize during one of the establishment's frequent dance competitions.

Local musician Mike Bryant played the pub with his band, Small Town Rhino, saying that he thinks "we were the first real band to play there." The atmosphere was memorable, said Bryant, and the crowds enthusiastic. "Lots of people would be crowd surfing, people jumping on the stage. Throwing giant stuffed plush toys."  

As for the beer...

The beer at Bush Pilot's Brew Pub received mixed reviews. "Sometimes it was great, sometimes it was terrible," recalled Saravanja. Even official reviews aren't favourable: a 2013 City of Yellowknife heritage building report reads  "the quality of the beer was poor."

Producing beer under the name Arctic Brewing Company, the pub's offerings had names like Arctic Red Extra Special Bitter, Arctic Gold Pale Ale and Arctic Diamond. There was even a speciality beer made during Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip's Royal visit in 1994.  
The Arctic Brewing Company produced beers like Arctic Red Extra Special Bitter, Arctic Gold Pale Ale and Arctic Diamond. Collectors can still pick up the labels on eBay. (eBay.ca)

The pub closed in 1997, but its stories and reputation have made it through the doors of the new Woodyard Brewhouse and Eatery, its spiritual successor in Old Town and soon-to-be home of NWT Brewing. Owner Fletcher Stevens says his family moved to Yellowknife the year the old brew pub closed, but that doesn't mean he isn't familiar with its legacy. "Speaking with the community and locals, they have been filling me full of all the tales from the past," he said.

As for opening day, Stevens isn't giving a definite answer. "We've learnt our lesson in the past by setting dates," he said. However, he did add a not-so-cryptic hint as to what ownership is gearing towards: "it would be almost a no-brainer to do a grand opening around Thanksgiving with Pumpkin Ale." 

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