I studied the selection shelf of familiar bottles and cans behind the bar at the Iqaluit Legion: Canadian, Kokanee, Keith’s. An outsider might have guessed indecision to explain my hesitation, but I was actually grappling with my new reality. I was now north of any small-batch, craft brew, or even on-tap beer. I squelched my highbrow hop obsession, called on my salt-of-the-earth rural roots and chose a Kokanee—I think.
It was a winter Wednesday evening around 7 p.m. in Nunavut’s capital. That night, seats in most bars were occupied with patrons warming weary bones. Iqaluit is a damp city booze-wise, meaning alcohol can only be purchased at licensed establishments. No liquor store; no off-sales.
My date and I would unwillingly hop from bar to bar in search of a table before settling into our third city watering hole. The no-fuss aesthetics in the quiet section of the Legion left as much to be desired as the beer selection, but it was warm and the conversation was good.
Before we go any further, I should note that I have a grudging respect for regular beer but by preference designate Coors Light, Budweiser and their ilk to campfires and afternoon boat trips, where their simple tastes are augmented by brush smoke, diesel exhaust and No Name wieners. But when it’s -40 C, midweek and I’m indoors, I like my beer to both surprise and delight the palate.
This could be blamed on my coming to legal drinking age around the time the microbrewery craze caught on in Canada. While the craft cult quickly swept across the south, I discovered by default the trend is only just creeping up to the higher North.
Fast-forward to Friday night at the Elks Lodge, where there’s a Newfoundlander playing all my favourite drinking songs and the fridge boasts two types of Sleeman I hear are new to the weekend roster. I place Sleeman in the same family as Rickard’s Red and Corona—a trusty pick when the pickings are slim.
Come Monday over burgers at the Kickin’ Caribou Pub there’s a hoppy bottled option with citrus and coppery notes from Ontario brewer Flying Monkeys. I make a mental note: this is my favourite beer in town.
At the Storehouse’s Taco Tuesday and trivia night with an old college friend, there’s a blonde on tap. The pint is, to my knowledge, the only draft beer in town. Kegs, I’ve been told, are only common around sealift season, and rare even then. Alcohol distribution is done primarily by air, adding freight costs and delivery delays. Current Nunavut Liquor Commission policy is to buy in bulk directly from breweries, so sourcing from microbreweries is seen as inefficient. The exception is small orders through Quebec and Ontario liquor associations, which explains that fine IPA I found on Monday.
The cloudy golden elixir hit my bloodstream before the tacos arrived—to the good fortune of an artisan walking by with a beaded purple necklace I’d resisted purchasing at the Caribou the night before. Pleased with my new necklace I ordered another pint—but the kegs had already run dry. Figures.
For all the troubles finding a good brew, things might be changing with talk of a beer and wine store opening in Iqaluit as soon as this summer. It’s a highly contentious socio-political discussion that’s currently being had inside the city’s boardrooms as well as its bars. For instance, there’s a lack of addiction support facilities in Iqaluit and there are regional concerns about how easier access to alcohol will affect smaller hamlets, where services are even more lacking than in the Nunavut capital. Alcohol, it must be said, is a major factor in the territory’s higher-than-national crime rates.
Supporters of the store see it as a way to decrease binge-drinking by making lower alcohol-content drinks more accessible than spirits like vodka and whiskey, while also dampening the black market for hard liquor circulated by bootleggers at premium prices. The store would have daily purchasing caps and, hopefully, improve beer options for consumers.
Which brings me back to the Legion, where the bar was full of people playing pool and darts after work—a similar scene likely playing out in watering holes all over the continent. After three cans of I-don’t-remember-what and a few hours of first-date conversation, I decided staple beer was a hell of a lot better than no beer.
And, hey, a Flying Monkeys Hoptical Illusion was only a five-minute walk away.