As I walk into Winterlong Brewing Co.’s new tasting room, I’m followed by a crowd of bicyclists in neon, skin-tight gear. This new, small-scale bar serves 12 different beers and arm-length links of locally sourced elk sausage. It’s worth a visit, even if it’s out in the boonies of Whitehorse. The bikers have the right idea; my car parked outside means I’ll only get a taste of what’s available.
I catch owner Marko Marjanovic’s eye and he sits down across from me. I’m here to talk to him about the odd empire he’s building.
Just 32 years old, Marko’s been operating a thriving software development business in Whitehorse for a while now, but has recently branched out and dived fully into two fields that are near and dear to many Yukoners’ hearts: hiking and beer.
This decision was inspired by a four-month backpacking trip across Australia and New Zealand with his wife Meghan, they realized the Yukon lacked the in-depth resources these places had. There was one Yukon hiking routes book of note, and its descriptions were limited. So they made a website: YukonHiking.ca, which got 50 hits its first month. “We were over the moon,” he says. These days, eight years later, it’s getting closer to 50,000 per month. And brewery he owns with his wife, born out of a decade-long passion for homebrewing, opened just over a year ago with small ambitions.
They made their beers based on Marko and Meghan’s home recipes, as well as those of head brewer Matt Waugh. But the brewery, like YukonHiking, is growing quicker than they ever could have imagined.
You’ve got your IT business, Frostbyte, you’ve got your hiking website, you’ve got Winterlong Brewing Co. Are there more businesses I don’t know about? Those are the main streams, I would say. Yukon Hiking as well as Winterlong are my passions. I love hiking. I love the outdoors. I love beer. I trained doing software and I love doing software but for the last few months, this—[points around the room]—has been full time.
Does that mean everything else is on the backburner for now? Well, I’d hate to put YukonHiking on the backburner because it’s one of my passions. The reason it went on the backburner is we had a baby six months ago, and it was difficult to get out hiking. But we’re kind of back at it now that we can get our son in a backpack.
Tell me about your website. The Yukon’s one of those places that doesn’t have a lot of well-built trails. There’s a lot of route-finding. It makes it challenging but that’s part of the fun. We go out and we hike places that have never been hiked, often two or three times to find the best route, and we post it, and best of luck to the people who try it out.
We allow comments on the website because we know that we can’t hit it all, and those comments really help flesh out and round out the hikes. We’ve been up to most of the mountainous places—Tombstone, also places like southeast Alaska and Skagway, Haines Pass. We went to Keno this year and we have Carcross trails that we’re working on as well. We get emails from a lot of people who want us to hike in their region, so when we get time we’d like to follow up on those.
What are some of your favourite hikes? It depends on my mood and it’s evolved over the years. We’ve become a lot more confident, we’ve pushed ourselves a bit more, so some of the hikes we do are a little bit longer and higher, a little bit more technical. For example, last year my wife and I hiked Mount Martha Black, and that’s in Haines Junction. That pushed us a little bit further than we’d ever been together. We travelled lighter than we’d ever done before. We travelled longer—it was a 13-hour day. We scrambled a little bit more.
But for something easy, right here in Whitehorse is Grey Mountain. You can drive almost to the top and you’re walking a beautiful ridge, with white rocks and beautiful views. That’s one of my favourites. I do it as many times a year as I can.
How often do you run into bears? We run into bears probably once a year, and I’ve never had a bad bear encounter. The closest bear encounter was on Sheep Mountain, which is also in Kluane. We got to the top, we sat at the summit, we had lunch and we saw a grizzly bear on the summit adjacent to us. We thought, “No problem. He’s a couple kilometres away. We’ll just watch him.” We took a couple bites of our sandwiches and he came running towards us. Maybe he had our scent.
We calculated that at his diagonal, it would take us about 20 minutes to half an hour until he’d meet up with us during our descent, and we started heading down almost immediately. My friend had knee problems so it was a little slower than we had anticipated. The last minute, before the bear popped over that ridge at the time we’d anticipated, we all took our bear spray out and sat there and faced it at the ridge. And he didn’t come. He must have caught our scent and taken off.
Another time, my friend and I did a five-day trip in the Kluane and one followed us. We were on a really wide riverbed and it was on the other side. It followed us on the other side of the riverbed for about an hour and as soon as we stopped for camp, we saw a cow moose and a calf run across and it followed them and it was gone. We didn’t sleep that night, but we were still fine.
There have been a few deaths in recent years, but even in Kluane, it’s just one or two in the last hundred years or so. How many people die in car accidents? It’s ingrained in the human psyche to be extremely scared of these animals, but at the same it’s very, very unlikely.
Right. They’re not killing machines. No, they’re reactionary—if you get close and they’ve got cubs or food and you surprise them. If you do everything right it’s nothing to worry about. But at the same time, it’s hard not to worry about it.
What do you do to stay bear-safe? We make a lot of noise along the way, and we always keep a clean camp. Food, toothpaste, deodorant—anything that smells is off in the distance. We create a triangle: the tent is at one place, food is at one place in a bear barrel and our cooking area is at one place, and they’re all separated.
If a bear is curious—and sometimes they are—they’ll smell your cooking area, they’ll smell your food and maybe try to get in, but they won’t come towards your tent. They’ll smell you and they won’t smell any food, so they’re not going to risk their lives coming towards you.
Coming back to beer, is there a type you prefer to drink after a hike? Something heavier? No, not heavier—my after-hike beer is always a strongly hopped IPA. I love hops, and the bitterness to me is really refreshing. So when I’m finished a hike I look for something bitter, a little bit stronger and a little bit drier—so not malty or sweet. I will drink our Weekend Warrior IPA after a hike.
What is your modus operandi with Winterlong? We brew a lot of beers. We have 12 on tap right now and that’s not the full extent of what we do in a year.
We’re not particular to any beer style; we want to create delicious craft beer and get people excited about that, and not be bogged down by sales or by what the mainstream wants. We want to create beers that people want to drink and that we want to drink, and experiment within that. We create everything from IPAs to saisons to Russian imperial stouts. We have barrel-aged beer back there. We want to investigate sour beers. The sky’s the limit.
Is the business sustainable? We’ve grown. We started with a couple fermenters, doubled within a few weeks, and then we tripled. It’s been 600 percent growth in 16 months. And we still cannot provide kegs for any of the bars in town—they’ve asked for it, we can’t provide it yet. We’re not even close to our potential. But we want to grow slowly. We’re growing at a pace that keeps our quality at the level we want it. We’re looking at growing again soon but we want to hold off for a few months so that [the five-person team] can get some sleep.
Do you see switching over full-time to the brewery? Well, three months ago we were trying to get this tasting room going and it started being full-time and it hasn’t stopped yet. I think I’ve already switched over.
You’ve got a true Yukon combo going on, eh? Hiking and beer? Well, it’s a great combination because I can work all the beer off when I go for a hike.