Kristjan Kristjansson, owner of the soon-to-open Winnipeg brewpub, Brazen Hall Kitchen and Brewery, literally grew up in the restaurant business. His dad, Thrainn Kristjansson, ran the Round Table Steakhouse and Pub, which had been a staple of the Winnipeg food scene since he opened it in 1973. Its distinct Tudor-style building was an attraction on Pembina Hwy in south Winnipeg for decades.
The younger Kristjansson, who had actually avoided the hospitality industry and instead went into business development, bought the restaurant from his father in 2010. “My dad watched the restaurant business go to that point where either you re-invent or move on. He also hit that point in the life cycle where he wanted to be a grandpa more than a restaurateur.”
Kristjansson raised the necessary capital to not only buy the restaurant but the land it sat on as well (his dad had leased for 40 years). He felt having full control over the property gave me greater options. Also, operating a steakhouse, a more conservative and formal segment of the industry, wasn’t top of his to-do list. “I am not built for the steakhouse business”, he notes. “I am more gregarious and adventurous. Plus I had been thinking about breweries for years. I love the science of it and all the flavours you can create.”
Kristjansson spent a lot of time in the U.S. exploring some of the big beer cities and their beer scenes. “But I knew I couldn’t completely transfer those ideas to Winnipeg. They are big, exciting scenes,” where Winnipeg’s beer culture was still growing. He also points to being exciting by what he experience on Vancouver Island with Spinnakers’, Hoyne and others. The idea of a brewpub started to gel in his mind.
“I owned this 8,000 square foot building,” he says. “It was too big for a restaurant, but was a great site for something. Then a light went off. 5,500 for the restaurant, the rest for a 10-hectolitre brewhouse!” He proceeded to gut the building (having closed the restaurant in 2015) and do a major refurbishment to make it suitable for a modern-day brewpub.
But before doing so he took a lesson he learned on one of his brewery tours to heart. “The best advice I got was from the smallest place I visited. Junkyard Brewing in Fargo [North Dakota],” he explains. “The guy said to me ‘if you think you are going to come in, throw a brewhouse in your restaurant to save it, you will ruin brewing. It won’t work.”
Kristjansson took that message to mean he had to make beer the centrepiece of the new operation. Quality food was important, but the beer had to come first. And as a non-brewer, he knew he needed to find a first-rate brewer. At first he looked internationally, not wanting to poach from local breweries, but plans to bring in a brewer from Iceland (Kristjansson is of Icelandic heritage – if the name hadn’t tipped you off) fell through and, as these things happen, Jeremy Wells, at the time a brewer with Half Pints, was looking for an opportunity to become a head brewer. They talked and decided it was an excellent pairing. “I wanted a guy who wouldn’t compromise and he wanted an opportunity to show what he can do.”
Kristjansson says the beer will have a “Northern European and English influence”. Their first beer, which they brewed at Half Pints last fall for the Flatlanders’ Beer Festival was Naughty Vic, a “honest to style” best bitter named for Queen Victoria. Served as a cask ale, it was a bit hit at the festival, motivationg Kristjansson to make it their flagship, at least for now.
And, yes, it will continue to be a cask ale. Kristjansson says the plan on “always having two cask ales available”. The two casks will be supplemented by 8 other regular taps. They are still finalizing the list but plan to go with a line-up of six regular and four rotational taps. The regular line-up will span the range of styles. “Will have a great lager – a helles, a gentler amber for those drinkers, a nut brown, IPA, stout and maybe a farm ale of some sort.” As for the four rotating taps “we will go hog wild and have fun with them.”
The brewery consists of a 10-hl brewhouse with 3-1ohl fermenters and 4 bright tanks, “just to get us rolling,” says Kristjansson. “It is designed to triple capacity in tanks.” The plan is a true brewpub operation, with pints sold on site as well as growlers and maybe some medium sized bottle off-sales out of a retail space in the building. While he doesn’t reject the idea of packaging and selling in stores, it is not his priority. ‘There are lots of wonderful brewers in Winnipeg. We won’t go beyond the pub until we have brewed enough time that we have reached consistency in our brews and then we will just look at other restaurants, the MLC growler program. Canning would be phase three or four for us down the road.”
“We are confident we will sell a lot of beer in our own building.”
Kristjansson predicts the pub will be open within a few weeks. “The building is ready, the brewery is in, the boiler is connected, we can run the glycol, we are almost ready to fire things up!”
The name, Brazen Hall, both reflects Kristjansson’s heritage and his approach to opening the brewpub. “It reflects our origins in Iceland. We have 1300 years of family tree back there,” he says. But also sees it as an attitude. “I am 48 years old, opened many businesses, made lots of mistakes, lived through them. Brazen Hall about stepping up and doing something that is personal – scary but personal. Brazen is my attitude of life. It comes down to the importance of speaking my mind honestly. What we promise, we deliver.”
For Kristjansson, this is not a project to make his riches, but to just be a part of a community. “We really want to be a local craft brewery pub,” he says. “At the end of the day we want to serve local Manitobans beer that we love and they want to drink.
“We are not grandiose. If I wanted to build a brewery and sell to AB-Inbev, it wouldn’t have been 10hl. It is small so it can be personal, so we can brew small, hand paddle-stirred beer for local people.”
Seems a brazen enough plan to me. Brazen Hall, opening soon.