The Prairies on Your Plate

From peas to perogies, from teas to tarts, you won’t go hungry (or thirsty) on these folks’ watch!

By Jeff Baker

Food, glorious food! Oh, and drink!

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes find that catchy little number from the 1960s musical and movie Oliver! running through my head while I’m cruising the aisles at my local supermarket or gourmet food store. The sheer variety of food and beverage products available to us on any given day in this country is simply astounding, and the amount of product available is mind-blowing to say the least.

Long gone are the days of choosing food simply for the caloric content (or lack thereof), being forced to choose between the yellow cheese or the orange cheese, or even selecting your breakfast foods based solely on the type of cardboard they might have tasted like.

Today, we’re spoiled for choice in every aspect of the food and beverage products we consume. Whether being spoiled in such a way is a good thing or not so good thing is a point on which not everyone will agree. 

But one thing’s for sure: food and beverage manufacturers in the Canadian Prairies are whetting appetites and quenching thirsts across the region (and beyond!) with their creative and innovative takes on food and drink. 

Let’s dine around the region and raise our glass to some of these fine folks!

Cocoabeans Gluten-Free – Winnipeg, MB

When your family is diagnosed en masse with celiac disease, it’s like your entire world turns upside down. And not just your culinary world either.

“You get very used to reading and deconstructing menus at restaurants and ingredient lists on products you buy or consume,” says Betsy Hiebert, founder and owner of Cocoabeans Gluten-Free in Winnipeg. “I’m diagnosed celiac and so are my three kids, so this gluten-free stuff is personal.”

“Everything really started with the diagnosis, and then I found a cookbook for celiac-friendly foods,” says Hiebert, “but so many of the recipes ended up with meals or products you really didn’t want to consume, let alone serve to your family or friends.”

Not one to throw in the towel so easily, Hiebert took matters into her own hands (which, when you’re baking and cooking, is a very good thing!) and set out to develop gluten-free recipes that were tasty and gave the same experience and enjoyment of the traditional recipes.

What started out as a bakeshop and café on trendy Corydon Avenue has now expanded into a business making packaged ingredients and mixes for the home baker and selling pre-portioned, prepared, frozen meals in single- and multiple-serving sizes, plus a roaring trade in gluten-free crusts for local pizzerias.

“The pandemic hit us hard,” says Hiebert, “like it did for everyone in our market. There was so much unknown at the time, but our core team was amazing through it all.”

The Cocoabeans team pulled together and pivoted the business in a matter of weeks into one shifted away from in-café service into take-away and home delivery for meals and selling pre-packaged versions of the mixes behind some of their most popular baked goods, so folks could have the fresh-baked experience at home.

“The times when the rules were eased for small home gatherings gave us a bit of a lift,” Hiebert explains. “Folks had been apart for so long that these little get-togethers were when they wanted to share something food-wise and enjoy their time.”

“Last year, heading into Christmas, we sold something like 400 pies in a single weekend,” says Hiebert, “and we could’ve sold a ton more, but we simply ran out! We ended up having our best holiday season ever… and in the second year of COVID!”

Cocoabeans has expanded their offerings well beyond simple gluten-free breads and biscuits, going headlong into other delicious offerings including comfort foods like chicken fingers, pot pies, lasagne, dainties, and cinnamon buns. 

In addition to being gluten-free, most of the company’s offerings are also some combination of dairy-free, vegetarian, vegan, and allergy-sensitive. 

Hiebert says, “It’s more coincidence than anything that gluten-free products tend to be friendly to the other diets, but it does open us up to a much larger market and helps a lot more people experience the joy of delicious food!”

“One thing we keep getting requests for is a gluten-free croissant,” explains Hiebert, “but those are such a tricky item given their traditional ingredients and the method by which they’re made. It would be amazing, though, if we can figure it out.”

And perhaps Hiebert and her team will be able to figure out that croissant challenge when they move into their new production and packaging space this summer.

“We’re moving into space that was already an approved food production facility, so it’s really not a lot of work for us to get it up to speed,” says Hiebert. “The landlord wanted to keep the space in the food processing sector, so we’re taking it over, and we’ll see where things go!”

Merit Functional Foods – Winnipeg, MB

If you tried plant-based protein products in the past, you might have been left with an impression that these foods and drinks were ‘challenging’ when it came to taste and mouthfeel. They were plant-based protein products, and they let you know that (not in a good way, though.)

Of course, as with most things, some time and effort in the continued development of the ingredients behind these products has paid off in spades. Plant-based protein no longer means sacrificing the deliciousness or ‘feel’ of the Real McCoy in the name of dietary needs.

Ryan Bracken, co-CEO of Merit Functional Foods in Winnipeg explains that the company’s proprietary processes mean that pea protein and canola protein are now able to meet the most demanding requirements for taste and texture without leaving the plant-based goodness behind. 

“‘Canola has traditionally been seen as an oil seed,” says Bracken, “but the leftover from that process still had tremendous value that we’re now able to capture and turn into something useful and consumable for humans.”

“The seed cake was used for animal feed, but we’re able to extract the protein content and sell it as a higher value ingredient,” Bracken says.

“The process we use actually extracts the desired protein, but it also removes the impurities that impart the negative taste attributes and the darker colour that was not wanted,” says Bracken.

“We’re offering a functional and great tasting protein that’s perfect for meat alternatives, daily alternatives, lifestyle nutrition products, and even vegan bakery products. There’s different proteins needed for different purposes, and we’re able to offer something different,” explains Bracken. 

“The canola protein is going to be better for some applications like those where whipping and folding characteristics are more important, like iced coffees, ice creams, and plant-based coffee creamers.

Bracken says that when the right protein product is used for an application, it can give food manufacturers the ability to streamline their ingredients list and present a more simplified product to the consumer.

“They don’t need to add some of the binding agents or multipliers like methylcellulose into their products, so you’re going to see fewer of those long-named ingredients that some consumers don’t necessarily want to see.”

Asked about the environmental footprint of Merit’s protein products, Bracken explains the company’s products compare very favourably.

“We’re located in the heart of plant protein crops – peas and canola – so transport of the raw materials is minimized. We’re centrally located to our customers, so that shipping is less than other regions. And in Manitoba, we’re fed with clean hydroelectric power from Manitoba Hydro which produces almost no greenhouse gas emissions,” says Bracken. 

“Merit’s protein products are second to none, and we’re ready and able to grow to meet demand for years to come.”

Angel’s Share Cocktail Co. – Winnipeg, MB

The angel’s share is a term used by spirit producers – especially whiskey makers – to denote the portion of liquor naturally lost to evaporation during the barrel-aging process due to the porousness of the wooden barrels. Typically, this loss is about two per cent of the liquor per year, so, for example, a 12-year-old scotch can lose about 24 per cent of the barrel’s original content.

For the angels to be taking such a good-sized portion of any given liquor, it must be the good stuff they’re after. So, why not name your craft cocktail mixology company after it?!

That’s just what Winnipeg’s Shane Masters and Marie-Pier Racine did when they started Angel’s Share Cocktail Co.

“I was working behind the bar at the Ritz-Carlton in Toronto, so I was already into the spirits side of things,” explains Masters, “and I got a lot of one-on-one coaching with the head bartender, who sort of ignited this passion for mixology.”

“A lot of it was self-taught, and there’s a lot of trial and error,” Masters says, “but I have a culinary background, so I understood flavours and combining them into something unique and interesting that people would enjoy.”

Masters and Racine want to clearly differentiate their company’s products from the mass market mixes found on supermarket shelves. Angel’s Share focuses on high-quality, hand-crafted, and seasonal mixes that appeal to cocktail connoisseurs, but they still have a lineup of more ‘traditional’ cocktails with an artisanal flair.

“Not everyone is going to want a cocktail made with beets, carrots, quinoa, or some other ‘wild’ ingredient,” says Masters, “but we can entice them with a great quality Moscow Mule, Tequila Sunrise, or Old Fashioned.”

“It was actually a Negroni that launched me down this mixology path,” Masters says, “so I understand not everyone has to dive in at the deep end. You can start where you’re comfortable and begin exploring from there.”

Cocktails, especially artisanal cocktails, are a growing business around the world, and Angel’s Share is taking their place alongside some of the best in the world. 

In 2021, Angel’s Share entered the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, one of the largest in the world with more than 3800 entries, and garnered Gold for their Jus de Carotte and Silver for the Zombie cocktail mix. 

“For us, for a cocktail mix, to be recognized at such a level, by some of most renowned bartenders, mixologists, and spirits experts, it’s an amazing accolade, for sure,” says Masters.

In addition to supplying their customers with innovative and refreshing beverage mixes, Angel’s Share is also working to ensure the business’s environmental footprint is well managed.

“We source our ingredients as locally as possible as the seasons allow,” Masters says, “but there’s not a lot of citrus fruit growing in Manitoba!”

The company offers a bottle return program for their customers, giving them the opportunity to earn free cocktail mixes and giving the company the chance to reduce the need to purchase new bottles for their products. 

Currently running the business from a kitchen hub facility in Winnipeg, Masters says they would, in the longer term, like to be in their own processing space.

“We’d be able to better monitor and control the water usage and power consumption and find ways to become more efficient and more sustainable. That’s really our goal.”

Rocky Lake Birch Works – The Pas, MB

In the forest north of The Pas, Manitoba, the McLauchlan family is hard at work making what many folks consider liquid gold: birch syrup.

“When folks think of syrup – tree syrup, in particular – they tend to think of maple syrup,” says Alan McLauchlan, co-owner of Rocky Lake Birch Works. “The birch syrup industry in Western Canada – let alone Canada – is much, much smaller, and it’s a different product than what has typically ended up in Canadian kitchens.”

“I like to tell people to cleanse their pallet before trying birch syrup,” McLauchlan says. “If you’re thinking you’ll get just another maple syrup, you’re in for a bit of a surprise!”

The process for making birch syrup is essentially the same as making other tree syrups, including maple. Trees are tapped during the early spring to extract the sap, which is then transported via plastic tubing to a central collection point. The collected sap is boiled to reduce the water content to a specific level – leaving behind the sugar and aromatic flavour compounds – and bottled for distribution to customers across the country.

“The difference between birch and maple,” says McLauchlan, “is in the ratio of sap to syrup. Maple takes about 40 litres of sap to make one litre of syrup, while birch is about 125 litres of sap to get one litre of syrup. We have to collect a lot more sap, and we have to do a lot more boiling down.”

McLauchlan credits his wife and business partner, Johanna, as being the magician of the two when it comes to the syrup making.

“I get the sap boiled down to a certain point – 70 to 80 per cent of the water is gone at this point – and we transfer it from the evaporator to the finishing pan, where Johanna takes the syrup across the finish line,” says McLauchlan. “The sap is finally syrup, we take it off the heat, she bottles it, labels it, and gets it out the door. It’s really her baby!”

Rocky Lake Birch Works sells two different types of their birch syrup, explains McLauchlan, each of which has a place in the kitchen thanks to their different flavour profiles.

“We make a pure birch syrup, that if you hold it up to the light, it’s dark – almost black – and the flavour is very much like molasses,” says McLauchlan. “I use it in my yogurt, but I primiarly use it for cooking, like in barbecue sauces, glazes, or even on fish in the smoker.”

The other syrup the McLauchlans produce is a lighter variety, made by adding natural fructose during the boiling process, which results in a lighter, more golden product similar in appearance to a maple syrup.

“It’s more familiar for folks who are used to a maple syrup on their table,” McLauchlan says. “The difference is that our birch syrup is going to have a wee bit of a smoky taste, but it is still a premium product that will go well on your pancakes, ice cream, or on anything you would normally use syrup.”

HEYRU Canada – Winnipeg / Warren, MB

HEYRU (pronounced ay-roo) is rooted in a word meaning ‘natural beauty’ in the Isoko language of southern Nigeria. And that word is the name of Joseph Edogbeni’s company in Winnipeg that sells globally sourced natural food and cosmetic products processed locally in Manitoba for the Canadian and international markets.

“Our company was founded on the concept of natural beauty,” says Edogbeni, “and it is core to everything we do. I grew up with a passion for natural wellness and oneness with the world, so I built the business to bring these products to the Canadian market.”

Heyru’s product offering currently includes herbal teas sourced from Kenya, pure hibiscus flower tisanes, monk fruit sweeteners from southeast Asia, and moisturisers and cosmetics based on shea butter from Central Africa. 

Edogbeni explains that sourcing the products and ingredients processed by Heyru comes down to the simple act of having a conversation and getting to know the suppliers and growers in the source regions. 

“Before COVID-19, I would regularly travel to Africa to find the growers and producers, meet with them, and build a relationship person-to-person. That’s really the key to our company’s success in securing the highest quality ingredients,” says Edogbeni.

“It’s tougher now, due to the pandemic, as goods that we’ve purchased and arranged for import, are taking so much longer to arrive,” Edogbeni says, “and they’re often getting stuck in transit because of global transportation issues. Ingredients we had planned on selling during last Christmas season, they still haven’t arrived, so we missed out on the holiday shopping.”

Undeterred, however, Edogbeni and the Heyru team continue to source new ingredients and products to process locally and share with Canadian consumers.

“I grew up in Nigeria with all these natural products and with folks knowing which plants had what benefits, and I am glad to be able to share these with Canada,” says Edogbeni. “The hibiscus flower is one of those plants that can offer health benefits when used on its own, instead of as an ingredient in
other preparations.” 

The products Edogbeni and the Heyru team source from Africa and Asia are imported to Canada and processed locally in a facility in Warren, Manitoba, where the end products are packaged into biodegradable and sustainable containers for sale to consumers. 

“We’re working to improve the visibility of these natural products in the market, and we’re seeing good interest,” Edogbeni says. “There’s a great appetite for what we’re producing, and people are finding out the difference that these natural foods can make in their lives.”

Farmery Estate Brewery – Neepawa, MB

For the Warwaruk brothers, Chris and Lawrence, growing up on the family farm outside Neepawa gave them insights into the challenges and opportunities in making a living dependent on Mother Nature. 

“We saw our dad working so hard every year to get the crops in and then off in the fall, and just fighting the elements the whole way,” says Chris. “The goal was always just to get as much grain out of the field each year and send it to market for whatever price was there.”

Like many farms, the Warwaruk’s struggled and eventually hit a dead end. Chris explained that growing up, he and his brother and other family members had part time jobs off the farm to help make ends meet. Eventually, they were working full-time in other occupations. 

“Looking from the outside, we could see that the traditional model of grain farming was broken,” Chris explains. “So much energy is spent growing the crop, harvesting it, and sending it off to the world market and hoping you get a price that will cover your costs. There was no control of your own destiny.”

“Farmers,” Chris continues, “don’t have any problem growing crops. We have a problem with marketing and adding value to what we produce. It’s the value-add that lets you get in front of things and start having some say in what’s going to happen!”

The brothers developed the idea of a family-owned estate brewery as the new business for their family’s farm. Then came all the hard work of establishing a craft estate brewery in rural Manitoba.

“We needed to grow, at a minimum, barley and hops,” says Chris. “Those are the basics when it comes to beer. We knew we could grow barley, but hops were a bit of a wild card for us.”

The Warwaruks’ Prairie work ethic came out in spades, and they took on the challenge of not just cultivating hops but building a full hops yard setup with former hydro poles and lines to support the fast-growing vines.

“For us to be an estate brewery, we use what we grow,” Chris explains, “and that’s really our limiting factor. Of course, we also need to work with local suppliers who malt our barley and process other ingredients, so it’s a fine balance.”

Of course, being a brewery, beer is at the heart of Farmery’s offering, but that doesn’t mean they’re a one trick pony.

“We also make non-alcoholic beverages, including sodas and energy drinks, spirits, hand sanitizer, and we even worked with another company on a hops-infused sleep aid pillow spray,” says Chris. “We learned that pillow sprays were actually a huge thing in Japan, and that the essential oils and aromatics from the hops we grow are a natural sleep aid.”

“When you grow and harvest the hops once a year, and when you might not use all of what you grow,” says Chris, “you don’t just want to send stuff to the compost. That’s why we take the excess hops, process them to extract the oils, and we can either store or sell the oil on to other users.”

The explosion of craft brewing across North America, combined with a growing consumer thirst for local products means that Farmery Estate Brewery has a market that is expanding every day. The brewery has even become a bit of a tourist destination, creating a new draw for visitors who plan entire holidays around visiting craft breweries.

“The pandemic shifted a lot of things for everyone,” says Chris, “and that new ‘hyperfocus’ on local business and hand-crafted food and drink is definitely helping us – and lots of other folks – grow and thrive.”

Perfect Pierogies – Garson, MB

When you think of the village of Garson, Manitoba, you might think first of the quarries that have been providing their signature Tyndall stone limestone to the construction industry for more than 120 years.

But what if I told you that there’s a converted school building home to a company producing more than five million perogies each year, supplying the fresh and frozen dumplings to stockists and consumers from coast to coast to coast? 

Meet Perfect Pierogies!

When asked what makes Perfect Pierogies’ perogies perfect, James Aitkenhead, CEO, explains that 95 per cent of the ingredients going into the company’s perogies are sourced hyper-locally.

“Almost everything that goes into our products is from within about a 15-minute drive from our kitchens,” says Aitkenhead. “It’s all natural, real food, so no powders or fillers or flakes. You’re getting a locally sourced and locally cooked perogy on your plate.”

When asked what separates Perfect Pierogies’ products from the typical perogy, Aitkenhead says it comes down to the human factor. 

“The recipes we use are passed down within the families for generations, the techniques – like rolling the dough thinner than typical commercial perogies – are closer to the ‘authentic’ product,” explains Aitkenhead. “These are the perogies we grew up with.”

“Our production process still has people at its heart. Even the machine we use to pinch the perogies closed was custom built for us and the pinchers use a die that was made from my grandmother’s fingers,” Aitkenhead says. “The pierogies still have my grandmother’s fingerprints along the edges, and the people in our process provide quality control at about six different points.”

Perfect Pierogies’ genesis in 2006 was thanks to the retirement of the local grocers’ perogy-pincher. 

“It was a local woman, just around the corner from the grocery store who would make the perogies sold there,” says Aitkenhead, “but one day she just said, ‘my fingers aren’t pinching the way they’re supposed to, and my arthritis is hurting.”

“One of our company’s owners was distressed that his favourite perogy wasn’t going to be available for much longer, and he’d tried a number of other companies’ perogies,” Aitkenhead says. “He couldn’t find anything authentic, until he eventually stumbled upon my mother, Carol, who had been running a catering company for decades.”

“She presented him with her version of a perogy, and he said it was the closest thing to what loved that he’d ever found!”

While the company and its products are firmly rooted in tradition and history, it doesn’t mean progress and change isn’t driving them forward. The company’s production of about 100,000 perogies each week is about to explode as they set up in a new facility just around the corner from their current facility.

“We’ll have the capacity to ramp up to about 300,000 perogies each week,” says Aitkenhead, “and our new facility is allowing us to remove bottlenecks and pinch-points from the process, and we’re able to introduce new technologies into production.”

“We’ll finally be able to get a forklift in there, and we’ll be using electric induction cooking for our perogies,” Aitkenhead says. “The process will keep everything consistent, and we’ll continue to be able to deliver perfect perogies to our customers across the country.”