It’s mid-morning on a Tuesday and Ritchie Market at 76 Avenue and 95 Street is bustling. People are lined up to order pour-overs from the coffee bar. The bakery does a brisk business in pastries. Butchers break down fresh meat. A pleasant din rises from tables in a central open area and the adjoining restaurant, Biera.
Greg Zeschuk owns the market, Biera and Blind Enthusiasm Brewing Company, the market’s anchor. As he arrives, sporting jeans, a t-shirt and a salt-and-pepper beard, several people greet him by name.
“I don’t come in and feel excessive pride or anything. I just kinda go, ‘OK great, it’s busy, back to work.’ I kind of have a relentless pursuit for the next thing,” Zeschuk says.
His modest demeanour belies a sensational career: Zeschuk is the co-founder of famed video game company BioWare, and is a retired family doctor with a medical degree from the University of Alberta. In 2018, Zeschuk was named a member of the Order of Canada, the nation’s top civilian honour.
His foray into brewing began with The Beer Diaries, a YouTube show he hosted while living between Edmonton and Austin, and running Bioware’s Texas studio.
“I’d met a lot of the brewers and entrepreneurs that were making beer, and I really fell in love with the concept of it. It was a very creative and dynamic field.”
By 2007, Zeschuk and co-founder Ray Muzyka had sold Bioware to Electronic Arts (EA), one of the world’s largest video game companies. They both exited BioWare in 2012 and remain in Edmonton.
“I thought, if I’m staying, I’m going to do something fun,” he says. He knew he wanted to build something, and was intrigued by small, neighbourhood breweries he’d seen in Denver and elsewhere, and by the piazzas of Italy.
Ritchie Market came together in a “complex, organic manner,” Zeschuk says. Local, independent businesses heard what he was doing and signed on. It opened in spring 2017.
On this Tuesday morning, Zeschuk is still pumped from the recent launch of Blind Enthusiasm’s latest beer, Measure of Patience. Around 200 people lined up to sample the offering – a barrel-fermented sour beer nearly five years in the making. It spent a year in Sicilian Marsala barrels and six months in the bottle prior to its release.
“It comes out as a more acidic, more wine-like beer. It’s a rare thing, and what’s different for us is, it’s our primary thing, all these unique barrel-aged, barrel-fermented beers,” says Zeschuk.
“The idea of having high-end food with really fine beer is in a handful of places across North America. We’re doing stuff that you would typically find in Toronto, or Chicago, or New York. It shows what you can do here.”
Despite Zeschuk’s technical background, Blind Enthusiasm is an artisanal endeavour.
“There are automation systems that can make 100 times the amount of beer we make in a year in one day, and never touch any ingredients, but that defeats the purpose from our perspective.”
As an example, he points to the Measure of Patience label. “This cutout doesn’t come out right all the time, so sometimes we manually take it off with a razor and place it on again. Stuff like that, which is not good from a business perspective, but it’s part of the love of the process.”
The success of the brewery and the market are intertwined. Zeschuk’s creative streak has tapped into a community ethos hungry for public space to embrace collectivism, and beat back isolationism.
He’s noticed more regular customers – young and old – and a spinoff effect in the neighbourhood that he hopes will expand to other parts of the city.
“At least a couple hundred people showed up to get this beer on a Sunday in Edmonton. That wouldn’t have happened five years ago. It kind of makes you realize hey, there’s great potential.”