In 2006, Manjit and Ravinder bought the Wisconsin brewery that was making their beer on contract, and then added a distillery and a second brewery, this one in their hometown. The Calgary facility brews many of Minhas’s craft and specialty beers, with names like Lazy Mutt Gluten-Free Lager and Thumper American IPA (India pale ale). Beer now accounts for 70% of their booze business, but that heavy concentration may constitute the family’s first big challenge: Canada’s $9-billion brewing industry is in upheaval, as consumers increasingly opt for wine or forgo alcohol altogether. The budget segment has been particularly affected, especially since Labatt bought Lakeport to tone down its aggressive pricing, says Stephen Beaumont, a Toronto-based beer writer and consultant. “Minhas mainly occupies [the budget-brand] part of the marketplace that’s disappearing, yet they manage to make it work,” he says. “They’ve expanded considerably, and they’re doing it almost below the radar.”

So far, the company appears to be powering ahead, claiming 30% annual growth over the past two to three years. But it’s also making sure its product line is diverse enough to withstand shifts in the market. “A lot of success now is about staying fresh,” says Beaumont. “Keep the beer geeks happy with new brands and flavours and ideas.” The Minhases have not slacked on that front, introducing a Bunny line (such as Chocolate Bunny stout) with heavier tastes and higher alcohol content, and regular new arrivals, like Uptown Girl, which is aimed at women (“It’s my baby,” says Manjit). Even the budget Boxer line now has watermelon and apple varieties. But the siblings admit that craft brewing is ultimately a sideline for them—the segment makes up less than 10% of the total market. “We do things for attention and notoriety to get in front of you,” says Manjit, “but at the end of the day, the core of our business is lager and ale.”

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Over the past three to four years, the company has also built a Signature Spirits line that includes apple pie moonshine, craft gins and even Punjabi whisky (“We got our grandpa’s moonshine recipe!” boasts Ravinder). Minhas has also dabbled in wine—a project of Manjit’s that turned out to be a colossal failure. She figured they had the distribution network and the sales team. “My brother said, ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Absolutely!’” recalls Manjit cheerfully (six years later, she can laugh about it). She sourced Argentinian and Chilean wine to create a mid-priced line and put it into liquor stores. It was a hard lesson in the unique challenges of the wine market, where branding is all important (much more than price). No one bought it. “I’ve got a fair bit sitting in my basement, aging…very…nicely!” she says.

As any Canadian brewing upstart quickly learns, the hardest part of the business is getting product to consumers. Every province has its own beer distribution regulations and retail systems, and some are harder to navigate than others. Minhas has a 15% market share in Alberta, says Ravinder, and sells dozens of products in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and B.C. But Ontario took years to crack, and the only brand the company sells there is Boxer.

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Even that inroad was a battle: Securing shelf space in the Beer Store, the provincial retail network controlled by the three largest brewers, was a tough fight that, by Manjit’s account, even included an Ontario Provincial Police investigation sparked by competition putting “bugs in their ears.” Minhas has found the U.S. much easier—California is now its second-biggest market after Alberta—thanks to fewer regulatory hurdles and Minhas’s ability to secure private-label deals with major chains such as Trader Joe’s and Costco.

The scrappiness with which Manjit fought her way through Ontario’s red tape should prove a useful trait on Dragons’ Den. “I’m fast at cutting through the BS—it’s my personality,” she says. “I don’t have patience for people who are wasting our time. I can say, ‘Stop it! You’ve sunk half a million dollars into nothing!’”

Entrepreneurial hopefuls, you’ve been warned.

This article appeared in the June 2015 issue of Canadian Business. Subscribe now!

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