City Palate
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The Harvest Issue - September October 2017

It’s a Beautiful Time to Love Calgary’s Craft Beer

by Tom Firth

Whenever I travel and have an opportunity to hit a good watering hole for some suds, the last thing I’m likely to do is order a big, multinational brew. Instead, I want to try something good, something different, and something local. While fine beer has been made in Calgary for a while, it’s only quite recently that the small brewery scene has really taken off.
For a long time, we really didn’t have a local brewing culture filled with innovators and dreamers. In places like British Columbia, you could barely throw a stick without hitting a microbrewery. Yet here, it wasn’t until 2013 that the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission (AGLC) dropped its stifling requirement that a brewery had to have a minimum production level or it would be deemed “too small” to operate.

When the Alberta government finally scrapped the production minimums for breweries and distilleries, it was only a matter of time before the true craft brewers started oozing out of the woodwork. Under the old rules, in order to have a chance at starting a brewery, you’d need to round up hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of dollars. Once the minimums were dropped, it became possible to make great beer or spirits for much, much less.

These days, Calgary has approximately 13 breweries, with several more either about to open, or in the planning stages. As is the case for any industry going through a boom, there were a number of pioneers that helped pave the way.

It’s impossible to talk about brewing in Calgary without discussing Big Rock. No longer a tiny little brewery, Big Rock’s Grasshopper and Traditional really opened the door for Albertans and tourists to try something unique to Alberta. Started in 1985, Big Rock now brews in British Columbia and Ontario, as well as here. With nearly a dozen year-round offerings and a strong seasonal line-up, Big Rock is an Alberta-made brewing success story.

According to Jim Button of Village Brewery, the seeds of the “locavore” movement really began in 2007, when the concept of buying, eating, and drinking locally made products started taking hold in the province. He says that “breweries are one of the more visible elements for supporting local.” Village Brewery was in the planning stages before Alberta dropped the minimum production requirements, so it committed to the 5000-hectoliter capacity of its facility. At the time, it was the first new brewery in Alberta in 15 years.

Wild Rose Brewery’s Brian Smith, director of brewery operations, notes that “A truly great craft beer scene only exists when there are lots of good local breweries.”

But he sees that the small brewery/tap room option is a good way for plenty of newer and smaller breweries to get a start. Meanwhile, Benjamin Leon, one of the co-founders of the Dandy Brewing Company, got into the business the same way that plenty of others do – through home brewing. By the time the laws changed in 2013, Leon says, “we had talked about all the cool things we would do in ‘our brewery,’ so it seemed like we had no choice but to open our own.”

Leon is quick to acknowledge that “when the AGLC began to allow tasting rooms, it was a major win for us small guys. All of a sudden, we can do tiny batches, and have people come right in and learn from us what it is, and why, and all that stuff. We didn’t need giant marketing budgets, because we sold the beer, served the beer, gave tours… HUGE!”
The Red Bison Brewery is a new brewery slated to open in 2017. Steve Carlton, one of its founders, says, “the longer we spent around beer and the people who make it and drink it, I knew I had to be in (this) space. The craft beer culture and community are amazing and we can’t wait to be a much bigger part of it.”

Carlton credits more than just the AGLC production changes for the boom in local breweries. “In general, I think food is the main factor that made craft beer more popular. When gastropubs brought quality, flavourful foods to the masses and started the buy-local, source-local movement and educated people on where their food comes from and what’s in it, it pushed people to ask those questions about their beer.”

Carlton describes the local brewing community as extremely supportive. “They’re all eager to help out the new guys on the block. Every time I talk with someone from a brewery, they always offer help or say to call whenever I need something. The people make the scene so great.”

Alberta, in addition to already having access to some of the greatest beers from all over the world, finally has a strong, local craft scene to call its own – and it’s just getting better.

Read entire article in the digital issue of City Palate.