features 2019-01-02 community spirits2019-02-27T13:25:15-06:00

Community Spirits

CALGARY’S GROWING CRAFT ALCOHOL INDUSTRY

by Erin Lawrence

It’s a sunny afternoon and light is streaming into High Line Brewing’s Inglewood headquarters through huge floor-to-ceiling windows. The tables are full; at one a couple is playing cards. A pizza arrives to another table, hand delivered from a pizza place up 9th Avenue SE. A group of friends laughs as they sample a tray of High Line’s brews that is set down on their table. This atmosphere repeats itself nearby at The Dandy Brewing Company, and Paddy’s Barbecue & Brewery.

Calgarians are increasingly choosing to head to local breweries – and now to some distilleries too – to meet friends, converse, sample new sips, and listen to music and take in local art.

“I really enjoy the community that builds around craft beer,” says Citizen Brewing’s Head Brewer Ryan Hampton. “It becomes a gathering place, an art space, a community place. It’s an extension of the brewer and the staff and people respond to that. People want to try new things and it becomes a community hub.”

Over at Calgary’s Eighty-Eight Brewing Co., 1980s hair metal and synthpop boom from speakers on the second level where a loft-style taproom overlooks the brewery floor. Though there’s no brewing happening on the Saturday we visit, the communal tables are full, and the beer glasses are emptying. Noble Pie is shoveling pizzas out of its pop-up pizza counter as fast as staff can roll them out. Eighty-Eight’s Stuart Valentini says the growing popularity of local craft beer and the burgeoning community might be due in part to the relaxed nature that surrounds beer drinking.

“Breweries serve as a really casual place for people to congregate. They don’t have to be as formal or substantial as if you were going out to have a big dinner, so you see everything from families who come with their kids, to people who come and bring board games and set up shop for a bit.”

A couple of brewery districts are evolving in Calgary, years after Big Rock Brewery opened up in a southeast industrial area and started it all: The Inglewood and Ramsay neighbourhoods have Cold Garden, Dandy, High Line, Eighty-Eight and Paddy’s. To the west in the Beltline you’ll find Last Best, Trolley 5, Brewsters and Mill Street.

To the south in the Highfield-Alyth, Bonnybrook and Manchester areas, brewpubs are continuing to pop up in once exclusively industrial spaces. Village Brewery may have been one of the first to open up shop, but now they have neighbours in Banded Peak, Annex Ale project, Legend 7 Brewing, The OT Brewing Company and Born Colorado.

There are currently about 40 businesses classified as “liquor manufacturers” in the city of Calgary, more outside the city limits (like one of the originals; popular and well-known Eau Claire Distillery in Turner Valley), and about 130 in total in Alberta. Growth has been massive.

In 2015 there were just 29 breweries and 7 distilleries in Alberta. Today those numbers have ballooned to 98 breweries and 24 distilleries.

With that kind of growth, and new brewers and distillers opening all the time, it’s hard to believe the laws that allow them to create a livelihood and community didn’t exist just five years ago. Perhaps the novelty of this new liquor liberalism has yet to wear off. Or possibly it’s because Calgarians are finding new ways to embrace the burgeoning craft alcohol scene.

Village Brewery’s Marketing Manager, Eric Daponte, has been part of a trio of breweries organizing cycling tours of Calgary’s so-called “Barley Belt” in the Manchester Industrial area. Along with Banded Peak brewery and Annex Ale’s Project, two years ago they began developing activities designed to explore all the Belt has to offer, including brewery bike tours. It’s all housed on a website at barleybeltYYC.com.

“We probably get about 30-40 people out on a bike tour on a summer afternoon,” explains Daponte. “We hang out all day, bike around to all the breweries and check them out. We also do an end-of-summer tour in August where we get buses to take people around to six tap rooms, and it’s called the Barley Belt Tap Tour. Next year we’ll expand it to 10 breweries.”

It’s not just the breweries benefiting from this spirit of community.

“We have been noticing an increase of customers wanting to experience our distillery tours and sample our products during the lunch hour and dinner service,” adds Blair Bullied, Marketing Manager at Burwood Distillery.

This year, the Government of Alberta temporarily relaxed its liquor laws to allow soccer fans the opportunity to watch 2018 FIFA World Cup matches with a pint, or a shot. Burwood Distillery took advantage, hosting viewing parties in its new restaurant and lounge. Indeed, pairing fresh food and freshly brewed or distilled liquor is becoming more common.

“We’re seeing a lot of growth in the food world and that’s established a path for local spirits and local beer to blend into one category,” muses Keith Robinson, Owner-Operator of Wild Life Distillery. Though the distillery is located in Canmore, Calgarians are coming to visit in droves, and other brewers and distillers outside the city limits report the same thing.

Despite the growing number of manufacturers, one thing most of them agree on is that competition is great for business – and helps to forge even stronger bonds.

“One of the things that differentiates the craft beer world is just how much camaraderie there is,” says Daponte. “Yes, there’s more competition but at the same time we can work together and promote each other, and that makes the industry better for all of us.”