Just three years ago, Alberta had less than a dozen breweries (including brewpubs). Most of them had been around for quite a long time, including Edmonton’s Alley Kat and Yellowhead. They made good beer, had found a solid niche in the market and were quietly growing their customers. Tracking the craft beer scene has been a fairly easy task for most of the past decade—a couple of quick emails were enough to get caught up on all the news of the day.
A couple years ago, things started to shift. Over 2014 and 2015, another six breweries opened around the province, including Two Sergeants here in the capital region. It was encouraging, but the task of staying on top of the newcomers was still do-able.
In the last few months, however, things have gotten out of hand. In the first five months of 2016 alone, 10 new breweries have opened their doors. This list of newbies includes Situation Brewing off of Whyte Avenue and a small operation in the north end called Bent Stick. (Watch Vue in coming weeks for more information on them.) Alberta now has 31 craft breweries—almost triple the number from only four years ago.
And that is merely the tip of the iceberg. The number of breweries currently under construction and being planned, combined with the rumours of other new ones, has meant it’s impossible to keep a handle on everything. Every week, it seems like there’s another new brewery getting ready to heat up the brew kettle. Swapping lists of soon-to-be-breweries with some industry contacts resulted in a list of 26 brewery operations in various stages of planning right now—and undoubtedly a few were missed. In short, the job of keeping on top of brewery news in this province is becoming almost impossible. They pop up faster than you can track down their email addresses and Facebook pages.
The bigger story here is that Alberta may, finally, be hitting a point of critical mass—the point where the craft beer movement takes a giant leap forward and craft becomes more than just a small niche. Petty problems of tracking aside, this is very good news.
Let’s put this in perspective. Within the next 12 to 18 months, Alberta will double the number of breweries it has today; it will have jumped five-fold in a matter of five years. What other business quintuples the number of entrants in just a few years?
Much of the activity is in Calgary at the moment, which has 12 breweries operating currently and another dozen slated to open. Edmonton has at least two more on the way (and likely more). What’s really impressive is the geographic spread of the new breweries: three in Lethbridge, two each in Grande Prairie and Medicine Hat, and a host of other locations, including Didsbury, Three Hills, St. Paul, Pincher Creek, Lloydminster, Slave Lake and Turner Valley.
Can Alberta handle this kind of rapid growth in craft beer? Some of these new breweries will undoubtedly fail, as that is often the fate of a new small business. But failure will not be about over-saturating the market—there is ample room in Alberta’s beer market for these new entrants. Rather, it will be the result of other factors like poor business practices and poor quality beer.
A couple things have happened that made this craft beer explosion possible. First, the provincial government has become much friendlier to local craft beer. In the dying days of the Tory government, they changed a series of rules that made it easier to open a new brewery, including eliminating minimum production capacity requirements that helped smaller-sized breweries get going. The new NDP government has shifted how the AGLC handles local producers. In the past, the AGLC had a laissez-faire, let-the-market-decide approach. The new government is a convert to the benefits of local beer production and is trying to create conditions amenable to small craft breweries in Alberta, including preferential mark-up rates and reducing administrative barriers to new brewery start-ups.
Second, it seems like Alberta is slowly catching up to what other regions figured out years ago. Locally produced craft beer both tastes good and helps build community. Craft beer is a beneficiary of the growing local food movement. If you are going to go to the trouble of eating local, you might as well drink local as well. Plus, beer consumers’ palates are evolving. Flavourful beer is gaining ground everywhere, and why should Alberta be an exception? Simply put, more people are interested in exploring craft beer.
Those tasked with tracking the industry’s growth are about to have a job that’s exponentially harder. But you, dear beer drinker, are going to reap all the benefits of this craft beer explosion.