You can be forgiven for not realizing that Camrose is the home of one of Alberta’s smallest breweries. You can easily drive through town and not even know the brewery exists—and you wouldn’t be alone.
Norsemen Brewing is the brainchild of Sean Willms, owner of the Norsemen Inn on Main Street Camrose. In an effort to inject some energy into his longstanding business, in 2011 Willms and experienced homebrewer Lynn Clark decided to turn the hotel’s nightclub into a brewpub. They installed a small 600-litre brewhouse and replaced all the standard lagers on tap with their own beer.
Opening a brewpub in Camrose is no small challenge, however. This small prairie city is a hardcore pale-lager market. If it isn’t yellow, fizzy and easy to drink, they don’t want it. So, it takes some skill to persuade this crowd to try something new.
But three years in, it seems the project is working. Beer sales have grown constantly. They sell more beer in their two spaces (a nightclub and a lounge) than they did before the switch, and the brewery is already bursting its capacity. The success is due to taking things slow, edging local beer drinkers into all-malt craft beer while still offering something for the beer aficionado in Camrose.
At the moment, Norsemen offers two regular beer: Longship Lager and Eric the Red, as well as a changing rotational beer designed by current brewmaster, Ryan Stang, who took over after Clark’s retirement.
The regular beer at the brewpub are best described as “safe.” They are clean and well-made but aim for a modest flavour profile. The Longship Lager has a pleasant, crisp malt character but not much else. Eric the Red brings out a soft caramel sweetness but could use more complexity. I can see the point of these beer; they are not far removed from the beer Norsemen’s customers might expect, but their all-malt commitment gives them a touch more flavour to nudge customers along the beer spectrum.
It is in the rotational beer where Norsemen gets to play. When I was there, they had a Sour Cherry Oatmeal Stout on tap, most certainly a beer for more seasoned beer drinkers. They say the rotationals draw in the local beer fans, giving them both some credibility and a regular customer base for growler off-sales.
If Norsemen were in Toronto, it would struggle for credibility. But given their geographic location, I tip my hat to them. They are thriving in a tough environment, and slowly educating beer drinkers in the area at the same time. Well done. V
Jason Foster is the creator of onbeer.org, a website devoted to news and views on beer from the prairies and beyond.