I have written recently about how Alberta’s lagging craft beer scene is finally picking up steam. We have long had among the fewest number of breweries in the country. However, that is fast changing, in the last 12 months alone, Alberta has seen 21 new breweries open their doors across the province, with at least another two dozen expected to open in the next year or so. I think that rates as an explosion.
Briefly, there are two reasons for this growth. First, a shift in government policy has lowered barriers to opening a brewery and created supports for our burgeoning craft brewers. The NDP government sees craft beer as a plank in its goal of economic diversification. Second, the palates of Alberta consumers have been evolving, and we have begun embracing the notion of local food, which along with it comes local beer.
In an effort to keep up with all the activity, this past summer I made a commitment to visit as many of the new breweries as I could. Over a series of road trips, I successfully visited 17 of the 19 breweries I had yet to visit. While a trip of that nature is always fun, I also discovered that the nature of Alberta craft beer is changing.
It used to be there was only one model for opening a craft brewery. Get a mid-sized brewhouse (20 to 30 hectolitres), open in a light industrial park, offer three to four flagship beer—usually a fruit beer, a lighter beer, a dark beer and a hoppy beer—and quietly build a following over a period of time. While there are exceptions (e.g., Yellowhead Brewing), that was the approach that seemed to work in this part of the world. Alley Kat, Wild Rose and relative newcomer Village Brewing all adopted this model.
While many of the new breweries I visited have adopted that model, including Lacombe’s Blindman Brewing, Red Deer’s Troubled Monk and Calgary’s Banded Peak, I have witnessed a wider range of approaches. On one end of the scale are tiny breweries who are intentionally keeping it small and fiercely local. Edmonton’s new Bent Stick is an example but they are not alone. Theoretically Brewing in Lethbridge, Boiling Oar and Cold Garden in Calgary and Grain Bin Brewing in Grande Prairie are all one-or-two people operations using brew systems not much bigger than a homebrew set up.
At the opposite end are those breweries adopting the go-big-or-go-home mantra. Their owners—often from the restaurant industry—have found millions in upfront capital and build larger-scale, fancy breweries with more ambitious goals. Coulee Brewing in Lethbridge, Trolley 5 in Calgary, and GP Brewing in Grande Prairie are the main examples.
And there are a number of variations in the middle. Many see their tap room—a small onsite space where customers can order a pint or two—as a staple for their sales. Others are trying to create something of a destination with their brewery. Half Hitch in Cochrane has built an impressive space overlooking the valley. Bench Creek just outside Edson has created a rural spot where you can sip on a pint overlooking lush forest and rolling hills.
The range of beer up for offer has also shifted significantly. The new breweries no longer feel constrained by the traditional range of offerings. Some of the new staple offerings include kettle sours, intense IPAs, porters, saisons and a wide range of other flavours and styles.
The Alberta beer world is changing, and it is all good. Not only are Alberta beer drinkers going to get more Alberta-produced beer to try, the types and shapes of those breweries will be more diverse. And diversity is the sign of a maturing beer market. Rejoice! V
Jason Foster is the creator of onbeer.org, a website devoted to news and views on beer from the prairies and beyond.