Plenty has changed in Alberta’s beer scene recently, including lots of new breweries opening, tons of import beer, and new policies encouraging a local craft beer industry. Our market is beginning to mature. That got me thinking, exactly what does a mature craft beer market look like?
I could just say “Portland” and end the column now, but that wouldn’t be useful. Instead, allow me to consider the conditions present in markets that have embraced local craft beer.
The first step in growing the beer community is an increase in breweries. The anchor of any strong beer scene is a sizeable cluster of local breweries making beer for the people in their neighbourhoods. There is no hard-and-fast number here, but I can safely say it is more than Edmonton has at the moment.
Local breweries matter because the owners can create a multi-faceted connection. They feed into the desire for small-scale, local food production. They are legitimately part of the community in a way that’s not possible for imports and corporate beers. The owner or the brewmaster can regularly attend local events or, even hang out at a local pub. Many consumers have a direct connection to the brewery and its operators.
Breweries also push each other to be better and they increase the overall quality level in the beer scene. The more breweries there are, the greater the diversity in approaches and styles, meaning consumers get to choose, pushing all of them to try to be better. It is a key reason why local breweries drive beer market maturation.
A good supply of import beer is also important. Access to quality beer from around the world helps educate consumers and raise expectations. When you try a world-class porter or IPA, you start to expect a bit more from the one you try locally. And that pushes everyone to be better.
The third condition involves local pubs and restaurants making quality beer a priority. Lots of places have great food cultures with restaurants creating amazing dishes. Many of those restaurants have impressive wine lists. The beer list—not so much. Similarly, every city has pubs with great atmosphere and friendly vibe. Again, often the beer list itself is rather pedestrian.
Mature beer scenes combine great locations with great beer lists. In the most mature markets a pub doesn’t dare not carry some local taps. They know they will lose customers if they don’t. I remember walking into a random sports bar in Portland, replete with Bud signage and Coors posters, and noticing that of the 18 taps, 14 were local, including four different IPAs. That is what I am talking about. In a mature beer market, local pubs carry local beer.
Finally, in a mature beer market there is a wide range of beer styles, flavours and interpretations. Until recently, there was only one model to build a successful brewery in these parts: be mid-sized and offer a select range of flavours—including something darker, something hoppier, something lighter and (often) something fruity. Admittedly that model has recently been supplemented by a number of other options and some of the newbies are pushing boundaries, but we are not yet at a place where breweries can do what they feel passionate about and find a place for it. And that is the final sign of a mature market.
We are not there yet, not by a long shot. But recent signs have me feeling hopeful that one day Edmonton might be. V
Jason Foster is the creator of onbeer.org, a website devoted to news and views on beer from the prairies and beyond.