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Alberta’s breweries stretch their legs

As restrictive laws change, Calgary brewers lead a province-wide beer bonanaza—and make up for lost time.
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Alberta's Village Brewery | Photo by Colin Way

Alberta’s Village Brewery | Photo by Colin Way

Imagine running a race as you’re simultaneously paving the road directly in front of you—that’s mostly how Alberta’s craft breweries have operated for the past few years. Their numbers have increased dramatically from 19 total brewery licenses in Alberta in 2013 to 54 (and counting) in 2017. But even as the industry explodes, its small breweries must navigate a regulatory system that often seems like it wasn’t ready for their arrival. Bolstered by plenty of support from the province’s beer drinkers, Alberta breweries are now coming into their own. For American visitors, visiting the province offers a chance to experience a thriving craft beer scene just as it hits its stride.

The seminal date that every small brewer in the province references is 2013. Prior to a legal change that year, breweries had to demonstrate a production minimum before they could open. That minimum was 5,000 hectoliters, or just over 4,000 barrels US, meaning a brewery had to prove that they could produce that much beer before they were allowed to own a brewery license. It was a major hindrance to startup breweries, many of whom wanted to start on a much more modest scale.

Once the government removed that requirement, the floodgates opened, washing the province’s two major cities, Alberta and Edmonton, in a cascade of beer. The scene is so young that when new breweries credit their “elders,” especially Village Brewery and Tool Shed Brewing Co., they’re citing breweries that opened in 2011 and 2013, respectively. Those two breweries did much to change the production minimum, but issues over taxation and taprooms and tariffs are still a headache.

“Because our industry has grown so fast, those regulators that come from health and municipal planning are still trying to catch up,” says Terry Rock, executive director of the Alberta Small Brewers Association. “There’s momentum. Everyone realizes that this is really consumer-driven so let’s get out of the way, but the regulatory toolkit didn’t fit what’s happening.”

There’s a near-legendary story that illustrates his point: Troubled Monk, a friendly brewery with a little community-focused taproom in Red Deer, Alberta, was asked to host a regular Bible study night in conjunction with an area church group. The brewery said sure, they’d happily host it, and put up a couple flyers or Facebook posts to that effect. Not so fast, regulators said. According to some bylaw, a brewery taproom couldn’t draw people to its taproom for events other than those directly related to beer sales. So if a Bible study spontaneously broke out over a few Belgian tripels, fine, but Troubled Monk couldn’t advertise it as an event.

“I’ve been able to milk that story with politicians, saying ‘Isn’t this silly? This is silly,’” Rock says.

Despite the legal growing pains still associated with operating a taproom in Alberta, most breweries are just thrilled they can have taprooms. Until the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission updated some regulations—are you sick of that word yet?—breweries couldn’t serve pints out of their tasting rooms. Only brewpubs had a public-facing space to fully serve their own beers.

“We were the first ones in the province to have a taproom. … We’d go to these beer meccas like Portland and Vancouver and experience this beer culture and now we finally have it in Alberta,” says The Dandy Brewing Co. co-founder Matt Gaetz. “It made for lots of happy people.”

Cold Garden Beverage Company | Photo by Jamie Hyatt Photography

Cold Garden Beverage Company | Photo by Jamie Hyatt Photography

For an American visitor, Alberta’s tasting rooms feel like a return to the scrappier days of American beer culture when these weren’t multimillion dollar spaces with interior designers and a small army of staff. Some are just picnic table-dotted spaces carved out between barrels in an industrial bay; many I visited had a capacity of just a few dozen people.

Cold Garden Beverage Company is an exception. With space for 136 people, the year-old brewery’s taproom is one of the largest, though its homemade art and second-hand couches radiate a DIY spirit.

“We knew we’d be trailblazers for the tasting room culture here and we take that role with pride,” says Kris Fiorentino, the brewery’s marketing director and taproom manager. “There are still battles all the time, but [regulators] are very receptive to working with us. It’s still new for everyone, so we have to help shape the policy and work toward the structure of what a tasting room will look like.”

As breweries and government agencies forge ahead into this brave new world of small breweries and tasting rooms, Alberta’s been cranking out beer. And it’s pretty good, given most brewery’s youth and the ubiquity of Canada’s mass-produced lagers. The reasons are multifold: the proximity to barley production, the influence of Pacific Northwest breweries, the truly cooperative spirit among brewers.

Alberta grows some of the highest-quality malted barley in the world … and a lot of it. On my visit, I drove past a picturesque field (literal amber waves of grain) with a large white sign stating that the barley grown there was destined for Lagunitas; Oskar Blues also buys Alberta barley. Breweries in the province tout their local malt in the same way Washington state breweries boast of Yakima hops, and it adds character and richness to taproom staple styles like pale ales and brown ales.

The province has also been influenced by its relative nearness to Pacific Northwest beer cities including Seattle and Portland, which plenty of Canadian beer drinkers have visited. Upon hearing I was visiting from the States, brewers and fellow beer drinkers were quick to mention their admiration for West Coast breweries, helping to explain why almost every IPA I encountered in Alberta was of the piney-resinous-grapefruit family, with firm bitterness and a clear, caramel-colored hue.

And though every beer scene touts the camaraderie of its brewers, Alberta’s truly walks the walk. Not only do brewers speak highly of each other and each others’ beers, but they assist each other in technical matters; maybe it’s the “all for one and one for all” spirit that only overcoming government obstacles can engender.

The founders of Village Brewery, who opened their doors just before the 2013 legal change allowing for smaller start-up breweries, are considered generous mentors for many of Calgary’s younger brewers. They’re free with their advice and guidance, and are quick to back it up with the resource every new brewery could use: cash.

The brewery has, from day one, donated 10 percent of its bottom line back to the community, which includes charitable organizations and other breweries. Each year, Village brews a collaboration beer called The Village Friend with a different brewery and profits from its sale go to a quality-control project of that brewery’s choice; last year, the collab with then-brand-new Banded Peak allowed the growing brewery to purchase lab equipment.

“We understood that with our experience, we had that responsibility to help educate the others,” says Village co-founder Jim Button. “At the highest level, the more success craft beer has, the more we change how people drink, and the more chance they’ll keep drinking good beer. … My objective and desire for Alberta is shared learning, shared experiences. I want everyone to start working together to up our quality.”

Craft breweries are now opening at a quick pace, which will surely only increase as business conditions become even more favorable for them. That makes it difficult to predict what Alberta’s beers will taste like five or ten years from now, but if you visit the province soon, you’ll be able to say you saw it all from the ground floor.

One Comment

  • Balls says:

    Did she forget Big Rock, Brewsters, and Wild Rose exist? The elders have been leading the way for decades. There are more than 20 new breweries in the Calgary area. Tool Shed, Village, Dandy, Cold Garden, and Banded Peak are all newcomers. I look forward to seeing them grow! Dandy’s in the process of growing into a new facility already. The future looks promising!

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