The craft beer scene in Calgary, Alberta

The craft beer scene in Calgary, Alberta

by Stuart Forster 9 August 2017

There’s a buzz about craft brewing in the Canadian province of Alberta, particularly in Calgary, its most populous city. Stuart Forster finds out what is happening on the vibrant craft and micro-brewery scene.

Stuart Forster is a features writer and the blogger behind the food and travel website ‘Go Eat Do’.

Stuart Forster is a features writer and the blogger behind the food and travel website ‘Go Eat Do’. He was the winner of the 2017 British Annual Canada Travel Award for Best Online Content and named Journalist of the Year at the Holland Press Awards of 2015 and 2016. His work has appeared in publications including BBC Good Food, National Geographic Traveller and The Independent.

Five generations of his family have worked in the brewing industry. Stuart writes a regular column, entitled Beer of the Month, on ales from Belgium and the Netherlands. Formerly resident in Germany, and a fluent German speaker, Stuart has travelled widely in central Europe visiting breweries and building his knowledge of the region’s brewing culture.

A keen amateur cook, Stuart enjoys spending time in the kitchen, experimenting with recipes. Many of his favourite dishes are inspired by the cuisines of the Indian Subcontinent. He has travelled widely there, having been based in the Indian city of Bangalore for five years.

When it comes to craft beer, there’s certainly something brewing in Calgary. The tap rooms of microbreweries in Alberta’s most populous city are proving popular places to meet.

I take a mouthful of delicately hopped Inglewood IPA, an Indian Pale Ale named after the heritage district located a couple of miles east of downtown skyscrapers. Inglewood has become a popular destination for nights out and, after a long hiatus (in part due to prohibition between 1916 and 1923) is re-establishing itself as a brewing hub. A casual glance around reveals that none of the guests in the compact tasting room of High Line Brewing, which started pulling beers in November 2016, are stereotypical ale suppers. Women outnumber men at the tables around me — I’d guess most are aged in their 20s or early 30s.

‘It’s become a very clean, popular thing to go to breweries that have craft beers. It’s a fad but I don’t think it’s a fleeting pattern that’s going to dissipate. I think it’s going to grow and grow,’ says Patrick Smith of Oak and Vine Wine and Spirits, whose business card lists him as a Beer Guru, a title that undoubtedly induces pangs of mild envy among fellow ale aficionados.

‘I’m seeing a strong beer community starting to happen in Calgary. It’s very interesting right now,’ says Patrick, who was born and bred in the city. The population surged past a million ten years ago and now stands at more than 1.2 million. ‘I think there was a lack of breweries in Calgary and of a good beer culture in Alberta. It’s come from British Columbia – I think BC was five years ahead of us. We’re just getting there now. Breweries are opening because they see the demand. Calgary is a very young city and I think it’s the right place at the right time for a lot of breweries to open,’ he says. As of the summer of 2017 the city has eighteen breweries or brewpubs.

Albertan breweries are always looking to create new style of beers and push the boundaries of what people believe beer to be
As well as visiting the breweries, Calgary's malt producers open their doors to offer a more in-depth look at the process

The entire province of Alberta, which has a landmass two and three-quarters the size of the UK, had just eighteen breweries back in 2014. Yet over the past three years that number has more than tripled; around thirty new breweries are expected to open during 2017 alone. In a western province that’s renowned for its cattle rearing and the annual Calgary Stampede some might see the craft brewing phenomenon as a new type of Wild West. Fittingly, the Stampede Park will host the 2017 Calgary Oktoberfest, on 22 and 23 September. It is also the venue of the springtime Calgary International Beerfest, where more than 500 different brews are served.

When I ask Patrick for a tip on where to head he suggests the The Dandy Brewing Company, based in the Vista Heights district. ‘They’re trying out new styles and I think it’s a brewery that people look to for something to emulate,’ he says before explaining I should look out for sours and New England IPAs — the vogue styles of beer at present. In comparison to West Coast IPAs, East Coast brews tend to be refreshing and fruity, yet simultaneously aromatic and full in body.

The tasting flight at Cold Garden comes served on a modified ski
The number of breweries in Alberta has rocketed over the past few years, and should reach near 100 by the end of 2017

The proximity of the Cold Garden Beverage Company, in Inglewood, means I drop by for a chat with Dan Allard, a co-owner of the dog-friendly brewery. I order a tasting flight, a selection of four different brews. The glasses are served in a modified ski. ‘Next year there’ll be three more breweries in our neighbourhood, the original brewery district. We knew there would be breweries popping up here and we wanted to be one of the first ones to open,’ says Dan of Cold Garden, which has become a community hub since opening in May 2016.

A regulatory change, introduced during 2013, is a key reason in why Cold Garden and other microbreweries have opened only in recent years. In Alberta, prior to that, breweries had to prove they were capable of producing a minimum of 5,000 hectolitres of beer a year. ‘That’s why we jumped in,’ explains Dan, while sipping on a pint of East Calgary Lager. His company currently produces 1,500 hectolitres of beer a year but is introducing new tanks that will soon double that capacity.

‘There are breweries popping up like crazy in Edmonton but, for some reason, Calgary has just exploded,’ he explains. ‘I think part of the reason is that it’s a bit more of a white-collar city and so, from an organisational standpoint, people here are maybe more familiar with getting into the start-up world.’

Alberta's brewers tend to use local ingredients wherever possible, which offers even more provenance
The taprooms attached to breweries mean visitors can taste the beers fresh from the source

The high quality of locally grown grain and barley is undoubtedly a factor in why half of the 100 medals at the 2017 Canada International Beer Awards were distributed to Alberta-based breweries. ‘Alberta is a thirsty province and a lot of the farmers are based close to Calgary,’ says Dan. ‘Because it’s grown in our backyard we have the possibility to go and visit the fields. Rahr is one of our suppliers of malts. They are up in Alix. Every year they have Rahr Days. You show up at their facility and they’ll bus you around to farms growing their products and new speciality malts. It’s phenomenal. You can physically touch the barley stocks.’

Terry Rock, Executive Director of the Alberta Small Brewers Association, a not-for-profit body representing the province’s independent breweries, believes brewers are also fulfilling consumer demand for an increased supply of locally produced products. He thinks local ingredients mean, ‘what you’re going to see is malt-based beers as Alberta signatures.’

‘I think we should also be giving credit to Big Rock, one of the first craft breweries in Canada, in the ‘80s, and it’s located in Calgary. A lot of people had experience working there and then they’ve gone on to start their own breweries,’ says Terry, suggesting today’s brewers are building upon a success story from a previous generation.