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Dueling Grants and More Beer Policy Stuff

Alberta Finance Minister Joe Ceci delivers Budget 2017.

It has been rather quiet on the beer policy and politics front recently. No updates on the ongoing legal disputes around Alberta’s mark-up policy and brewers’ grant program (for a summary read here), no big announcements or controversies – just the usual. Saskatchewan is plugging away at privatizing many of its liquor stores, but it is too soon to judge the effects and Ontario spreads its new beer in grocery stores (sorta) policy.

However, two announcements caught my eye in the last couple weeks. They are not beer-related, per se, but I do think they have  implications for the ongoing debate about beer policy.

Two weeks ago, the Ontario government announced a new $5 million grant program for small cideries and distilleries (read the coverage here). They money, spread over three years, will take the form of grants to eligible producers. The government currently provides $1.2 million in funding to the Ontario Craft Brewers Association and in the past has had grants for breweries as well.

Then, in last week’s Alberta provincial budget, Finance Minister Joe Ceci boasted about the beer grant program and promised an extension to craft distillers. To quote him: “The Alberta small brewery grant program is creating jobs and driving new investment. This year, we are going to build on the success of our craft brewing program and work to model a similar program for Alberta’s craft distillers.”

No details have been released but if it works like the beer grant it will take the form of regular payments linked to production levels.

Other than the expected applause from craft cideries and distilleries, the response has mostly been crickets. I find this curious given the uproar over the announcement of Alberta’s beer grant last year. What a few months ago was decried as a horrible violation of inter-provincial trade laws, is now no big deal? What’s the difference?

I have two answers to that last question. First, craft cider and (in particular) craft distilling are much earlier in their development as an industry. Craft distillers are very small and, for the most part, restricting sales to their region. There are few established Ontario craft distillers selling in Alberta (a quick search found a single product), or vice versa. Beer, on the other hand, as a more mature craft industry, has sizeable players who ship product to many provinces. A beer grant for Alberta producers ruffled the feathers (and threatened market share) of some established parties. In contrast, in distilling, no apple cart can be overturned because it hasn’t been built yet.

Second, the close proximity of the two announcements makes it hard for anyone to take specific umbrage with either program. With beer last year, the Alberta government could be isolated and singled out as they were the only ones making changes. People’s short memories had forgotten the millions handed to Ontario breweries by the Ontario government because that had been standard practice for years. Alberta seemed like an outlier, and thus vulnerable to criticism. Throw some partisan politics into the mix and  you get a controversy. An Ontario distillery can hardly cry foul about Alberta’s grant program when their government announced one days earlier.

Clearly the political and economic dynamics are different with cider and spirits. It is possible some one launches a complaint against these new grant programs, but somehow I kind of doubt it.

Swap the Malt? Troubled Monk’s Malt Experiment

Photo courtesy of thebeerdiaries.tv

So lots of breweries engage in hop experiments – swapping out varieties of hops to experience the flavour effect. Most breweries are not so fast to play around with their malt. Malt is the anchor for a beer. It lays down the core flavours that create a beer’s character.

I don’t want to exaggerate. Some breweries  have played around with single malt beer to isolate malt flavours. It is just that particular practice hasn’t caught on the way single hopping has. I think because the flavour effects of hops are so in-your-face, like a crazy guitar solo, while malt is more like a solid bass line, laying down an essential groove but in a way many don’t even notice it.

Why do I say all this?

Because Red Deer’s Troubled Monk decided to play around with malt to see what effects it has on beer. It took is Golden Gaetz Golden Ale, its light blonde ale, and made three versions using different malt and put them in a mixed six-pack. To tell it is a mixed pack, you have to read the labels carefully as from a quick glance it looks like their normal pack.

The beer is an excellent candidate for a malt experiment as it has a low hop regime and the malt bill is quite simple, just 90% 2-row base malt with 10% carapils. They held the carapils constant and swapped out the base malt. The first beer is their regular recipe, with 85% Copeland malt from Rahr Malting with 15% Synergy from new Alberta craft maltster Red Shed. That is their control. Beer two is made with 100% Synergy from Red Shed. The third beer is 100% Bentley, also from Red Shed.

I thought it would be cool to see if I could tell the difference between the three beer. Turns out the subtle packaging made it easy for me to blind the taste test. I covered the label, mixed up the cans and gave them each a number. I handled all beer the same, opened at the same time and poured them into identical glasses. I only revealed which each was after taking my notes.

I won’t keep you in suspense and will tell you there was a noticeable difference in colour, body, flavour and aroma across the three. The regular version poured slightly darker and had a more intense aroma, offering both a sharper grain and a bit more floral character. The Synergy beer had a bit of a haze to it and the aroma had more honey and a noted oatmeal cookie character. The Bentley had the softest aroma of the three, with a soft graininess.

I will re-produce the flavour notes verbatim as there is a degree of complexity in the comparisions.

Synergy: Gentle, soft sweetness of honey and light fruit at first. Malt character is strongest in the middle, rising to a soft earthy graininess. I pick up a toasted rice character. The finish is gentle with a grainy sharpness blending with hops, smooth, almost creamy body.

Control: Has a fuller sweetness than the other two upfront with a berry character and a sweet mead note as well. Less creamy than the others, but offers a fuller note reminding me more of a Czech pils malt base. Malt is more forward on this one, slowing dropping into a moderately sweet finish. Seems more “cooked” in a decoction kind of way. It is fuller and a bit sweeter.

Bentley: Has the softest texture of the three with muted honey and a soft grain sweetness. Sharpens up a bit more in the back end, leaving a grainy linger. Most neutral of the beer overall although the linger is the most pronounced, with an earthy hop/sharp grain mix.

The control beer was markedly different than the experiments, both darker and fuller. Even across many days I think I could tell it apart from the other two. However, the differences between the two experiments are present but subtle. If I tried each beer on different days, I am not sure I would identify the difference.

I found this a fascinating taste test. I can’t say I am surprised to have found such complex and nuanced differences between the beer, but the results still have me intrigued.

Brewers (myself included) sometimes take our base malt for granted, I think. Sure, we want high quality malt, but we spend most of our energy working with the specialty malts to bring out the flavours we want. This test demonstrates what a significant difference the base malt can make. Swapping out only the base malt produced measurable changes to colour, aroma, flavour, body and linger.

Don’t let anyone tell you that the bass player isn’t as important as the lead guitarist. And don’t let anyone tell you base malt doesn’t make a difference.

 

Oldman the New Kid on the Beer Block

If I were to ask you where Lundbreck was, I am pretty confident you wouldn’t really know. As it works out it is a small hamlet on the Crowsnest Highway between Pincher Creek and the towns that make up the Crowsnest Pass.

If you didn’t know, be sure to mark it on your Google Maps as soon you are going to want to make sure you stop there if in the area. Lundbreck is soon to be home to Oldman River Brewing (no website yet, link is to their Twitter page). They are currently assembling their brewery and tap room and hope to have beer for sale sometime in May.

I recently spoke with the three partners involved in the project, husband and wife Brittney and Adam Wilgosh and longtime friend Dan Christensen. All have lived in the Lundbreck area for years. Dan runs the town tire shop (located across the street from the brewery – have a pint while waiting for your tire rotation!). Brittany works for an accounting firm in town while Adam is a fly fishing guide who runs a small construction company outside fishing season.

The idea for the brewery started at the same time many of Alberta’s new breweries got off the ground – when the government eliminated the production capacity minimums. “I was away at work and Dan texts me. The government had just changed the law”, says Adam Wilgosh. At that point Adam had been a homebrewer for about 10 years and he and Dan had many beer-filled conversations about opening a brewery, but nothing serious. “From that moment discussion got more focused and we started wondering if we could put it together”. Adam adds that, as beer lovers, he and Brittany had long talked about opening a pub or some other beer-related venture.

Shortly after, Brittany found a job posting online for an assistant brewer at the Olds College Brewery, associated with their brewmaster diploma program. “I said to him, why not apply? You have nothing to lose,” says Brittany. “He got the job”.

Adam lasted for a school term. He considered it a “feeling out period” to decide if opening a brewery was feasible. It was enough time for them to make the decision, and the brewery was born.

They are currently in construction on the brewery and tap room. “We are right downtown Lundbreck. You can’t miss us”, says Christensen. Unlike many of the new breweries opening up in the region, Oldman hasn’t opted for “a shiny, attractive new brewhouse”, as Adam puts it. Instead they have cobbled their brewery together with a lot of second hand equipment and some new pieces. Their brewhouse is sourced from a closed brewery in Edmonton. They also picked up a variety of tanks from various sources. The only new equipment are their hot liquor tank and a new mash tun. “We are just putting things together to make it work”, says Adam. When finished they will have a 20hl brewing capacity with 3 fermenters, 2 bright tanks and 4 conditioning tanks.

In a move that quickly wins over my heart (read here to see why), they say the plan to bottle in stubbies. The classic Canadian beer bottle may make its return with this intrepid trio. Kegs and growler fills will also be on offer.

The group knows they are opening up in somewhat uncharted territory by being in the Crowsnest Pass area. “Our vision is to be local to our area”, says Adam. “There is nobody else in our area. This is a place that appreciates good, honest beer”. The three owners also want to anchor around Continue reading Oldman the New Kid on the Beer Block

Olds, Homebrew and the Future of Beer

This past weekend, I headed down to Olds to judge at the Mountain View Homebrew Open, organized by the Olds College Brewmasters Program students. It was a good day of judging with a group of knowledgeable and convivial beer judges and professional brewers who donated their time to evaluate and score the 150 or so entries. I opted to stay the night and got to spend some in the pub after with some of the students and some beer industry people.

On the drive home Sunday morning I got to reflecting (as I am wont to do) on the previous day. I come away with a few observations about what this little snapshot of beer says about the state of craft beer in Alberta and where the future might take us.

First, I was impressed with the overall quality of the entries – from homebrewers across western Canada. Some opined that it was the result of the five entry limit per contestant, but I actually think it is part of a broader trend. I judged my first beer competition (I think) in 2002. Over the past 15 years, I have observed a general increase in the quality of entries. There are fewer absolute stinkers and there are more clustered in the higher score range, making medal decisions harder. In short, I truly believe homebrewers are getting better.

This matters because homebrewing is often the training ground for the next generation of small craft breweries. Most people opening a brewery have had some degree of homebrewing experience. Having homebrewed does not guarantee success at the commercial level, but it does inspire passion and instill a respect for brewing and the process. If homebrewers are getting better, that is a good sign for craft beer.

Second, the Olds students impressed me. They have true passion for beer, have that insatiable appetite for learning that young people can have, and seem truly interested in understanding the intricacies of operating a brewery. Many left far more lucrative careers for the program and the joys of working very hard for significantly less money. There is a valid debate about the Olds Program curricula and whether it emphasizes the right elements, etc. – I am in no position to offer a useful opinion – but there is no question it is producing year after year a crop of dedicated, knowledgeable and passionate brewers.

I say this because I think it bodes well for the future of the industry. The traditional programs in Germany and the U.S. have long produced first rate brewers, but their expense, inaccessibility and selectivity mean they simply cannot produce the number of brewers needed to support the rapid expansion of craft beer in North America. Programs like Olds fill an important role in creating locally-produced, educated brewers who can operate on a small scale.

Combine an experienced homebrewer opening a brewery with an Olds College graduate, you might just have the recipe for a successful brewery (it has already happened a couple of times in Alberta).

Finally, I was wrong about something. When the Olds program first opened a few years back, I privately worried that there wouldn’t be enough jobs for all the graduates they were putting through. That, of course, was before the explosion we have seen in western Canada. Virtually every graduate who wishes it is working in the industry somewhere in western Canada (some have chosen to pursue other paths). Maybe it really was a case of build it and they will come.

By the end of my two hour drive back home, I must say I was feeling pretty good about the present state of craft beer in western Canada and even better about the near future.

Town Square to be a Gathering Place for Beer

Three committed families and a big vision can accomplish a lot. That is the case of Town Square Brewing, opening this summer in south Edmonton. Three sets of couples (and their young kids) are the people behind Edmonton’s newest brewing project. The Boutins (Megan and Brandon), McNaughtons (Tyler and Katrina) and Nordins are longtime friends and (for some of them) family who have long been beer enthusiasts who longed for something more.

Like many young couples, they have been busy working to support their families, raising their kids and generally living life. Their current careers cover the range of occupations, including mechanic, designer, pipefitter, teacher, real estate agent and hairstylist – many of which might prove quite useful to opening a brewery (Lord knows more brewers could stand a good haircut). But they talked regularly about other dreams and plans.

“The original dream was to open a pizza shop that offered good beer,” says Brandon Boutin, considered by the group to be the driving force behind the project. “But as we developed our business plan we started to think ‘why not make our own beer?’.” Not much after Town Square Brewing was born. The three men had been homebrewing for a few years and saw how much the Alberta beer scene was changing, giving them the courage to explore a brewery.

Town Square will still offer pizza – that part of the plan did not go away. “We see ourselves as a brewery and eatery,” says Boutin. “Not full service food. Lighter fare food – charcuterie boards, pizza, that kind of thing.” Boutin says they are planning a “flexible” menu.

The goal is to create an inviting space where people can meet up, talk and re-connect. “The Millennial generation, we are connected via phone, text, social media. We can do all that but still be alone, more than ever before,” observes Boutin. “We want to build a place where we can bring people together to connect, eliminate what distracts them.” That means no televisions or loud music – they want to create a place where people come to talk.

The space itself is in south Edmonton on Ellwood Drive near Ellerslie Road and 91 Street – so when I say south, I mean it. The location was intentional. “We come from the south side,” notes Boutin. “We wanted to stay away from central Edmonton and all the stuff going on there. We want to offer something different, offer something to the growing communities of south Edmonton.”

Being located in the burgeoning neighbourhoods of south Edmonton (the fastest growing area of the city) is important to the group, as giving back to the community is a core value for the brewery. “We are community-based. We want to give back to the community that we hope will support us.” They will have a permanent charity beer and pizza where proceeds of every sale go to a different charity every month. But for the group it is about more than raising money; they plan on getting their hands dirty helping out. “We will organize community garbage pick-up drives, bottle drives for local charities,” and generally become engaged with the area’s community groups.

As for the beer, their vision is “to express some artistic spirit, be adventurous, incorporate weird concepts but always go with what our customers want.” Boutin mentions a recent experiment to make a lavender and cucumber beer: “didn’t work out they way I hoped, but we will try again,” which might give you a sense of the kind of adventure he is referring.

The regular line-up is still in development, but they are currently looking at offering Continue reading Town Square to be a Gathering Place for Beer

A Beer to Stop Pipelines?

I learned of a political beer initiative the other day. It is called Coule Pas Chez Nous!, and it is a collaboration beer by an advocacy group of the same name partnering with 20 Quebec breweries. Some of the proceeds of the beer will go to fund the group’s campaign to stop the Energy East Pipeline. The beer, the organizers say, is also intended to raise awareness of the risk to Quebec’s rivers by the proposed pipeline, hence the tagline “A beer for our rivers”. It is a limited edition beer that will be sold in various outlets around Quebec. Here is a story about the beer. And for those of you that speak French, here is the campaign’s website.

I am going to stay a million miles away from any debate about whether Energy East is a good or bad idea – this site is not the vehicle for such a discussion. But the beer does bring two questions to my mind that I do ponder.

First, what is the role of beer in advancing a political cause? Most of the time breweries shy away from strong political stands for fear of offending a segment of their consumers. And most often when they do engage in community-based activities it is of the feel-good variety. Of course, we see breweries take stands in their own interest – over beer policy, taxation and the like – but that is more self-interest than political stance.

So this beer is unusual. Should these breweries be making such a public statement? As someone who is fairly interested and engaged in politics, my first inclination is to think “sure, it is their right”, but as I think about it a bit more I feel more mixed. How would I feel if TransCanada (the company proposing the pipeline) partnered with a brewery to brew up a pro-pipeline beer? Same issue, but now with a big corporation rather than a grassroots advocacy group. Or if  a pro-death penalty organization created a beer to raise awareness for their campaign to bring back the death penalty? This is something I personally oppose and so I am using it as an example of an issue that would rub me the wrong way. Does it change my opinion?

On the surface I think I could still say it was their right, and simply avoid purchasing that particular beer. But there is an unease in my mind that won’t go away. Something just doesn’t quite sit right with me about private companies engaging in politics in that way. I think we naturally come to see our local small craft breweries as members of the community – and it a significant way they are. We come to know them as people. But, at the end of the day, the brewery itself is a for-profit company. Sure, the people behind it might be good people, but I think there is room to question whether the company (as opposed to the owners of the company who have every right to speak their minds, donate to causes, etc.) should be engaging in this activity.

The Dieu Du Ciel Brewpub

Now, I come from a place as someone who, for example, supports banning union and corporate donations to political parties. I think democracy is for people, not companies. So take my musings in that context. Is a brewery, no matter how small and how much we like the people running it, all that different than some other business? I am not sure it is all that different.

My second question has to do with Dieu Du Ciel. The participating Quebec breweries are mostly brewpubs and small, locally-focused operations. So for them, the business downside is likely quite minimal. However, Dieu Du Ciel is also involved. I am not particularly surprised by that – I have met the owners and they are quite open and vocal about their politics (which I am fine with). But, DDC sells beer in Alberta (and other places). How might taking an anti-pipeline stance (in this case) affect their sales here?

In practical terms, I anticipate not much as most consumers will never hear of this one-time Quebec beer. However, follow my theoretical. Say you are an unemployed oil industry worker. You like craft beer. You hear about DDC’s stance on Energy East and their participation in a group opposing it. Do you stop buying their beer?

I can’t answer that question as I am not in that situation. But I can see how something that personal might affect consumer choices.

I bring this up just to raise questions. I have no clear answers in my own mind – which means, I suspect, the same may be true for many of you. Makes for good conversation over a pint or two, that is for sure.

 

 

Zero Issue Has One Goal – Good Beer

You might think the MacDonald brothers, Mark and Kirk, named their soon-to-open Calgary brewery, Zero Issue Brewing, to communicate trust that their beer would have zero issues with quality or satisfaction. If you did, you would be wrong. To understand what they are up to you have to put your geek on.

“The zero issue is a special release comic book, generally it has more info about the story behind the plot – how a story got started,” says brother and co-founder Mark. “It is the origin story, something that happened before the story started”.

The name fit because both brothers readily acknowledge they are comic book and sci-fi aficionados. “We wanted a comic book focus, it just seemed to fit, and so the name is our origin. This is us getting started, our origin, so to speak, of what we want to do with our lives”.

As origin stories go, Zero Issue has an interesting one. “It is a funny story, actually, kind of random”, says MacDonald. “About seven or eight years ago,  it was November, Kirk came over to my place and says ‘know what we should do, we should brew beer’. We went over to a homebrew store close to us and bought each other kits for Christmas”, he says. “They were the standard basic kit. We tried it. Mine turned out terrible, his quite good. It was fun, and before we knew it we fell down a rabbit hole”.

Before long they both had all-grain set-ups and were brewing regularly. Kirk ended up being a student in the very first class in the brewmaster program at Olds College. He only lasted a year (of the two year program) before Village Brewing scooped him up. “It was the job he hoped to get when he graduated. So he asked me if he should do it and I said yes”.

The idea of opening a brewery remained a vague dream, however, despite Mark’s shift in occupation. But when the Alberta government eliminated the production capacity minimums, they realized it might actually be possible. Their interest and research increased and they finally decided to take the plunge in November 2015.

Opening a brewery seemed like a once in a lifetime opportunity for the brothers. “It was a chance for my brother and best friend and I to do something together, merging passions we have always had for beer with the other passions we have, like comics,” says Mark. “The brewery is a family project. Our parents are helping with construction. My wife and our uncle are investors. This is really is about just trying to be us. We love beer and it seems to make sense”.

They are in the middle of building their brewery in Northeast Calgary, not far from Dandy Brewing. In addition to the brewhouse they are building a 40-50 seat tap room. They are installing a 15-barrel brewhouse with four 30-barrel fermenters  and two 30-barrel bright tanks. Pretty standard stuff. What is definitely not standard is that they also bought a 20HL foeder, a large Continue reading Zero Issue Has One Goal – Good Beer

RAOB: The “Why Didn’t I Get to This Sooner?” Edition

Blind Enthusiasm’s shiny new brewhouse

It has been a while since I have gotten to a Random Acts of Beerness (now with a hip acronym – RAOB!). Not that there hasn’t been beer news that has caught my attention. It is more that I have been swimming hard just to stay afloat with everything. Plus I have been trying to make a priority of new brewery profiles which is taking up a lot of my onbeer time.

But I thought I should at least offer up a quick rundown of some of the things that have caught my eye recently. As I built the list I realized many of them are not, actually, news and are things I should have mentioned ages ago. Oh well.

  • Tops of the Shoulda-Done-That-Sooner list is Yellowhead Brewing’s new tap room, which has been open since the fall. They re-worked their small retail space to create a cozy 20-seat tap room offering up to 7 taps. Open Monday thru Saturday from just before lunch to early evening, it helps take advantage of the under-utilized location they have right downtown Edmonton. Other changes at Yellowhead include a new brewmaster and a commitment to producing a series of one-offs and experiments on their pilot system. As a result we are seeing a variety of Yellowhead creations. Most are tap room only exclusives, but some leak their way to special events and the like. A new direction for them worth watching.
  • Also opening a new tap room, as well as a whole new location, is Saskatoon’s 9 Mile Legacy Brewing. The tiny brewery opened a couple years ago (read my profile here), and this move and expansion marks the next step in their evolution. In fact it is more than just a tap room. The new location will have, in addition to their existing 1BBL system, a new 5BBL brewhouse allowing them to have greater capacity yet retain small batch flexibility. They officially launch at the new location March 10.
  • Since I am on the topic of new locations, I got to get a sneak peak of Blind Enthusiasm a couple weeks back. It is still a construction site, but things are beginning to take shape. I can officially say that the brewhouse is gorgeous! It will be a great addition to that part of Edmonton. They hope to be open sometime in April.
  • Bench Creek’s take on New England IPA, Apex Predator, is now officially released and will make its way around Northern Alberta in the coming weeks. The beer actually is a tweak of the three-way collaboration released late last year (read here). But it remains noteworthy because I sense the potential that this could become a permanent, or at least semi-regular, release by the Edson brewery.
  • I have commented recently about the growing trend of collaboration beer. Calgary has been particularly active on this front. I have seen no less than eight collaborations in the past couple months. A lot of the breweries are involved, but Trolley 5, Dandy, Banded Peak and Village seem particularly active. I also note they are picking more adventurous styles, like sours, baltic porters, Belgian strong ales and the like. That is encouraging. The latest is Village-Banded Peak offering up Banded Belgian Tripel as part of Village’s Village Friend series.
  • It may not be beer, but I note that our northern friends, Yukon Brewing, have won not one but three silver medals at the 2017 Canadian Whiskey Awards. More impressive is that this was their first time entering the national competition, having just released their first single-malt whiskey (that would be scotch to you and me) a year ago. They won for Release 01 Classic, Release 02 Special Finishes, and Release 03 Peated.

Finally, tonight is the official launch of Issue 3 of the Alberta Beer Guide (being good Millenials they have eschewed a website and are going with Twitter). This quarterly publication is attempting to profile every brewery in the province along with some general beer education stories and the like. The launch event at Situation Brewing is sold out (sorry – look for the next one) but look for the guide in beer places near you. As full disclosure this issue marks the beginning of my official relationship with the guide (I wrote for the first issue as a one off). Moving forward I will be writing the cover feature profiling an Alberta brewery. This issue it is Brewsters and I look at their fascinating history in Alberta beer.

That is all for now – although I know I have omitted tonnes of stuff. More when I can get around to it.

New Brewery Hopes to be as Strong as an Oxus

It is a long way from Tajikistan to Winnipeg. But that is the path that has led Sean Shoyoqubov, owner of Oxus Brewing in Manitoba’s capital city, to his current endeavours. Shoyoqubov emigrated to Canada six years ago and chose Winnipeg as his new home. He first came to build a new life and work in IT, a profession that has treated him well.

But Shoyoqubov also loves beer. “I love beer. My family was always into experimenting with the production of alcohol,” he remembers. “My dad distilled and did winemaking. I came to this whole thing naturally.” He started homebrewing shortly after arriving in Winnipeg and has had the itch to open a brewery ever since.

Lack of cash and time got in the way of his dream. “It was on the backburner,” he admits. Building a new life took priority. “I knew it would take time if I wanted to own my own business.” So he steadfastly saved his money and wiled away the time homebrewing and studying – reading everything he could about beer and the beer industry. Plus he got some hands-on experience. “I spent some time in Portland and San Fransisco. I tried a lot of good brews there.”

He has been researching the project for three years, but the “tipping point” came about a year ago. “I had saved enough money to start a brewery. Or what I thought was enough.” Oxus hopes to open in the next few months, although Shoyoqubov refuses to name a firm date in fear of missing it.

Shoyoqubov’s main goal is to maintain his autonomy and not get into debt. As result he is starting small and will build as cash allows. To start he will have a 5hl system with four 10hl fermenters. “The reason I started small is that I didn’t want to take big loans,” he says. “I made everything affordable as could, if I am successful I will go for a bigger setup.”

It is a harder route, but one he thinks is worth it.  “My main goal is to ensure I get to decide what and when to brew,” he notes. “Once you have shareholders what matters for them is the bottom line, numbers, and it becomes pure business.” He has more modest goals. “I just want to build a workplace for myself, make a product I enjoy and create something that I will feel happy to go to work every morning.”

Consistent with that ethos Shoyoqubov plans to brew beer he likes to drink. The line-up is still a work in progress, but his current thinking sees four mainstays with a series of small batch one-offs. “I hope to have two sessionable beer, a Pale Ale and probably an Alt,” he contemplates. “Then a West Coast IPA. I am working on a Porter and a Wheat Beer, but the final line-up is not carved in stone.” He visions the one-offs as approximately bi-weekly one keg releases that will be available only for growler fills at the brewery.

Speaking of packaging, at first it will be growlers and kegs only. “If I grow then I will look at canning,” he predicts.

As for the brewery name, Oxus is the Latin name for the main river in the Central Asia region, today known as Amu Darya, which some of its tributaries originate in Tajikistan. “My wife suggested the name,” Shoyoqubov admits. “It is not associated to any style of beer or brewery. It is just the land I am from.”

In keeping with his careful approach, Shoyoqubov envisions a modest future for the brewery. I ask him where will he be at in five years. “The brewery will be bigger – at this size it is quite small. I want it to grow and become sustainable as a business, and build a good high quality fan base, people who know beer,” he replies. “I want to be making great beer and be a part of a very good crowd of startups in Manitoba.”

Humble origins and humble beginnings for Oxus Brewing. but if Shoyoqubov achieves his goals, Oxus Brewing will be as strong and as determined as an ox in the Manitoba brewing scene.

More Reflections on Costa Rica – Just Because

A Marzen from Cervecera del Centro. Not sure why they call it a pilsner?

I know that the beer scene in Costa Rica is not my beat here at onbeer. REALLY not my beat. I should be telling you about the latest new brewery in Manitoba or that cool beer spot in Calgary.

But I can’t get my mind off of Costa Rica (likely for good reason having just returned from there to sub-zero temperatures at home). I find myself wondering if there are any parallels or takeaways for the prairie beer lover. I think there are. I find some fascinating observations that could be interesting even if you have never been to Costa Rica.

As I mentioned in my last post (you can read it here), the Costa Rican craft beer scene has emerged out of literally nowhere in the last couple of years. 45 breweries exist in this small country, up from 4 three years ago. This explosion is the first key observation.

It is driven, in large part, by ex-pats and the consumer demand of tourists, as well as a stable, relatively affluent middle class (by Central American standards). Plus the number of breweries is misleading – most are very, very tiny. With some digging I found that the oldest craft brewery – Costa Rica’s Craft Brewing Company (which opened in 2010) – today produces about 2,200 HL. That is a fraction of some of our established craft breweries and no larger than some of the young upstarts. Only one other brewery, Treintaycinco Fábrica de Cervezas, comes close to that. Most, it seems, produce a couple to a few hundred hectolitres at best.

Some more Costa Rica craft beer samples

Compare that to the domestic production of the one large brewery corporation, Florida Bebidas (a subsidiary of Florida Ice and Farm Company, a huge Costa Rican corporation that – interestingly – owns North American Breweries which owns Pyramid and Magic Hat as well as holds the US rights to Labatt) produces about 1.5 million HL per year. Costa Rican craft beer amounts to much less than 0.5% of the market.

Speaking of Florida Bebidas, they recently launched a pseudo-craft subsidiary, called La Micro Brewing Company, to put out craft-y looking beer. That strategy sound familiar? I even fell for it accidentally one day, picking up a bottle of what I thought was a real craft beer. I can safely report that it tasted like similar pseudo-craft offerings in Canada.

Florida Bebidas is ubiquitous in the country, although a casual observer wouldn’t know it. They market a handful of brand names, including Imperial, Pilsen, Bavaria and others. Even if you order a classic European Heineken, they produce and market it for the Costa Rican market. Does that also sound familiar?

The near monopoly of Florida Bebidas is rather staggering. While imports have jumped in recent years, this one company still sells more than 90% of all beer sold in Costa Rica. It is a daunting challenge for a small upstart. I think there are a few parallels to what is happening on the prairies.

And a Capuchin (White Faced) Monkey, just because… (note the baby on the mother’s back)

I also think that Costa Rica’s rapid entry into the craft world is a double-edged sword. The flurry of new entrants is exciting at first, but immediately my mind turns to two questions: sustainability and quality. Not all of these new breweries is going to have figured out how to make good beer. Where did 40+ brewmasters suddenly come from? While imports of ingredients has increased, I can imagine that getting fresh hops and quality malt continues to be a challenge. And how many of these new breweries have the capital, cash flow, know-how and positioning to survive in what is still a very hostile environment? I worry such a rapid growth will be followed by a sizeable reduction in the near future as small operations find selling beer harder than they thought.

This is not dissimilar (although a bit more extreme) than what we are seeing in Calgary or Winnipeg (or Nova Scotia). Lots of new breweries opening up in a relatively short timeframe. Maybe most will find their niche and thrive, but I fear many will find the slog harder than anticipated.

One thing the prairies have over Costa Rica is more locations open to carrying craft beer. Accompanying the expansion of breweries here is a growth in restaurants, bars and stores willing to devote space to local craft beer. Costa Rican breweries don’t have that yet.I found a couple grocery stores that carried a few bottle. But small breweries are nowhere to be found in restaurants and bars. The big resorts are locked down by Florida Bebidas and the locals, for the most part, have not yet discovered craft.

Costa Rica might be (almost) half a planet away, but its experiences with its nascent craft beer scene sound eerily similar to what we are experiencing here in western Canada. Now, they get prime beer drinking weather year-round, something Canadian brewers would love to experience.