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Beer Tent Blues and How to Cure Them

Having completed my post-Edmonton Folk Festival recovery 2017 edition, I have had some time to contemplate the state of beer at one of Canada’s largest and most successful folk festivals.

I appreciate the Folk Fest is mostly about the music, and every year there is plenty of great music to go around, but I write about beer. Plus this year the beer gardens were the major topic of conversation on the hill, even by those who don’t spend much time in there. The crux of the controversy was the organizers’ decision to eliminate pitchers and limit patrons to two beer per purchase, but I think it is a symptom of a larger dilemma facing the Festival around the appropriate place for beer in the events of the weekend.

I want to address both the narrow issue of pitchers, but also contemplate a way forward for the beer garden more generally.

The stated reason for the elimination of pitchers seemed to shift as the weekend went along. At first they were saying it was a logistical issue of keeping up on washing the pitchers. Then provincial regulations became the culprit (although I can find no rules restricting pitchers). I think the two reasons are one in the same – they are referring to concerns by Alberta Health Services around the sanitary quality of the pitchers.

However, only after the weekend did, I believe, the real reason emerge. In the Edmonton Journal’s wrap up of the festival (found here), Artistic Director Terry Wickham indicates that pitchers were dropped to address the issue of over-consumption. I think that is the real reason. The decisions the organizers made about the beer tent this year, including expanding it by 1/3, are all designed to make it harder to over-consume. They made it easier to come and go (by increasing capacity and thus reducing lines to enter the beer tent), but created longer line ups to buy beer and restricted the amount one could buy at a time.

Discouraging over-consumption is a good thing. Except that to address, as Wickham himself admits, the problem “100 people at the end”, he has frustrated thousands of responsible imbibers. The most common complaint was that pitchers are a more socially friendly way to consume. Four or five people can share a pitcher or two without having to get into line three times. They can also be more flexible with volume. Say I only want a half a beer – I can’t easily do that when there are no pitchers. Pitchers have their value, even at the risk of allowing some to more easily over-consume.

In short jugs are not the problem; segregating beer far away from most of the music is the problem. It creates an atmosphere where you must choose between listening to music or partying in the beer tent.

The Folk Fest is trying to navigate a challenging dilemma. They are a music festival and the vast majority of attendees want a pleasant listening experience. But it is also a festive atmosphere and people want to visit with friends and enjoy a beer or two, especially on a hot, sunny afternoon. Responsible consumption can enhance the overall festival experience. To date the strategy has been to increase the size of the beer tent and enact rules to discourage excessive drinking. They have been only moderately successful.

A better solution is to shift the culture and integrate beer and its responsible consumption into the listening of music. Ideally, that would mean an all-site license, where beer could be purchased a number of kiosks and consumed on the hill. I appreciate, though, there are significant logistical challenges for a space as large as Gallagher Park, the biggest being the AGLC requirements around security.

So how about this for a workable compromise? A series of smaller beer gardens scattered throughout the site, most near a music stage. Rather than corralling beer drinkers into one large pen on the fringes of the site, the gardens could integrate beer into the overall experience, which I argue will cut down on over-consumption. If each garden is Continue reading Beer Tent Blues and How to Cure Them

Does Independent Craft Really Need a Seal?

The Brewers’ Association (BA) in the U.S. has just launched a “Certified Independent Craft Brewer” seal. The seal, an upside down bottle indicating certified independence, is designed to identify which breweries in the States are not owned by one of the big corporate breweries. The BA says more than 1500 breweries have signed onto the certification, placing the seal somewhere on their packaging. The seal is a clear response by BA to the big boys’ recent efforts to buy up successful craft brewers as well as to launch their own pseudo-craft brands to compete against authentic craft brewers.

On the surface it seems like a good idea – find a way to differentiate real craft from pseudo-craft and give consumers an easy-to-find marker to establish authenticity. Organic and fair trade products have been doing this for years, quite successfully. Consumers know which labels mean something and therefore the system is more legitimate and reliable all around.

In that context an independent craft brewery certification seal makes sense. It is a way to quickly demarcate real craft from faux craft.

Maybe. But overall I believe it is a misguided strategy that obfuscates certain hard facts about the beer industry. Allow me to summarize a few of my concerns.

First, there is the issue of definition. What exactly does “independent” mean? For the BA it means no more than 25% of the brewery can be owned by a non-craft brewer. Is that truly independent? Case in point, last week news broke that Heineken, through wholly-owned Lagunitas, is buying a 20% stake in Michigan brewery Short’s Brewing. By the BA definition, Short’s continues to be considered “independent” despite their new corporate partners. I am somewhat dubious.

The BA also has a size requirement, kind of. To be eligible you must produce less than six million barrels (about 7.2 million HL) of beer annually. that is a lot of beer. To put it in perspective that limit is more than three times the annual production of the Edmonton Labatt plant. At that size, is the independence of the ownership the most important factor in determining if the brewery is legitimately craft or not?

Second, and this really is the core of my concern, is that the seal ignores fundamental realities of the beer industry – that it is a capitalist venture. The vast majority of BA members are corporations (there are a handful of co-operatives and employee-owned breweries). They are for-profit enterprises which (hopefully) generate value and revenue for their owners. They don’t produce beer for the good of the community, but to make money.

What, at its core, is the difference between a large, multi-national corporation and a relatively small, independent corporation, other than scale? What happens when that independent corporation becomes rather large, such as Boston Beer Co.? Does that change the picture?

Let me immediately contradict my own point by highlighting that I do think there is a difference. The ABInbev’s of the world are transactional enterprises first and beer-makers second. An independent brewery is still about beer first and foremost, and that matters. Craft brewers are, for the most part, about building a culture of beer, which also matters.

I support fair trade and organic certification because they tell me something specific and significant about the product. The certification verifies that it was produced ethically/without pesticides/etc. I can then make my choice. What does an independent seal on my beer really tell me? It tells me it is not owned by one of the big corporate brewers, that is all.

For some that is enough. And fair enough.

For me it isn’t though. What matters more is that the brewery is anchored in a community. That they come from the community and produce beer for people in the community. That connection is more important than ownership, at the end of the day.

Emphasizing local still locks out the corporate brewers, who long since traded in their community cards for global dominance, but it also allows the consumer to make cleaner distinctions about other aspects of the beer.

Promoting the independent ownership of craft brewers isn’t a bad thing. I am supportive of almost anything that undermines the hegemony of the corporate brewers. But I find the BA’s efforts on this front to be more than a little misleading. They are trading on the public’s image of craft brewers as small, local and plucky. The reality is that many of the players in the industry (including Canada), they have long moved past that stage. And having done so, the line between them and the big corporate brewers is thinner than the BA would like to admit.

 

 

Ola Dubh! Oh My!

I have admitted before that I am quite good at stashing away quality cellaring beer, but that not so great at taking those beer out again to drink. Which means I have too many beer in my cellar.

But I am trying this summer to pull some bottles out and actually drink them. The latest is a a bottle of Ola Dubh 40 from Harviestoun Brewing. For those of you not in the know, the beer is Harviestoun’s Old Engine Oil, a porter-stout hybrid which is aged in scotch barrels. Ola Dubh is Gaelic for Black Oil, by the way. The Ola Dubh 40 was aged in barrels that held Highland Park Scotch for 40 years, hence the name.

This beer has been in my cellar for about three years, meaning the it should have nicely mellowed without going too far the other way. Ola Dubh is always a nice example of how barrel-aging can alter a beer. I use it often alongside Old Engine Oil in beer education sessions to isolate the impact of barrels. So, you can appreciate I was looking forward to trying this beer.

As expected it pours an inky black with not much head to speak of at all, just forming a thin dark tan ring. The aroma is whiskey and coffee, accented by dark berries, chocolate and a light alcohol character.

The first sip presents a light chocolate character with some wood and brown sugar. There is almost a cola-like feature to the taste. The middle draws out more chocolate and some light roast notes. The finish is soft with a noticeable whiskey flavour alongside standard dark beer qualities such as chocolate, coffee, nuts, dark fruit and toast – all quite in balance.

It is a remarkably balanced beer. The scotch character still rings through but doesn’t overpower the base beer. A classic example of how to barrel-age a beer. Add features and flavours without taking away from what the beer had to offer originally.

Even after three years or so, the beer finds a way to maintain its balance. I can tell this is a beer aged in a quality barrel – the whiskey notes are complex and soft. But it still remains a beer. Lots of malt flavours and soft alcohol.

It clearly is not Old Engine Oil, but it is its more refined sister. Soft, boozy and moderately sweet. You can see where the beer came from, but hanging out with 40 year-old whiskey has changed its personality.

And that is a good thing.

 

A Little Bit of Texas in Alberta

Young contract brewer, Elbeck Brews, and Camrose brewpub Norsemen Brewing, recently released a collaborative brew. In and of itself not so remarkable. Collaborations happen all the time.

But this one offered something that Alberta beer drinkers have not experienced before.  Specifically, a Texas Bock.

What is a Texas Bock, you ask? Good question, and I don’t blame you for not knowing what it is. In short, it is a traditional German style hacked by German immigrants to the southern U.S. in the 1800s. It has the same malty accent and full body, but is tempered by American ingredients and an addition of corn to lighten the overall body.

Before you think this is just an adulteration, hear me when I say it is a legitimate historical style. It pre-exists prohibition and offers a unique take on the longstanding Bock style. The reference version is Shiner Bock, which was available in Alberta a few years ago for about 20 minutes. During that short window I was able to give it a try.

Recipe designer Bruce Sample (of Elbeck) says it is a longstanding homebrew recipe from his days in Texas. He designed it in honour of Shiner Bock, which means it is supposed to reflect the flavours of a true Texas Bock.

Does it?

Texas Bock pours medium amber with bright clarity and builds a bubbly white head with a moonscape surface. The aroma brings out light caramel, nuts, and a bit of earthy hop character.

In the taste I start with a deep caramel, some toffee and a brown sugar note. The middle brings out a bit of breadiness and a soft toast note. The beer is malty without being too full. The finish is surprisingly light and balanced. I get a bit of sweetness but with a light graininess that adds a sharpness.

I know there is corn in there, but it doesn’t really make itself known other than lightening up the overall impression.

As a traditional bock I would dock it for its light body and refreshing finish. But since it is a Texas bock, I appreciate those qualities. Some might say this is just an amber lager. Sure. But the subtle complexities suggest it is more than that.

It is a quirky beer, simultaneously sweet and dry. Offering big malt flavours and a light finish. Likely a good fit for the Texas weather.

I can’t be sure whether the Elbeck/Norsemen Texas Bock is what it is supposed to be. But from my memories of trying Shiner Bock, it seems like it is completely in the zone.

AIT Panel Rules Against Alberta Mark-Up Policy

On Friday, a panel convened to hear a complaint against Alberta’s new mark-up policy rendered its decision (read the Journal story on the decision). In a split 2-1 decision, they ruled in favour of the complaint by importer Artisan Ales and against the new Alberta mark-up policy and subsidy. You can read my background on this case here.

The panel was an adjudication hearing under the Internal Agreement on Trade, a national trade agreement between provinces. The complaint was launched by Artisan Ales, a prominent beer importer whose portfolio includes Dieu du Ciel, Trois Mousquetaires and other respected craft breweries. Artisan Ales was supported by the right wing Canadian Constitutional Foundation in its challenge.

The case revolved around whether the second phase of the policy (the Alberta government having conceded the first iteration contravened the AIT) should be seen as one policy with two components, a mark-up and a grant program, or whether the pieces should be taken as distinct actions.

The majority decided it was one policy and rendered a decision that, as a whole, the policy contravened the AIT. The minority opinion disagreed with that assessment, arguing the mark-up and the grant needed to be evaluated separately and, having done so, came to the conclusion they did not violate the agreement. This may seem like legal hair-splitting, but it is actually a crucial aspect in understanding both the intentions and consequences of the policy.

Rather than parse the decision (which I have read) for the legal fine points, which at this point seem less fruitful, I want to consider what the decision means and what happens going forward. The CCF has, not surprisingly, torqued the decision as a “huge victory” and is calling for a return to the pre-2015 mark-up policy. I suspect that outcome is unlikely.

First, the government has the right to appeal. I fully expect them to do that. At the minimum that will delay any effect of the decision.

Second, the upcoming decision in the lawsuit by Steam Whistle and Great Western is likely of more political significance, both because of its higher profile and its direct judgement on the constitutionality of the policy. I anticipate the government will not act until it hears the result of that case. Should it lose both suits, the policy may very well be doomed. Should they win the lawsuit, it will likely trump the AIT case.

I say that because there are no specific penalties for contravening the AIT, which is my third point. It has long been a criticism of the AIT that it does not have an effective method for punishing contraventions. The CCF/Artisan Ales case may demonstrate that weakness. The panel cannot order remedies to the aggrieved party – meaning Artisan gets nothing other than some of its legal costs paid for. Nor does the panel have the same force of law the courts do to compel compliance.

While I don’t expect this will happen, the government could simply ignore the ruling and face any political consequences and countervailing measures by other provinces. As I say I doubt the Alberta government wants to start a trade war, but such is the nature of trade deals. The media talks about them like they are inviolable laws, but in reality require the voluntary cooperation of the parties to have any meaning (just look at Trump and NAFTA these days).

To that extent Artisan Ale’s challenge has always been something of a quixotic adventure; it may prove a point but is likely unable to significantly alter policy. Plus, at least on the CCF’s part, it was also part of a broader ideological campaign to discredit and undermine the Alberta government (as evidence I point to their description of the policy as a “protectionist tax grab”, which is high hyperbole at its finest).

While I do not dismiss the substance of this ruling – there is no doubting it is a blow to the government’s beer strategy – personally I am waiting for the Steam Whistle/Great Western lawsuit decision for it will have more lasting ramifications (at least after appeal). It is more significant for no other reason than it can level significant financial penalties against the government, not to mention a court ruling that the policy is unconstitutional has significantly more weight than a trade panel decision.

So while this is both a noteworthy and for Alberta brewers somewhat ominous decision, we remain in the early days of this story. More significant developments await.

For fans of beer policy, it will be an interesting summer. I just hope it doesn’t all happen in the next two weeks, as I am heading off on a brief holiday. But don’t worry, I have pre-written some posts to keep you entertained in my physical absence.

 

Calling Out Corb Lund and Budweiser

A screen capture of the Corb Lund Budweiser ad.

I am calling out Corb Lund. I don’t normally do this. I try to stay positive while still being honest. I don’t normally criticize an individual over a beer decision. But today I make an exception.

Yesterday an ad was released (or at least I first saw it) featuring alt-country/punk musician Corb Lund promoting Budweiser (you can see it here). Not just promoting Budweiser, but backing their new “Alberta Made” campaign. The ad has Lund talking about Alberta values while alternating shots of Alberta scenery and Budweiser placements flash across the screen. The climax has Lund on stage wearing a Bud t-shirt and flanked by huge “Alberta Made” banners. In his tweet promoting the ad he calls Bud “our cowboy beer”.

Lund wouldn’t be the first musician to shill for a big beer company, nor will he be the last. So why bring this up? Because it is a very unfortunate combination of branding that, I believe, doesn’t look good on Lund.

Lund has built his career on quirky, wry songs that simultaneously honour and send up rural culture. It has allowed him to create a unique cross-genre appeal. I first experienced Lund when he was in the Edmonton punk band The Smalls and have been a fan of his music ever since. I am not much of a country music fan, but Lund maintains a distinct punk ethos in his songs that appeals to me.

Which is why his decision to do this campaign is so disappointing. Lund is an independent artist who has spent his career scrapping and fighting for attention. He has nurtured a brand of being the underdog working hard to reach fans of good music.

Sound familiar? Yeah, sounds a lot like a small craft brewery.

That is why his endorsement of Bud is problematic.

Aligning himself with the largest beer corporation in the world is an issue in itself. But I can at least see a defence of that decision. He appeals, mostly, to a country music crowd who are more likely to still be attached to Bud, Coors and other standard lagers of that nature. On that level it is a safe call.

Except that he is also well-known and respected by a more alternative music crowd (including me). Connecting himself to ABInbev becomes particularly problematic for that segment. Which is why it might be a mistake for him.

Further, it is one thing to hold up a can of Bud and say “this Bud’s for you”. It is another thing to participate in ABInbev’s crass attempt to re-position its American-born, global brand as Alberta made. I wrote the other day about the campaign and its repugnant attempt to link Bud to Alberta values (read here). It is fundamentally dishonest.

To associate himself with such intentional misleading risks damaging Lund’s very strong brand. Plus he is contributing to the dishonesty, which is just unsettling.

I am sure they paid him a lot of money. Good for him. I am also pretty sure this tempest in a beer mug will do little to derail his rising career – music fans won’t vote with their feet over beer. But it is one of those things that can linger. It will leave a caustic, bad taste in the mouths of many of his fans – me included – that will reverberate in the years to come.

I don’t know what it will mean, but I do know that his decision to promote Budweiser’s Alberta Made campaign marks a turning point for Lund. One that might very well mean I leave him behind. Which, after 20 years of being a Corb Lund fan, makes me very sad.

Budweiser’s Infuriating “Alberta Made” Ad

Over the weekend I was watching a CBC program online and noticed an odd ad kept playing at the commercial breaks. It was an ad for Budweiser. The first time I saw it, I was perplexed. The more I watched it (CBC has the annoying habit of playing the same ads during each online break) the angrier I got.

The ad features close ups of a Budweiser label. It zooms in on portions of the label that say, in turn, “Edmonton”, “Calgary”, “Lethbridge”, “Red Deer”. The camera then pulls out to show the whole can, with the words “Alberta Made” comprising more than half the label. Beside the can are the words “Proudly Brewed Here Since 1980”.

The voice-over is simple. Here is the entire script: “This is the famous Budweiser beer. Made with the same passion that build this province. Alberta made. Proudly brewed here since 1980.”

I have been unable to find the ad through google searches, so my guess is that it is designed for online streaming to targeted audiences (i.e., Albertans). I was able to grab a couple screen captures, however (which are the photos attached to this post).

What to make of this odd ad? Lots.

First, it is hit you over the head with a mallet clear that they are trying to position Budweiser – a distinctly American beer – as Albertan. Not only made here, but associated with the mettle that is Alberta’s mythology. It takes a significant amount of gall to try to portray “America’s Beer” as Albertan. To drive that point home, on my shelf I have a special can design released during the last U.S. election that is an apex of American nationalism: a large, stylized “America” dominates the label with various catch phrases scattered about, including “land of the free” and “liberty & justice for all”.

If the ad stopped at incredulously wrapping itself in the Alberta flag that would be infuriating enough. But it is determined to push the boundaries of  honesty even further.

It is true Budweiser has been brewed in Alberta since 1980, when Labatt (then still an independent corporation) contracted to produce Budweiser in Canada, starting with Alberta and Saskatchewan. These kinds of arrangements marked the 1980s as U.S. beer weaseled its way into the Canadian market. The first Canadian-made Budweisers were brewed in Labatt’s Edmonton plant.

The ad, though, also flashes through Calgary, Lethbridge and Red Deer on the label. All cities with brewing heritage for sure. However, Labatt has never operated a brewery in any of those cities. Adding the other cities creates the impression it was/is brewed in those cities as well. In my books that is darned close to lying. One might say they are just highlighting other major Alberta cities, but if so, why not Fort McMurray, Grande Prairie or Banff or Jasper? Why pick cities that have brewery history of some note if not attempting to insinuate yourself in that history?

Plus, while it is true Bud has been brewed in Alberta since 1980, that basic fact does not make it an Alberta beer. The ad glosses over the uncomfortable fact Budweiser remains an American-branded beer owned by the largest beer corporation in the world.

My current theory is that this ad is in advance of the launch of a new, Alberta-specific labeling for the product. If so, that means their push to be seen as local goes beyond a niche online ad for quirky CBC watchers and is aimed squarely at the mainstream of beer consumers. And that is a direct shot across the bow at Alberta’s burgeoning craft beer scene.

In one way AB-Inbev’s need to position its flagship as local speaks to their concerns about the growth in the “Drink Local” sentiment among consumers. They are worried where that movements leads. However, if the small uptick in local beer market share is enough to spark special branding, to what lengths will they go if the craft beer industry starts to gobble up significant market share?

I know I shouldn’t be surprised that the big corporate breweries are prepared to mislead consumers to protect their market share. This is standard fare for their marketing departments. It is just VERY  interesting they are feeling the need to target a specific provincial market in this fashion.

As usual, buyer beware.

When Three Rich Kids Open a Brewery

Photo courtesy of Forbes

This isn’t my usual beer beat, but I came across this story the other day and haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. It seems the best way to clear my brain of it it so write about it.

The story, in case you haven’t clicked on the link yet, is a Forbes article profiling a new California brewery called Barrels & Sons. What makes the brewery interesting is that it is founded by Carlo Mondavi, Jacob Busch and Elliott Taylor – all heirs to prominent and wealthy food and beverage families. Mondavi is of the famous wine-making Mondavis. Taylor is the son of a successful restauranteur and Busch, as the name gives away, is the latest in the line of beer-making Buschs (or at least until Inbev bought them out and pushed them out of the company).

The profile has been making the social media rounds (which is how I found it) and has received much skewering from many. I am not a pile-on kind of guy, so have no intention of going for the low hanging fruit of mocking three rich (and GQ-esque handsome) men creating a brewery-plaything.

However, two more substantive elements of the story have bothered me since reading it.

First is the arrogance of the men. They aren’t just setting out to make excellent beer for consumers to enjoy. That is too hoi polloi for them. They set their sights much, much higher, as seen by this quote from the article:

“We want to focus, keep small and yield a beer capable of sitting with the world’s finest,” says Mondavi. “This vision will take over a decade to reach. The world’s finest wineries and breweries are not measured in years or even decades, but more in generations.  With that in mind, and in the near future, we would love to see Sons in the top restaurants of the world and be poured alongside the greatest foods and enjoyed. Our goals for Sons are to put all of our energy, resources and time into creating one classic beer. We don’t want to make ten beers but rather just one beer at the highest level.

You see, pleasing average beer drinkers is for all those other breweries. These boys want to impress the best chefs and restaurateurs in the world. Plus, they have only been open less than a year and already they are deigning to make one of the best beer in the world. Wow, that is some fast learning.

Second is that they reveal a stunning lack of awareness of beer and how it is made and no respect for traditional styles or history. Others have made this point but it bears repeating. The most damning quote is this one:

Four New Breweries, Four New Ideas

I have mentioned that I did a mini-beer tour last week, hitting Calgary and other points along Highway Two over two days hitting some breweries that have recently opened. In addition to Red Shed (read about that visit here) and my surprise connection with Tool Shed (read here), I hit four new breweries: Annex Ale Project (open about 10 weeks), Zero Issue Brewing (open about 3 weeks), Caravel Brewing (open since April) – all in Calgary – and Siding 14 in Ponoka (open 3 weeks).

It is always interesting hitting a brand new place. The equipment is still shiny, everyone is enthusiastic and the place always has the smell of potential. When talking about breweries just on their first batches of beer, I am careful not to offer too detailed of reviews as I know they will undergo tweaking over the coming months. However, I do think you can tell a lot about a place by tasting their early offerings in terms of their philosophy and approach to beer.

My overall impression of the four newbies? The diversity of models continues to expand. I found four VERY different operations over the two days. Allow me to contextualize each one briefly – in order of my visit.

Annex Ale Project was first. A bright, attractive tasting room in what seems like a tucked away light industrial area. I found out during the visit it is actually quite close to people and other breweries like Banded Peak and Cold Garden, creating a fascinated beer circle in that area of the city (shows what I know about Calgary). It is small scale. The plans are for most of the beer to be sold out of the tasting room in one fashion or another. There is beer passion going on in there. Five beer (plus a sample from the conditioning tank) are available at the moment. Annex offers a range of styles, but all seem to have a signature character. The hefeweizen is made with oats, not wheat, for example (yes, I know it isn’t really a weizen then, relax, it is still a weisse). They offer a Bitter with North American hopping. And the conditioning tank sample was a Pineapple Saison. Pineapple is an uncommon brewing ingredient, but I can say it really comes through in the aroma. You get the point.

Zero Issue Brewing has, as most of you know, a comic book and sci-fi theme. The tasting room feature wall is a Donkey Kong matrix and the beer all have distinctly sci-fi names. That is clearly working for them in the early days. The MacDonald brothers tell me of repeated experiences of customers wandering in, ordering a beer and admitting their joint love of comics and craft beer. It seems the MacDonalds have created something of a safe space for craft beer and comic/sci-fi geek to mix. The beer seem to aim for full flavoured without becoming hard to access. A Pilsner, White IPA, IPA and a Pale Ale constitute the starting line-up (subject to change). Each is respectful to the style while offering their own take.

Caravel Brewing was next. Located across the street from the airport in a newly developing industrial area, I admit to finding the location odd. Plus their space is huge. Huge. Did I mention huge? Their plan is to grow into both the brewhouse (30BBL with 6-60BBL fermenters) and the space – they have visions of holding music events and festivals in their space. For the moment they use a fraction of what they have. They had 5 beer on when I arrived. Three, a pilsner, a hefeweizen and an Irish red ale, are their anchors supplemented by a coffee pale ale and a ginger beer at the moment. Their beer had a classic, European feel to them. No fancy hops or tricks; just straightforward flavour true to traditional styles. There is a feel of an appeal to a broader audience with their approach.

Finally there was Siding 14 in Ponoka. Siding 14’s vision is about farm to glass – the ownership group includes a barley farmer and a hop farmer who will be providing ingredients to the brewery. Their hope is to supply all their ingredients from the farms, but the unpredictability of barley farming has them hedging their bets on that front. The brand new brewery on the edge of town is fresh, bright and the decor fits the town feel. The beer, right now a golden ale, a  honey blonde ale, a brown ale, and an IPA, are all careful in their execution. You can tell they are still trying to feel out what Ponokans are looking for in a local beer. I fully expect they will branch out in the coming months as they catch their feet.

Four breweries with very different branding and very different approaches. What I observe is each trying to chart a unique course. Zero Issue is quickly distinguishing itself with its clear themes. Annex Ales, on the other hand, is aiming for in-the-know popularity, while Caravel has broader ambitions. Meanwhile Siding 14 balances introducing themselves to a rural local market while still appealing to beer drinkers around the province. Each has a unique feel and the beer seem to match.

For me that is kind of cool – seeing how breweries link their branding with their product. I am well aware the beer itself will shift over the next year or so – as it should be – but even right at their beginnings I can tell each is going a different direction. Which, for the consumer, is nothing but good.

 

Good Malt Comes in Small Batches at Red Shed

One of Red Shed’s malting vessels

Who would have figured? Red Shed Malting operates out of an actual red shed.

Last week I did a quick jaunt south to hit up some of the new breweries that have opened up over the last few weeks (more on the tour in my next post as well). Since I was already working my way down and up Highway 2, I figured I should also make a visit to Red Shed just off the highway near Penhold south of Red Deer (as I mentioned in this post).

I have toured hundreds of breweries in my days but have only seen one malt house – Rahr Malting in Alix. It was impressive in its industrial scale and fine-tuned quality control. I have a decent handle on the malting process – which starts the germination process to transform starches to sugars available to yeast – but am hardly an expert. The technical details are a bit of a mystery to me. I just know I love the results! So stopping by Red Shed was a much-anticipated experience for me.

Joe Hamill, one half of the Hamill brothers who operate Red Shed, showed me around the facility. My first impression was to note just how small it was. Even though I knew they are a micro-operation, producing 2.5 tonnes per batch (Rahr produces more in a day than Red Shed can do in a year), I was still surprised at how small scale and low tech the operation is. It consists, basically, of two cooler-sized rooms each containing a large steel bin. The outer room holds a roaster the size of large commercial washing machine. A side room serves as the lab to ensure the process goes smoothly and things are measured properly. The entire space is likely 5,000 square feet at most (I suck at area estimation).

I over-simplify, of course. The malting rooms are actually constructed to handle both the germination and kilning phases and the roaster, while small, still requires quite a bit of technical know-how. But I wanted to highlight my impressions of the size to drive home the point that this is truly an artisanal, craft-oriented operation. I came away impressed at the Hamill’s ingenuity and determination.

Craft malting is new (very new in these parts) but does seem like the natural extension to the craft beer revolution. If you are going to produce local beer, why not use local malt?

I am a bit surprised (pleasantly) just how fast Red Shed has developed a name and reputation in Alberta. Most Alberta breweries are at least experimenting with their malts and many are actively promoting their releases as “brewed with Red Shed malt”. Not bad for a company that has been operating for just over a year. I think their early success demonstrates the time is right for local craft malting. There are at least three other maltsters in the building process in the province.

Red Shed’s red shed (only half of which is the malt house).

The reality is that Red Shed’s product is more expensive – about 50% higher than the big malt houses. That means, practically speaking, their most likely market space is in specialty malts – the darker and more flavourful malts that are added in small portions to add flavour and complexity to a beer. Breweries can likely afford to use slightly more expensive specialty malts since they only comprise five to ten percent of the malt bill.

Plus the base malts made by Rahr and Calgary’s Canada Malting are high quality products (I can say this from personal experience, having used their malts in my homebrewing for years). This is one way in which the malting industry differs from beer.  While the large maltsters make big quantities (Rahr can produce about 150,000 tonnes per year, Canada Malting is even bigger), they keep a keen eye on quality. No cutting corners here. Plus they, for the most part, use barley grown in the region. No reason to turn one’s back on them.

The place for Red Shed and other craft malting houses is to provide malts with interesting flavours. Plus they can experiment more given their small batches. The pairing of small craft maltsters with small craft brewers is ideal.

And we should never forget – to return to my recent visit – Red Shed is engaged in a very artisanal, hands-on project. There is minimal mechanization and the Hamill’s have to use their skills and instinct to decide when a malt is ready. I came away with a clear sense of just how intimate the process is for them. They touch every aspect of the malting process personally. Meaning we can trust that their malt is malt made with love.

And you gotta love that.

[Edited to correct a factual error about their location.]