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Farm to Glass is Siding 14’s Project

Every brewery in Alberta likes to brag that the province grows some of the best malting barley in the world. For good reason, because it is true. But most breweries are simply the lucky recipients of the farmers’ (and maltsters’) hard work.

Not so, Siding 14 Brewing Company. They plan on doing it all, from beginning to end.

Siding 14 is opening soon to join Alberta’s burgeoning craft beer scene. They hope to open their doors in the central Alberta town of Ponoka (about 60 minutes south of Edmonton) sometime in June. What makes them unique is their commitment to grow and process everything they use in the beer. The barley, the hops and even the water (sorta – I’ll explain below). I had a chat recently with co-owner Marc Shields who explained the project.

“The vision is plow to pint”, says Shields. “Our goal is that every brew will be sourced from all our own ingredients”. This doesn’t appear to be idle marketing talk. The other partners in the brewery are Kari and Brent Tarasoff (Shields’ sister and brother-in-law), who operate Square One Hop Growers in Penticton, and Josh and Femke Lubach, who operate Pridelands Grain barley farm north of Ponoka. Their role is to provide the raw ingredients that go into the beer.

Shields, who has been a homebrewer for six years, will handle the brewing side of the business. He currently lives in Airdrie and works as a manager in the retail sector.

“My sister and I have been talking for years about getting into this business,” says Shields. “Brent works in farming consulting and through his connections we got hooked up with Josh. We talked up the concept with him a few times. Last time we talked he said let’s go”.

And go they did. That was October 2016. Things moved fast from there. Construction on the brewery, on the south end of Ponoka, began in December. The brewhouse is expected in the coming weeks and Shields says they “would love to have beer available for the [Ponoka] Stampede on Canada Day”. The pace was helped by the fact Lubach owned the parcel of land where the brewery is located and the town did not put up any hurdles to its approval.

The brewery will be 15-barrel (BBL) in capacity and they will start with two 15-BBL and three 30-BBL fermenters, along with two conditioning tanks. “There is physical space to triple our capacity”. They will be packaging in 355-ml cans with seasonals in bombers and the usual growler fills. They are building a 50-seat tap room with a 15-seat patio. “The tap room is about coming in, having a pint, having conversation, about bringing people together”.

Shields acknowledges that due to timing, they won’t be launching with their own barley (which will still be in the ground). But that is a stop-gap until the harvest. As for malting, Siding 14 plans to contract to nearby Red Shed Malting and the other emerging craft malt houses in the province to “custom malt” for them. In fact, Shields sees that as an opportunity. Working with Continue reading Farm to Glass is Siding 14’s Project

The Value of Blind Tasting and Other Lessons

This past weekend I served as the Head Judge for the Northern Lands Festival beer competition. For those who don’t know Northern Lands, it is a premiere beverage and food event profiled, exclusively, Canadian wine, craft beer and craft spirits along with some of Edmonton’s best restaurants. The second iteration of the event runs May 2 – 6. While wine is the major component of the event, the beer section is growing.

The beer competition wasn’t huge (not all of the beer exhibitors elected to enter the competition), but there is no question it offered some of the best craft beer in western Canada, going by the quality of the entries we tried.

Judging was performed by myself, Owen Kirkaldy (one of Canada’s only Master-ranked BJCP judges) and Kurt Stenberg, a long-time National-ranked BJCP judge. (For the record, I also am National-ranked). We evaluated some excellent beer and at times the decisions were quite tough.

Quickly, here were the big winners of the event, and then I want to go on to discuss lessons taken from the competition. Beer were entered according to BJCP style and then we collapsed to make larger flights for judging.

Category 1: Lagers and Light Ales
Winner: Alley Kat Scona Gold Kolsch
Runner-Up: Yellowhead Premium Lager

Category 2: Strong Beer, Sour and Specialty
Winner: Brewsters Blue Monk Barley Wine
Runner-Up: Wildrose Cowbell Kettle Sour

Category 3: Pale, Amber and Dark Beer
Winner: Alley Kat Full Moon Pale Ale
Runner-Up: Alley Kat Amber

Category 4: IPAs
Winner: Bench Creek White Raven IPA
Runner-Up: Bench Creek Apex Predator Double IPA

Best of Show: Alley Kat Scona Gold Kolsch

Judging Best of Show. Photo courtesy Owen Kirkaldy

Informally I can say that best of show came down to a VERY tight decision between Scona Gold and White Raven. Bench Creek also finished third in IPA (with their Red Rye IPA), so clearly they are onto something.

I think I speak for all three of us that we were mildly surprised at the final results. We all admit to not having recognized many of the beer we selected as winning – including Full Moon, a beer we all have been drinking on a semi-regular to regular basis for years.

That is the first take-away for me coming out of the competition. It is a reminder that blind tasting matters. You think you know a beer, but when forced to sample it without knowing who made it, you come at it from a different direction. Blind tasting strips away preconceived notions and forces you to meet the beer on its merit alone. I also think that with beer with which we are more familiar, maybe we stop drinking it so consciously. Take Full Moon for example. I know its flavour profile very well. But it may be that familiarity that leads me to be less mindful when I drink it. I take a sip and go “aahh, that’s a nice Full Moon”, and then take the rest for granted. I don’t appreciate it any less, but I think about it less. Evaluating it blind requires me to put my judge hat back on and REALLY consider the flavour profile.

The second take-away is that I think sometimes we all get distracted by the new and exciting. A new brewery comes out we haven’t tried yet. Or someone brings out an envelope pushing seasonal that everyone is talking about. There is nothing wrong with reaching for the new. But it is good to remember once in a while that there is lots of really well-made beer out there. Just because it lacks some of the current buzz doesn’t mean it stops being a really good beer. The list of winners suggests that it is a good idea to go back to those mainstays once in a while. It may surprise you at just how much you enjoy them.

The Northern Lands competition isn’t the largest around – open only to breweries who are participating in the festival – so it is fair to say this is not indicative of all beer out there right now. Totally true. But you can’t win if you don’t enter. Like any competition, all the judges can do is rate the beer before them and pick a winner. We can’t say “well that beer that didn’t enter is better”, in part because, you know, when tasted blind side-by-side it may very well turn out that it isn’t.

That is why blind tasting matters.

 

 

 

 

Multigrain, Multi-Brewery, All Saskatchewan

Tomorrow a new collaboration beer is released upon the populace of Saskatchewan. The newly formed Saskatchewan Craft Brewers Association (SCBA), whose membership are the real all-grain breweries in the province, will be releasing their first collaborative beer. Every member of the SCBA – currently 13 strong – participated in the design and brewing of the beer at Swift Current’s Black Bridge Brewing.

The beer is being called Saskatchewan Multigrain Pale Ale. Their bumpf says it is made with a mix of Saskatchewan barley, wheat, rye and oats. They also proclaim it is unfiltered. Intriguing enough.

How did I get my hands on a beer a day before it is officially released? Good question. Let’s just say for once I got a scoop. (More accurately, the SCBA shipped me some cans to try.)

After letting the beer rest for a few days to eliminate travel shock, I gave it a try this week.

It pours dark straw and is deeply hazy. It builds a decent white head that fairly quickly drops into a thin layer with some attractive lacing along the glass. The aroma is TOTALLY a New England Pale Ale character. I get a big sweet citrus fruit, including lemon, orange, grapefruit and passion fruit. It also offers a sweet meadow honey, a light graininess and a background fruity ester.

In the taste the start shares a big fruitiness. There is both citrus and other fruit. The citrus displays orange and grapefruit and the other fruit remind me of apricot and fresh mango. A soft grainy malt kicks in in the middle. I find it is a hybrid of a soft wheat grain with a rye edge. There is also a silky note to the middle as well. In the finish, the fruit comes back, adding a Five Alive character with a moderately hoppy linger and more citrus fruit. The mouthfeel has a silky texture that is alluring.

The 2017 collaboration brewers

A fascinating beer. There is a lot going on in this beer but it still finds a way to come across as remarkably drinkable. The big fruitiness keeps it accessible, but also intrigues my beer geek side. I think my favourite aspect is the malt bill which combines the grainy smoothness of wheat with a sharp edge of rye only to be countered by a subtle silkiness from the oats. I will admit to being skeptical of all those grains in one beer, but it comes across well, likely because they also paid attention to the hop additions to create another dimension.

The fruity hop character, reminiscent of the New England style, is very attractive and will fool many unsuspecting drinkers into thinking this is more of a fruit beer than what it is. The malt, in contrast, quietly does what it promises to do, offer a mix of grainy notes to create a subtle complexity.

If I were to have a critique of this beer it is that I wouldn’t mind a touch more bitterness perception in the finish. Don’t know what the IBUs are, but I want a bit more hop in the linger to remind me this is still a pale ale. That may not be what they were going for but I think it would add an interesting third rail to really bring this beer home. Not asking for a lot, just enough to bring out another dimension.

This beer clearly shows the 13 SCBA members mean business. They could have opted for a blonde ale, porter or standard IPA. Instead they busted out the creativity and did a beer that is multiple things. It is a New England Pale, but is more than that, adding rye and wheat to the mix to shake things up.

The beer will be available at member breweries across the province as well as in SLGA stores and select pubs. Alas, no plans to ship to Alberta or Manitoba. So if you live in Alberta you either have to beg your Saskatchewan relatives or offer me a decent bribe for one of my remaining cans.

A good start for the nascent SCBA. I hope they do another collaboration next year. Can’t wait to see what they pick.

 

Doubling Down on Ola Dubh

I have the notorious habit of sticking beer into my cellar for aging and then not pulling things out to actually, you know, drink them. As a result I have too many beer in my cellar – over 100. At one time I instituted a one-in-one-out rule but that proved too hard (at the moment of the in-ing) to practice. So now I try to every once in a while cull the cellar by pulling out stuff for which the time seems right.

Recently I was doing one of my cullings and one of the beer that got pulled out was an Ola Dubh 30 dated from 2009. It got pulled because I got thinking that seven years was too long for an 8% beer, even if the wood character will help it hold.

For the uninitiated Old Dubh is a series of beer by Scottish brewery Harviestoun aged in scotch whiskey barrels. The number is associated with how long the whiskey had been in the barrel. Ola Dubh 30 was aged in a barrel that had whiskey in it for 30 years. The base beer is their Old Engine Oil, a lovely ale that is something of a cross between a porter and a stout.

I like using Ola Dubh in a side-by-side with Old Engine Oil to isolate the effects of barrel-aging, which if you have never done that is worth doing.

Anyway, on to the tasting notes, as that is what is interesting here.

It pours a stout-like black with a think dark tan head that drops fast. The carbonation seems quite low – likely leached out over the years. The aroma offers raisin, molasses, dark fruit, some woody spirit, whiskey notes and a sharp wood character. Rather pleasant, actually.

The flavour starts with dark fruit, molasses and a general silkiness. The middle brings out some sherry, raisin and a noted whiskey character that is both warming and angular. The finish is scotch and wood with a noted vanilla touch. I also am left with dark brown sugar. The linger has an alcohol warming and a complex earthy wood note.

Overall the barrel character dominates. It brings in some rich, deep flavours that I quite enjoy. The raisin and sherry notes point to the cellaring but, again are quite pleasant. However, in a way, the beer seems flat. I don’t get any of that lovely rounded chocolate, roast character of Old Engine Oil. The lack of carbonation enhances the feeling of lifelessness. I find my self wondering if I, indeed, left it a little too long in the cellar before opening it. In a way it feels the base beer has dropped away, leaving mostly the wood notes.

I hasten to add that those wood notes are marvelous and so still keep the beer interesting and enjoyable to drink, but I wish I had opened it a couple years earlier to see if I got a better balance of beer and wood.

Alas, such is the consequence of being someone who is loathe to drink my cellar.

14 Ounces Does Not a Pint Make

Increasingly I am coming across bars whose standard “pint” pour is 14 imp. fl.oz. (398 ml). They don’t call it a “pint”, but it is their standard tap serving size. You don’t get an option to get something bigger. Making things worse is that often their pricing looks a lot like what you would pay for a 16 oz (454 ml) or 20 oz (568 ml) pour. Eight bucks for 14 ounces?!?

I am not going to name the specific places, as that is not my point. What I will say is I am seeing it more now than a couple of years ago. I will also say these are legitimate craft beer places, not some random sports bar. Places that should respect beer.

I spoke with one manager about it and they blamed the economy and then quickly highlighted that they have REALLY cheap happy hour prices (giving the specific amount will reveal the bar). I don’t buy it.

Sure, the economy, especially in Calgary, has hammered bars and restaurants. I get that. I appreciate it makes it hard to attract customers. Lowering prices is hard to do, but sometimes necessary. Keeping prices the same but shrinking the size of the glass is just taking advantage of your customers. It reminds me of when the Edmonton Journal scrapped the Sunday edition but didn’t give me a discount on my subscription – suddenly each paper I was getting was 16% more expensive.

This trend bugs me for two reasons.

First is the aforementioned dishonesty. Most people don’t notice the volume indicator on the menu. They come in, select the beer they want and order “a pint” or “a glass” of it. Some people looking for a smaller volume might ask how big the beer is, but the average beer drinker is expecting something approximately around a real pint, as that has been the standard serve in pubs for decades.

Fourteen ounces is only 70% of a legal Canadian pint. Just over two-thirds. Even if it is a buck cheaper than a full pint (87% of full price) they are getting ripped off.

Bar owners point to the fact that they state the volume size on the menu (a legal requirement, by the way). That fulfills their legal obligation, sure. But I have spent enough time in pubs to know that average customers don’t notice that statement and just order the beer. Trust me. I have asked people if they know what volume they are being served. The answer is usually wrong.

Part of the problem is that you can’t tell how much beer there is just by looking at the glass. And that, frankly, is what is wrong with the practice of 14 oz. serves. It bears absolutely no relation to how beer has been traditionally served. People understand 12 oz. (341 ml) or 16 oz. or 18 oz. (511 ml) or 20 oz. All are regular serving sizes. Fourteen? What is that?

That is a bar looking to short pour and not have their customers notice.

My second issue is one I have been railing on about for years (read here for example): namely respecting the true nature of the “pint”. It is an officially defined volume by the federal government. 568ml to be specific. There are no regulations requiring establishments to serve an actual pint. They get to serve whatever volume they want; they just have to admit it, even if just in small print.

I have been irked for a long time by places serving 16 oz. as a pint (which is, for the record, a U.S. pint), but I can at least see the nuance in the argument. Fourteen ounces, on the other hand, has nothing Continue reading 14 Ounces Does Not a Pint Make

Beer Status Quo in New Provincial Trade Agreement

Canada’s Trade Ministers sign a new trade deal, which may or may not change anything.

I am almost sorry to write this post, as it dives into the depths of internal trade deals. But that, apparently, is what I do, so here goes…

Late last week, the federal government and provinces announced the new Canada Free Trade Agreement (CFTA), which is basically an inter-provincial trade deal designed to replace the current (and flawed) Agreement on Internal Trade (AIT).

The politicians involved have trumpeted the deal as a new era in inter-provincial relations. I am not a trade lawyer so I can’t really speak to the relative merits of the deal as a whole. However, I did spent a couple hours examining the beer (more accurately, alcohol) related sections to try to determine how this deal might affect cross-provincial beer trade.

In short, not very much.

Sure, they have established a Working Group on Alcoholic Beverages, which over the next year is supposed to work out a way to allow greater trade between provinces around alcohol. That may bear some fruit, but at this point none of us know what will come from it.

In the meantime, every province has added to the deal a list of exceptions to exempt alcohol from the deal. (For the most geeky of you, the deal is structured t0 include everything unless explicitly excluded, so exemptions matter.)

Almost every province has added in an exception that excludes the sale of alcohol. Many are written to protect government retail monopolies, but others try to entrench preferential treatment for local breweries. Here are a couple of the more explicit statements:

  • Nova Scotia: “this measure may involve discretionary decisions based on various factors, limitations on market access, imposition of performance requirements, discrimination or right of entry and exit on services, investments, and goods produced in Nova Scotia in favour of residents of Nova Scotia or entities established in accordance with the laws of Canada or a province or territory thereof and having a place of business and substantive business activities within Nova Scotia” (a long-winded way of saying creating policies to privilege Nova Scotia breweries). (p.224)
  • New Brunswick: “The New Brunswick Liquor Corporation reserves the right to preferentially promote and market locally produced alcoholic beverage products.” (p. 229)
  • PEI: “these measures may involve discretionary decisions based on various factors, imposition of performance requirements, right of entry and exit, or discrimination in favour of residents of Prince Edward Island or entities established in accordance with the laws of Canada or Prince Edward Island and having a place of business and substantive business operations within Prince Edward Island.” (p. 246)
  • Manitoba: “Manitoba reserves the right to adopt or maintain any measure limiting market access or right of entry and exit in the sub-sectors noted above.” (p.292)

I pick these because they have the clearest language around their protected barriers. Every province has submitted an exclusion that allows them to control the import of alcoholic products into their jurisdiction. The provisions generally protect the exclusive authority of a liquor board to decide what enters the province and their right to make selections entirely as they see fit, including to privilege local breweries.

In other words, the status quo.

First, to be clear I am not, here, making a proclamation for or against these provisions. I am simply pointing out they exist so that beer fans can realize the realities of what the CFTA will mean for beer. And what it means is that very little is going to change in the coming years.

Second, I appreciate they have struck a committee to look at these issues, which might lead to a side deal around alcohol. However you will forgive me for being a bit skeptical around that, as establishing committees is a time-honoured practice in Canadian politics to avoid coming to a resolution on a prickly political issue.

In short, this new deal does little for beer in terms of resolving longstanding issues around cross-provincial trade. The politicians, frankly, ducked.

I have to say I don’t entirely blame them. This is a hard issue. As much as we theoretically support cross-provincial free trade, we also want our local breweries to succeed, which might mean protective measures to give them a chance to grow. There is no easy solution. Hence the committee.

I have to note one more thing I found in the deal. Alberta put Continue reading Beer Status Quo in New Provincial Trade Agreement

Edmonton Looking to Loosen Brewery Rules

Want to see more places like this on Edmonton’s high traffic zones?

A draft report soon to go to Edmonton City Council proposes amending Edmonton’s development by-laws to allow small breweries in a broader range of locations. I won’t tell you how I got my hands on the document but I can tell you that, in general, it seems like a good idea.

The review that sparks the report comes out of frustration from a growing number of aspiring brewers who are currently not allowed to locate their breweries in places where they can take advantage of foot traffic and general people movement.

Currently breweries are restricted to areas zoned as industrial, a policy harking back to the days when the only breweries that could open were sizeable operations. In practice that means a brewery can’t open in a commercial zone which, by definition, is where you find most people. Today provincial rules allow small breweries to open, meaning a scale that could be completely compatible with commercial zoning. However, the bylaws are out of date.

Commercial districts are places like Whyte Avenue, 124 Street, and other areas that emphasize restaurants, retail stores and similar businesses. Placing a small brewery or brewpub is completely compatible with the current usage of those streets. The issue is a lingering stereotype that breweries are large, smelly, loud and not attractive. The reality, of course, is not true, but sometimes it takes time to get lawmakers up to speed.

The problem is highlighted by the struggles Situation Brewing had to locate in the Whyte Avenue area. Their project was delayed by months while they persuaded city officials to allow them to open a brewpub/brewery in this high-traffic commercial zone. Some one-time exceptions allowed Situation to open, but the problem remains.

However the draft report I procured recommends a series of changes to the zoning rules to allow breweries to open in commercial areas. The highlights include:

  • making breweries, wineries and distilleries a discretionary use in commercial zones. (They continue to be prohibited in residential areas.)
  • Brewery licenses will be limited to serving their own product. However, the brewery will be allowed to also have a restaurant/bar license attached which can serve other alcohol products.
  • The rules seem to restrict the size of the brewery to 80 sq. metres (c. 860 sq. ft.), although there are contradictory statements in the report.
  • The brewery will have to meet parking requirements, which is pretty standard for commercial zoning.

Obviously we have a long way to go before we have an official by-law. But, for what it is worth, here is my take on the draft report.

First and foremost it is a Continue reading Edmonton Looking to Loosen Brewery Rules

Grizzly Paw’s Awesome Brew Space

Grizly Paw brewers’ view while working.

I would die to have the view Grizzly Paw’s brewers have when they mix up the brewery’s magic elixir. Most brewers have to put up with concrete walls and a back door opening up to a light industrial parking lot (or worse a garbage heap). Not the Grizzly Paw staff. They get floor-to-ceiling windows that look out on some of the best mountain scenery Alberta has to offer. Talk about an inspiration to brew!

When longtime brewpub Grizzly Paw embarked on an ambitious expansion a few years back, they constructed a brand new production facility on the edge of downtown, visible from the highway. And when doing so decided, given their location in Canmore, that they couldn’t just do a standard brewery building; they needed a space reflective of their surroundings. So they built a stunning building with a mountain chalet design with peaks reflecting the surrounding scenery, tons of windows and a generally appealing look.

I know writing about a brewery that has been open for three or four years is hardly headline news (I never promised to be Peter Mansbridge), but as it works out (you will catch this theme in my recent posts) I had yet to visit the space. I finally got a chance last week on my Canmore/Banff tour (read previous posts here and here).

But let me back up a bit. Grizzly Paw first opened as a brewpub in downtown Canmore in 2003, which makes them the 5th oldest (and, as it turns out today 5th largest) brewery in Alberta. I have visited the brewpub many times over the years whenever in town, but for most of their existence it was hard to find their beer in other places in the province. At times you might see a six-pack, but it would disappear again before you could buy a second offering. The production brewery was about trying to create a more consistent (and extensive) presence across the province.

The original 10HL brewpub system is still in use, which they mostly use these days for their lagers (because there is time for lagering) and one-off experimental batches, which they release as their #622 Main Street Series (the address of the brewpub). The new 30HL system cranks out their mainstays but has also allowed them to launch a variety of new releases and series. The Founder’s Series is their original four mainstays while their Summit Series offers a number of new brews created in the new brewery. There are also a range of one-offs. When I was there they had a barrel-aged barley wine, their Alpenglow Porter and a collaboration beer with Dandy called Cliffhanger.

But back to the brewery. It is a well-designed brewing space with a Continue reading Grizzly Paw’s Awesome Brew Space

TV Ad Suggests Alberta Beer Reaches New Levels

I don’t have a TV at home. Which means I only get to watch network TV when I travel. When I was is in Banff last week (see my post about it here), I got to watch an Oilers hockey game in the hotel. The game was unremarkable (although ended with the right score). But it was a commercial that caught my attention.

It started with cartoon images and an over-the-top announcer pronouncing the amazing state of what seems to be a hipster. It extolled the state of their beard, t-shirt, a satchel that holds a growler, stout glasses and the popularity of beer. It then does a quick switch to boasting about the fact that all Alberta craft beer is 10% off. It shows a line-up of Alberta beer, including Alley Kat, Wildrose, Blindman, Bench Creek and Goat Locker (which, for the record, is not yet an Alberta beer).

The ad is from Liquor Depot, the largest beer retail chain in Canada and long a dominant player in Alberta.

There are two ways in which this ad is significant. First is that there was even a TV ad promoting Alberta craft beer. That is, I am pretty certain, a first. There have undoubtedly been sales on Alberta beer before – many pubs do it on a regular basis. But no one has done a TV ad for it.

Second, the sponsor of the ad is Liquor Depot. As a large chain its primary focus is selling as much beer as it can, meaning it gives a lot of space to the big, corporate breweries. Most of its stores have more of a convenience store size and feel – good for dash-in, grab a bottle that that thing and get home. Over the years it has had a pretty lousy reputation for supporting local craft (its ill-fated dispute with Big Rock a few years back just being one example). I have walked into many Liquor Depot stores (or their various sister brands) and been unbelievably disappointed by their selection – often walking right back out again.

The ad itself left me a bit cold. It seems to play on dumb stereotypes of hipsters and beer aficionados. But I think it is the first time bottles and cans of Alberta brewed beer have shown up on a TV ad, and during a hockey game to boot.

I write about this because I am convinced, despite the ad’s shortcomings, that it represents a new phase in the craft beer industry in Alberta. Until recently there simply wasn’t enough going on to talk about.

I actually believe that a market existed for Alberta-made beer, but big beer companies like Liquor Depot couldn’t see it. It was too much under the radar and offered too few opportunities for local beer fans to express themselves. The Alberta beer scene is evolving with stunning speed. It is not just the number of breweries popping up (which is impressive) but that most of them are struggling to keep up with demand. Albertans want Alberta beer, and finally they are getting a real opportunity to actually find it.

As a smart corporation, Liquor Depot gets that. They realize there are market share points to be gained by promoting local. This is a good news/bad news development. If all they want to do is capitalize on beer drinkers’ interest in local without committing to increase their selection of local beer, it will end up being a cynical, opportunist move. However, if this is a signal of a new commitment to promote local beer and increase their selection of local beer, then I think Alberta beer will have reached the next level in its development.

I don’t know which it is at this point. In the coming weeks I will make a point of popping into some Liquor Depot stores. I sure as heck hope they will have a bigger selection of Alberta beer than they have in the past. If they don’t, expect a post trashing them for hypocrisy.

Things Looking Up for Craft Beer in Banff

The cramped brew space at Banff Avenue Brewing

It has been quite a few years since I was last in Banff. I forget just how stunningly beautiful the mountain peaks are around the townsite. I don’t forget, however, how desperate the beer options were during my last visit about nine or 10 years back. I and a friend had just finished a Jasper-Banff bike trip and we were looking for a celebratory beer. The best we could find was a pint of Guinness at one of those faux authentic Irish pubs.

As life happens sometimes, I haven’t been back until this week when my day job landed me in the beauty of the Rockies for a couple days (hence my visit to Canmore Brewingread here, and the “new” Grizzly Paw production brewery – story to come).

I also made the required visit to Banff Avenue Brewing (which wasn’t open yet on my last visit), part of the Bear Hill Brewpub group. That I hadn’t visited Banff Ave since its opening in 2010 kind of shocked me, but sometimes things work that way. Located on the main street (Banff Ave – get it?), it doesn’t have the best street frontage, being on the second floor of a wood building with an eclectic mix of businesses. But that is not uncommon in Banff, where commercial space is at a premium.

Once you climb the stairs and find the pub, your efforts are rewarded. While it did seem a bit dark, it has an comfortable, relaxed feel. The outdoor veranda (more accurate than patio in my mind) is a very nice highlight. The brewery space is impossibly small and cramped. General Manager Pete Grottenberg tells me the jaw dropping story of having to dismantle the outside wall – twice – to fit the brew equipment in (the second time is because the engineering firm calculated floor strength for the weight of EMPTY vessels – oops!).

The beer follow the same pattern as Bear Hills’ other small town brewpubs (Jasper and Wood Buffalo). The beer is accessible, clean and designed to create an entry point for a range of beer drinkers. They anchor with a blonde ale, an easy pale ale and a cream ale and stout, both on nitro. The Brewer’s Oar Cream Ale is really an ESB designed for nitrogen. I really like how the nitro creaminess accented the rich British malt flavours in the beer. I also appreciated their Lower Bankhead Black Pilsner (which is really a Schwarzbier) with a nice dark chocolate character. I will forgive them their loose style naming only because they do indicate the appropriate style in their menu descriptions.

While sipping on a pint during my visit, a customer told me about a brand new place in the basement of the same building that, they said, carried 48 taps. Skeptical (you can fill a lot of taps with corporate beer masquerading as craft), they assured me it was a good selection. So, after I finished up at Banff Ave, I walked down the stairs to High Rollers, which may be the most unique business model I have seen in a long time.

The bar’s tagline is “pins, pints and pizza” which is confusing until you walk into the place. One half of the restaurant is a six-lane ten-pin bowling alley. As for the pizza, that is likely self-explanatory. They only opened in January and so word is still working its way out about the place.

The tap list? Indeed 48 taps. I did a count and found 23 Alberta beer, 16 BC beer (including two ciders), five American craft offerings and only four corporate beer (two of which were Granville Island). Pretty impressive! They did have some corporate in the bottle, but I can understand that decision.

I did not partake in the bowling (being more of a five-pin man, good Canadian that I am), but stayed for a pint. The noise of the bowling was a bit distracting, but otherwise it was an interesting beer experience.

Banff now also has a craft distillery with a restaurant/tasting room on the main street, called Park Distillers. I didn’t have time to visit there, so can’t comment on it.

Overall, my beer time in banff this week was a huge step up from my last visit. Another signal that things are changing fast in the Alberta beer scene.