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High Line is Lining Up Good, Local Beer

highlinelogoThe three guys behind Calgary’s newest brewery, High Line Brewing, want to say that their story is nothing special.  “The story has been told many times, it is like everyone else,” says J.J. Mathison. “The law changed in 2013 [removing the minimum production capacity] and we thought maybe we could take our passion for homebrewing to see if could translate.” But their story isn’t the same.

High Line just received its production license earlier this month and hopes to have its first pours later in November. Despite how busy they are, the founders devoted a bit of time to sit down for a chat with me.

The three friends, Mathison, Kurt Wikel and Graham Dolce, had been homebrewing friends. Mathison had been brewing for the better part of a decade, while Wikel and Dolce had been at it for about 5 years. That said both men come from solid craft beer stock. Wikel was raised in Montana. “I grew up with craft beer, when it was just kicking off. Kettle House in Missoula [Montana] was the first craft brewery I visited. That is when I fell in love with craft beer.” He also spent some time living in Denver, just to drive the point home.

As for Dolce, he grew up in Vermont, which as most readers know is a central location for quality craft beer. So, in short, the three men have had years of experience in craft beer, even if just from a consumer perspective.

Life and careers brought all three men to Calgary. They love living in the city and see it as their home. But, as beer buffs, they were disappointed by the overall beer scene in the city. “For a long time when I moved here, I found the lack of a craft beer scene surprising,” says Wikel. “I come from a town of 50,000 with three or four micros. Calgary didn’t have that.” Dolce expresses a similar experience. “I love Calgary but it was always missing this one aspect,and seeing that starting to happen makes me feel better about being in Calgary.”

One of the aspects they most missed was the atmosphere of craft beer places in their hometowns. “I was looking for a gathering spot, not a bar. A place where people can come with their kids and the place naturally builds community around it,” says Wikel. That feature figured prominently in their plans for their brewery. They want a place that is inviting, relaxed and a part of the local neighbourhood.

“Finding the right location took six months from the day we decided to incorporate,” says Mathison. After an extensive search, including an aborted location elsewhere in the city, they settled on the close-knit and historic neighbourhood of Ingelwood, just east of downtown (also the location of recently opened Cold Garden – see their profile here). Two of the partners live in Inglewood and the trio thought it would be an ideal location for their kind of project.

However, available space is rare in that neighbourhood. “We forced ourselves on an unsuspecting landlord with empty automotive garage,” says Mathison. “The building was crumbling to crowd. We signed a lease on a building in pitiful condition, ceiling falling down, no electricity, no water.” But they set to work fixing it up, doing much of the work themselves. They also had to go to extraordinary lengths to persuade the City of Calgary to approve their zoning. “We had four months of going back and forth with the city,” says Wikel. “We got very adept at managing the zoning laws in Calgary.”

Despite all the work, in the end they think the location is perfect.

“We already get people knocking on door daily. You can see us from 9th Avenue [the main drag through neighbourhood].” The space has two glassed overhead doors – one open to the street and the other to the brewery with the 35 seat tasting room in the middle. The call the atmosphere “al fresco”.

“We have worked hard to make this a safe and comfortable place for anyone who enjoys craft beer,” says Dolce. “It will be family friendly. Not open late. We are looking for it to be a comfortable, welcoming environment for people interested in new, local and, we hope, well-made beer.”

They have crammed a 5-Barrel brewhouse, bought from Continue reading High Line is Lining Up Good, Local Beer

Malty National Set to Conquer the World – Not!

malty-logo“This is an industry dominated by large corporations pretending to be small and local. We are a tiny little brewery pretending to be a large corporation.”

You gotta love that kind of irreverent attitude.

Those are the words of Kelsey Beach, one of the two founders of Malty National Brewing Corporation, Regina’s newest craft brewery.The other partner is Adam Smith who, given the name of the brewery, has a deliciously ironic name.

Malty National opened its doors in April 2016 with a fairly low key launch, mostly focused on attracting thirsty Regina beer fans. It took me a while to finally hook up with the Malty National boys but Beach and I were able to connect last week and talk about their vision for their brewery.

Let’s start with the name, because it kind of reflects their approach to opening and operating a brewery. “It was a bad joke originally by Adam’s wife,” says Beach. “We all laughed at how terrible it was.” But the name hung around for a while and eventually re-surfaced. “Our original plan was to use crowdfunding, allowing people to actually buy shares of the company,” a departure from the usual get-a-growler-a-month kind of arrangement. “With the number of people we wanted to involve legally we had to become a corporation”. That is when the name became more than a joke. If they were going to have to be a corporation, why not do something with it?

“We even asked for an evil corporate logo,” going for a tentacled factory image.

As it played out the crowdfunding never took shape. “It was way too slow to get started.” In the end they self-financed with the help of family and friends, but the corporation model, and the clever, ironic name were entrenched.

Before becoming the corporate bigwigs they are today, both were average working Joes. “I had a boring desk job in a cubicle farm and Adam was a massage therapist with his own practice.” They had been avid homebrewers for about a decade, “making decent beer for about five years, crappy beer for five before that.” The idea of opening their own brewery has been floating for four or five years.

“It was one of those ideas that begins as a hair-brained scheme at first but eventually comes together. While brewing we would talk and daydream. We feel lucky that our hobby happens to be a booming industry,” observes Beach.

They did the math and decided there was space for what they wanted to do. “We felt there was room in the market,” he says. “There is lots of room to grow in Regina – the demand is there.”

They wanted to be local and rooted in community, so they selected a small space in the central neighbourhood of Heritage. “It traditionally had a bad reputation, but is picking itself up. It is a great neighbourhood, lots of heritage homes, lots of foot traffic.” In fact they share the small commercial space with two other co-tenants, 33 1/3 Coffee Roasters (an artisanal coffee roaster) and T+A Vinyl and Fashion (which sells vintage records and clothing).

As it works out, it was the ideal community for them to establish their vision for a brewery. “We have happened to be very lucky to line-up with a market segment that likes our kind of beer.”

And what is that beer? “I guess you could say we are a hop forward brewery,” observes Beach. “We have always said we weren’t going to guess what market wants. We were just going to continue to brew what we did when we were homebrewers.” Beach predicts 80% of their brews have been hoppy, often simiilar base beer with different hop varieties. The remaining beer have been a mixture of stouts, dark ales and some “experimenting” with kettle souring.

For the moment Malty National is not offering a flagship, or even permanent beer. They have brewed 36 beer since opening and 31 have been different beer. “We are still very much learning our craft, we have lots to learn. Offering a flagship at this point would mean it would continue to change and evolve, so why do it?” They don’t dismiss the idea of a flagship line-up in the future, but for now Continue reading Malty National Set to Conquer the World – Not!

Is Prairie Beer Coming of Age?

beer101logoThe prairie beer scene is changing rapidly, of that there is no question. Plenty of new breweries opening. But also new craft beer bars, improving beer selection in restaurants and just generally a higher profile happening.

Me being me, I have been reflecting on what this means and what we can expect next. The prairies are still under-developed beer markets, although slowly getting there. However, we still pale when compared to B.C., Quebec or some of the beer meccas of the U.S. What should we be aiming for? What is the best way to keep developing our region’s beer thirst?

In other words, what are the elements of a mature beer market? I start to answer that question in my latest Beer 101, which you can read here.

I identify 4 pillars to a mature beer market. The first, and likely most important, is a healthy cluster of local breweries. Having a lot of local breweries raises the profile of beer in general and, importantly, the breweries push each other to be better. I believe that vibrant, active, diverse local breweries are the catalyst to building a model beer culture.

However, one pillar doesn’t hold up a building. A thriving beer market also needs a healthy selection of imports. Consumers need to be able to sample some of the best the world has to offer, both to see what is possible and, interestingly, to see that their local breweries hold their own in comparison (which they will if there is are vibrant local breweries). Third, local bars and restaurants (and liquor stores) make carrying quality craft beer a priority. They pay attention to their beer lists and ensure their customers don’t have to put up with the same old, same old.

The final pillar, and I think this is the last one to take shape, is a wide range of styles, flavours, interpretations and innovations in the beer itself. A dizzying array of beer options is a sign of a consumer base that understands beer, appreciates beer and wants to try new flavours and new offerings. I am not talking about sours and wild beer (although they are a part of that), but instead that the range is both broader and more thickly populated than less mature people. This may seem like a tautology – that a mature beer market appreciates a wide range of beer – but I think it is the crucial final step. If I think of other locations who are also on their way they may have elements of the first three pillars, but the fourth is not fully developed. Most of them fall into the standard pale ale/IPA/stout/pale lager/fruit beer package of offerings. A truly mature market both fills in the gaps and stretches the boundaries in multiple directions.

To many of you none of this is Man Bites Dog stuff – you already get it. However, I think it is useful to sometimes stop to think about it and write this stuff down, just to clarify in our heads what is going on. I also think it serves a second purpose these days. I grow tired of the import vs. local beer debate. Each side argues they are more important in developing beer culture. The issue is we need both of them. So, let’s just all try to get along.


Another Beer Mark Up Lawsuit

gwblogoAnd Great Western makes three.

There are now three lawsuits (okay, two lawsuits and a trade complaint) against the Alberta government’s new beer mark-up policy. Saskatoon’s Great Western Brewing officially launched a lawsuit yesterday (read one of a few possible media stories here). They join Toronto’s Steam Whistle and Calgary importer Artisan Ales in challenging the new policy. For a background on the policy read here.

Great Western argues the flat rate mark-up combined with a grant for Alberta-based producers amounts to a violation of the Constitution Act as a barrier to trade between provinces. The Alberta government has not officially responded, using the usual “before the courts” defence, but in general their position has been that Alberta has the most open beer market in the country and that the policy is designed to help foster a local beer industry in the province with all the jobs and economic development that come with it.

This development is hardly surprising. I think I actually predicted it when the latest policy was announced. Great Western sells approximately half (I am told) of its beer in Alberta, and they have said that a 24-pack has increased over $6 in price since the change. They won’t release figures, but you can imagine their sales have dropped as a result, especially in the discount segment where many of their beer compete.

I get why they are mad. Just like Steam Whistle (who also had a large portion of their sales in Alberta) and the various importers who try to sell non-local beer to Albertans. Alberta has long been the reliable secondary market, the place where you can easily sell your beer at a decent price, especially if you are a small to mid-sized brewery.

That changed in the last year. And anytime a government tries to make a large change, lots of people are going to be unhappy.

I don’t say that to dismiss the lawsuits or the complaints of those negatively affected by the change. I say that because, well, it is true. Those who are complaining do so because the old system worked for them. Alberta breweries are singing the praises of the new policy because IT works for them. Such is the nature of politics.

I will not attempt to predict the outcome of this lawsuit, nor the other ones. I am neither a lawyer nor a trade expert. However, for the sake of those of you out there, I will offer this analysis.

The crux of all the complaints centre around the argument that the new policy taxes import beer at a different rate than local beer – effectively a trade tariff which is prohibited under NAFTA, the Constitution Act and New West Partnership. Whether that is a case is up to the courts. My guess at the government’s defence is that the same mark-up is applied to every beer sold in the province, regardless of production origin. The grant program for Alberta breweries is framed as an economic development initiative (something allowed under trade deals), and thus legitimate.

The question will be whether the courts agree. The government has explicitly tied the two initiatives, but they are also not the only government to provide economic development grants to their local breweries. Plus, there is something – at least in my mind – to the argument that Alberta continues to have the most open borders in the country. If mark-ups/grants are a trade barrier, are tasting panels, preferential shelf space and import restrictions trade barriers?

As I say, I am not a lawyer, so I don’t offer an answer. As usual in this debate, I advocate a big picture analysis. We need to look at the basket of policies that all provinces have to regulate the flow of beer across borders. Whether the courts share that perspective, I have no idea.

[Edited at 12:30pm to correct that the complaint is based upon the Constitution Act, and not the NWP as initially reported.]

Hell’s Basement Aims to Brew Up Beer Heaven

hellsbasementlogoMost people don’t know that Alberta’s first brewery opened in the southern city of Medicine Hat. Thomas Ireland opened Saskatchewan Brewery in 1882 on 2nd Street downtown. Ireland’s brewery lasted 5 years before closing. Another 26 years passed before a second attempt, Medicine Hat Brewing, which had two incarnations between 1913 and 1927.

It has been a long 89 years since Medicine Hat has had a brewery it can call its own. Until this past August, that is. Two months ago Hell’s Basement Brewery opened its doors to thirsty Hatters. That I am just getting to the profile now is a marker of just how crazy the prairie beer scene has become – I can’t keep up. But I finally got to visit with the good folks there while in the Hat for Thanksgiving and so better late than never.

I had a sit down with founder Mike Patriquin (who servers as General Manager) and founder and head brewer Mike Gripp while we sipped on their offerings and took in the surroundings (there are three Mikes involved in the brewery). They have set up shop in an old Culligan Water plant in a light industrial zone just a stone’s throw (well, if you are an Olympic shotputter) south of the TransCanada Highway. On the day I was there, the tap room was packed, with people lined up a dozen deep to get a pint or offsales.

The brewery is both years in the making and one of the fastest start-ups I have ever seen. Two sets of founders were independently (and unbeknownst to each other) contemplating opening a brewery since as far back as 2010. But it was only in late 2015 when they discovered each other and decided to join forces. As a result, Hell’s Basement has six fathers, each bringing a different skill set to the operation.

Patriquin is a “recovering bureaucrat” who worked 16 years for the federal government before moving to Medicine Hat to run his own consulting business helping entrepreneurs develop business plans. As a result he brings a strong business sense to the operation. Gripp is a native of Oregon and so I think we can say beer is literally in his blood. He is a recent graduate of the Olds Brewmaster programme after being a homebrewer for many years.

Once the six got together things moved at lightning speed. Within 8 months they were ready to open – which is a blink of an eye in the beer world. They have set up a 20-barrel brewhouse with, for the moment, 4-20BBL and 2-40BBl fermenters, along with two bright tanks. But Patriquin says that will change soon. “We are selling way more beer at this point than we thought we would”, he says, commenting on the initial public reaction. “We are going to buy more fermenters as soon as we can”.

They have launched with four mainstay brands: Boxcar Comforts Blonde Ale, Paddle Wheel Pilsner, Polly’s Pale Ale, and All Hops for a Basement IPA. They also offer a regular seasonal offering; when I was there it was Rye’s Against the Machine Ale, a rye brown ale. They have, however, shelved the Pilsner for the winter months hells-basement-002and may replace it with a winter offering.

Their vision is simple. “We want to make quality craft beer and let everything else happen as it comes,” says Patriquin. “Quality is number one. We are not cutting corners on ingredients or process.” He says the vision comes from the partners’ motivations. “None of us got into this for profit. We are doing it for passion. It is about making quality craft beer in a town without a craft brewery”.

They acknowledge opening in a city like Medicine Hat, not particularly known for its craft beer appreciation, had its challenges. Gripp says it required some creative thinking, beer-wise. “We want to keep the beer drinkable but still want to keep it interesting”. That means coming up with original ways to add flavour while keeping the beer accessible. For example all of the mainstays except the IPA are a standard 5%, but each offers something a bit out of the ordinary. “We want to do something different. For example our IPA avoids the classic c-hops [Cascade, Chinook, Columbus, etc.]. We use some unusual hops to create a unique flavour profile”.

They have installed a canning line and Continue reading Hell’s Basement Aims to Brew Up Beer Heaven

Random Acts of Beerness: Start-Up Edition

i love craft beerThe big thing that has caught my eye in the last few weeks is the growing list of new breweries opening or soon to be open on the prairies. The recent run of start-ups does not seem to be abating. This, of course, is a good thing for everyone (except lowly beer writers trying to keep up) but I am wondering when we might to see an easing up of the pace. No boom goes on forever (just ask Alberta about that!), so at some point we should level off.

Among the new start-ups in recent weeks include:

  • Winnipeg brewpub Peg Beer Co. (read profile) has released its first in-house beer. The restaurant has been open for a while serving local craft beer but now their own brewhouse is up and running. And Winnipeg beer drinkers rejoiced!
  • My trip to Medicine Hat last weekend not only resulted in a visit to Hell’s Basement (profile coming soon), but gave me an update on the city’s second brewery, Medicine Hat Brewing. They nearing completion on the brewhouse and anticipate selling beer in the next few weeks.
  • Over in Lloydminister, 4th Meridian Brewing quietly opened its doors a couple weeks ago. At the moment they are operating on a small, pilot brewery but have hopes for bigger things in the border city. I haven’t had a chance to speak with them yet, but hope to in the near future.
  • Oxus Brewing, another soon-to-be Winnipeg brewery (profile coming soon), has secured their location and have begun building their brewhouse.
  • [added later because I forgot] The latest Mill Street Brewpub will be opening its doors in Calgary next week, joining the quickly growing beer scene on 17 Ave S. It will have the standard Mill Street line-up but will have regular rotating offerings brewed onsite.

There has been some other interesting beer news to note.

  • In what may be the biggest news (at least monetarily) B.C. based Russell Brewing has sold both its B.C. brewery and its wholly-owned Winnipeg operation, Fort Garry. Fort Garry was sold for $7.7 million to a Manitoba-based equity firm. No word on how this might affect Fort Garry brands or the brewery operations.
  • lastbest_branchybrewRegina’s Rebellion Brewing waded into Saskatchewan politics a couple weeks ago, calling on the government to fast-tracked rumoured changes to the province’s out-dated beer policy, including punitive mark-up rates. I find their decision to go public noteworthy, in particular in the context of the ongoing dispute between Alberta and Saskatchewan around mark-ups. You can read a news story about their foray here.
  • I also note the growth in charity and community-based collaboration beer popping up on the prairies. In Alberta over the past few weeks alone we have seen Village Brewing (a longtime community-centred operation) release their latest annual Village Gardener Community Involved Ale, which uses hops grown by Calgary residents in their backyard gardens. Last Best Brewing in Calgary has released a charity brew called Branchy Brew where $1 of every pint will go to Branch Out Neurological Foundation. I noticed the other day that Brewsters has put out Beer Clouds Anti-Hail Ale which is a collaboration beer with a group of barley farmers and a seed cleaning plant in Alberta. There are other that are just slipping my mind at the moment (I really should take better notes).

That is what caught my eye recently. There is plenty of other stuff happening out there, including rafts of new seasonal beer releases. So go check some of them out! More then the spirit moves me.

[Edited at 3:30 to add Mill Street to list of openings.]

Why You Should Care about the ABInbev-SABMiller Merger

abinbevsabmillerSo over the weekend it became official. Global giant ABInbev has purchased another global giant, SABMiller, for $100 billion (US). The joint company will hold about 28% of the global beer market, far outstripping its next largest competitor, Heineken, who hold about 10%.

Most of the business press and mainstream media have focused on the fact this deal is mostly about developing markets, in particular Africa and China, and the positioning of the new company in these markets. There is some talk about corporate concentration in North America and Europe but much of that died down on news earlier this year the new entity is selling off some popular brands, including Grolsch and Peroni, to appease regulators.

Many in North America have reacted to the deal with a shrugging of shoulders. I understand why. ABInbev already owns half of the North American market, what is a few points more? Plus with craft beer continuing its ascendancy across the continent, it seems there is little the behemoth can do to harm the feisty little guys and gals growing the craft segment.


I prefer to take a long view on this. Sure, very little will change for consumers in the short term. That pint of Pilsner Urquell you buy will now line the pockets of ABInbev rather than SABMiller (whose name will cease to exist), but the world will keep turning.

But I see three reasons for craft beer consumers to be concerned about this deal for our favourite locally and regionally made suds.

First, concentration always creates power imbalances. Regardless of the industry when one player is three times larger than its next competitor, the market becomes distorted. The pumped-up ABInbev will exert disproportionate power over the market. At this point I refer to macro-economic forces. That much heft will bring with it practices that benefit ABInbev’s shareholders. I can’t predict exactly what it will look like but they have a wide range of options. They could start a price war to squeeze out competitors, or, alternatively, nudge prices up a bit to increase margins. They can swamp the airwaves with advertising to an extent their competitors can’t.. And – reminding us that economics is always about politics – they can use their market power to feed into lobby efforts to create laws that work in their favour.

That is at the level of theory. More practically, ABInbev will have more ability on the ground to influence the decisions of stores, restaurants, bars and events. Inducements, legal and illegal, already mar the retail market. Everything from free glassware and tap handles to price reductions, “bonus” product to raffle prizes are used – mostly but not exclusively by the big boys – to entice retailers to stock their product and/or delist their competitors. There are multiple reports of the corporate breweries of paying for tap system installation or straight up paying for taps.

When someone is as big as ABInbev is now, do we really expect that practice to diminish? Plus, the ability of the already under-resources AGLC (and other regulators) to police such practice makes it unlikely they will ever be caught. The result will mean it will be harder for independent players, even in this atmosphere of growing openness to local and craft, to create space for themselves. Looking for craft beer at Edmonton’s new Roger’s Place? This merger makes that an even more remote possibility.

Third, expect to see more faux craft offerings and corporate buyouts of legitimate craft breweries, especially the latter. I see this as the most concerning consequence of the merger. We know that ABInbev is fully committed to a two-part strategy to invade the craft segment. First, they create their own pseudo-craft brands with only marginal (or even subliminal) recognition of its corporate origins (case in point: Shock Top – just to name one). Second, they purchase well-positioned craft breweries and operate them as their own. Their record seems to suggest sometimes they screw with the beer and sometimes they don’t. Either way, they rarely add a line to the packaging saying “now brought to you by the largest beer corporation in the world”. Long time fans, unless they are savvy, don’t even know they are now contributing to the profits of the largest beer company in the world.

I predict with their larger portfolio and deeper pockets, we will see more of this and, possibly, even some new twists. I know some people don’t care who owns the beer, as long as it tastes good. Fair enough. However, I for one am concerned about where my money goes. Most importantly I am quite militant about honesty in marketing. Tell me where the beer comes from. I haven’t seen any big signs telling consumers Mill Street is now an ABInbev product. Have you?

In a way it is true that this merger has very little to do with the fan of locally produced craft beer. But we can’t ignore it, either. All of our favourite craft breweries are mice sleeping in the same bed with the ABInbev elephant. When the elephant rolls over, the mice had better think fast, lest they be crushed.



What Onbeer Did on Its Summer Vacation

albertamapI have mentioned briefly at times that over the summer I made a commitment to visit as many of the new breweries that have opened in Alberta in recent months. On a series of trips I worked my way around the province, hitting Lethbridge, Calgary, Cochrane, Olds, Didsbury, Red Deer, Lacombe, Edson and Grande Prairie. In all (including stops at the 2 new Edmonton breweries) I hit 17 breweries, all of whom have been operating for a year or less. I still haven’t caught up as every month another couple breweries open up.

My plan was (and still is) to publish some observations and stories from the trips to give readers a bit of a sense of what is happening out there. Life has been busy, so I haven’t gotten around to doing up much of the writing yet. However, I did succeed in creating a two-part series for my CBC column.

The last two Friday columns addressed aspects of the trip. And (thankfully) I have links to the audio files now.

Part One, which aired September 16, offers a high level analysis of what my visits tell me about the state of the Alberta beer industry. In short, I argue that the “traditional” model for successfully opening a brewery in the province has been transformed. There are now a number of approaches which seem to be proving successful. I will talk more about that later, but it is clear to me there are at least three or four different approaches that can breed success. The variety includes size, beer styles, customer targets and marketing and branding. More on that another day. But I also observed shifting emphases among newer breweries. There is a blurring of the brewpub/production brewery line and the role of the tap room has become huge.

CBC logoYou can listen to Part One here.

Part Two, which aired last Friday, tells some of my favourite stories from my travels, including the Mystery Brewery (read post about it here) and my misadventures trying to find Boiling Oar Brewing, as well as other highlights.

You can listen to Part Two here.

As I mention, I do plan on writing more about my observations arising from my summer beer tour in the coming weeks. So stay tuned!





Qualities of a Great Pub


One of my favourite pubs in Canada

I spend a lot of time in pubs. Not a surprise. But while I find myself in a wide range of places at times, I gravitate to pubs that have the right atmosphere and a great (or at least intelligent) selection of beer. I have been travelling a fair bit in the past few weeks, hitting St. John’s, Hamilton, and Toronto in recent weeks. In each of those cities – and others – I have go-to places that I simply must hit every time I am in town.

I have been thinking about why I like the places I do, and have come up with a few reasons. I felt motivated to offer those reasons up recently, and that motivation turned into columns for Vue Weekly (read here) and my Beer 101 column for (read here) – (Planet S/Prairie Dog is coming).

I came up with five features that matter to me. They include: a smaller, cozy room; a homey, natural feel; an atmosphere emphasizing conversation (i.e., quiet music and no/few TVs); friendly and welcoming patrons and staff; and knowledgeable staff that take beer seriously. Read the articles for details of what I mean about that.

In short, I am looking for a place that is inviting, not too corporate/sterile and takes its beer very, very seriously.  That is what makes a great pub experience for me.

I remember during one of my first visits to Augusta’s Winking Judge in Hamilton the owner, after having chatted beer for a few minutes, invited me on a road trip to pick up some beer in Pennsylvania with him. Similarly I remember a friendly but focussed conversation with the owner of Hop In Brew in Calgary about the recipe of their house beer. And then there was the afternoon at the Duke of Duckworth I spent with key leaders of Newfoundland’s labour movement and senior NDP executives just because I saddle up to the bar for a pint of locally produced beer. Finally, I am starting to feel like I am Norm from Cheers when I enter Edmonton’s Sugar Bowl. These are just a small sampling of the stories I have gathered hanging out in good pubs.

That is what happens in a great pub. And you get to drink good local beer at the same time!

Everyone’s mileage will differ. People like different things. But great pubs exist in this country and I firmly believe more people should be experiencing what they have to offer. Pick the ones in which you feel most comfortable but, for the love of beer, don’t put up with a second-rate atmosphere just to have a good pint. A good pub is a combo of both good beer and an inviting atmosphere.

Prairie Dog Aims to be Local Mainstay

prairiedoglogoCalgary is about to have a new brewpub, even if they don’t know it yet.

Prairie Dog Brewing Company is working on building a destination brewpub near the downtown core. It is the creature of four partners, Gerad Coles, Tyler Potter, Laura Coles and Sarah Goertzen. Two are longtime Albertans (the Coles) and two are from Ontario. And they met in California. Recently I had a chance to have a chat with Gerad Coles about what they are building.

Coles says he and his partner Laura were in California working in the expansive IT world there. Coles is a lifetime Calgarian but moved for his work. “I am a Jack-of-All-Trades computer guy. I do website stuff, infrastructure, integration. I worked at Istock Photo and there simply is not a lot of that kind of work work here, so we moved down,” he acknowledges. A combination of life changes (baby!) and the company being bought out by a larger corporation led Coles to rethink their strategy. “I was feeling done with IT.”

The good news is he had a hobby that might be a good future career. “I had been brewing at home for awhile. I realized I enjoyed working with my hands and coming out with a tangible product people could enjoy socially.”

So they moved back to Calgary and started thinking about what to do next, with a brewery foremost in Coles’ mind. “When the mark-up change happened, that is when I decided this is what I wanted to do,” Coles says, referring to the decision last year by the Alberta government to alter the mark-up policy to support Alberta beer production (read here for background).

Coles got talking with Potter (and his partner) about the idea of a brewery. “Tyler had been helping me homebrew for a year before we had our conversation about moving up to start brewery.” It was a good fit “Has same mindset as me of geeking out on details,” and has a passion for brewing. Potter and Goertzen decided to quit their jobs in California and join the Coles in Calgary to work on the brewpub. Potter and Coles will work together on the brewing the beer for the pub.

And their plan really is a brewpub model but with the beer being upfront. “Before I moved to California, my vision of a brewpub was a restaurant that sold beer. It was not clear they were making their own beer. That is not my vision of a brewpub,” he says. “We want them seeing us, have the brewers chatting with people about the beer.”

“We want it to be first and foremost a brewery. We want poeple to come in, see the brewery and watch the brewing, get a sense in brewery first and then have a food menu backing that up with quality and care.”

Coles says their model is Russian River Brewing, which is ambitious company. He is not saying they will be Russian River, but admires their approach. “For most of their existence, they avoided distribution. I like the model of shunning distribution and selling the freshest beer possible in a small circle. It is more special and authentic to have people come to the brewery. We want to be a tourist destination.”

He adds, “if we have our beer in every liquor store in town there is no incentive to come to the brewpub.” Which says a lot about their vision.

Further, they want the pub to be a local gathering place where a wide range of people feel comfortable. “We don’t want a place filled with suits there for business meetings or expensing lunches. We want families and a good mix of people, all ages, people who appreciate local food, local business and good beer.”

As a brewpub first, they are thinking of Continue reading Prairie Dog Aims to be Local Mainstay