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The Beer Kerfuffle Keeps Going

notley

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley

Wow! People are really worked up about Alberta’s policy changes and the war of words between Premiers Notley and Wall. The coverage and debate just keeps going on and on. I have had (likely more) than my share of media requests. Maybe it is good that people are that passionate about beer, but I have a sneaking suspicion most of the heat has little to do about beer and is more about ideology and political positioning. For those of you who haven’t kept up, you can read the story till now here, here, here and here.

The timing of this incredible interest in beer policy (which has been my quiet corner of the interweb for many years… ask Owen) is actually bad for me, as I am about to unplug for a week and go on a vacation in the mountains with no electronics. Meaning I will likely miss any big announcements this week. However, I will promise you this – what I miss in timeliness I will make up next week with insight. Deal? Promise to stick with me?

As I go, allow me to offer a few final thoughts about where we stand at this point. In no particular order:

  • The Edmonton Journal ran an op-ed piece from me on Saturday (read it here) offering up my main gripe in this debate – the lack of overall context. Looking only at Alberta’s tax policy obfuscates the generalized problem in Canada’s beer system. In short: nobody’s hands are clean on this one. The easy swipe is at the Notley government for trying to do something, anything, to support a local beer industry, when for decades every province has had its own particular form of protectionism. We need to get past this polarization.
  • I was bemused to read (here) on Friday that B.C., Ontario and Quebec agreed to a kind-of agreement to sort-of allow consumers to, in a way, buy wine, online, from the other provinces. It isn’t much, but it is a recognition that the status quo makes no sense. Why can’t we get this on beer?
  • The announced inter-provincial trade deal (story here) notably excludes alcohol and instead sets up a “working group” to discuss reducing barriers. I am not sure how to take this. The optimist in me hopes that this is a mechanism to finding that rational solution I and others are talking about. Yet, somehow, I remain unconvinced that the big brewing provinces of B.C., Ontario and Quebec are prepared to give up their advantages to allow Alberta, Nova Scotia or Manitoba (just as examples) beer to fully compete in their markets.
  • Also on Friday, (as it works out as I was driving to do my column profiling Bent Stick Brewing) I heard a debate between Ken Beattie, Executive Director of the B.C. Craft Brewers Guild, Paddock Wood owner Steven Cavan, and new Alberta Small Brewers Association Executive Director Terry Rock. (Sorry I haven’t found an online audio file of this.) It was an interesting debate. One thing I noted was Beattie’s efforts to argue B.C. has an open system. He claimed “if an application is approved, a brewery gets full access” to the range of B.C. liquor stores. He also indicated only 1 Alberta brewery had applied in the last 2 years. Okay, fair enough. Except for this. First, did that brewery get accepted (the host didn’t ask)? Even if the answer is yes, the fact I have to ask the question demonstrates that B.C. doesn’t have an open market, as a civil servant gets to decide whether they get in or not – and as implied by Beattie’s use of the word “if”. Plus it may be that Alberta breweries haven’t applied because they doubt they will get accepted – why spend the energy?

Continue reading The Beer Kerfuffle Keeps Going

Some Info on the Saskatchewan Beer Regime

sask flagSince Premier Brad Wall decided to go public with his concerns about Alberta’s recent policy change (read here and here for background), and since the premiers are going to meet today to talk about this stuff, I thought I would offer up an overview of how the Saskatchewan beer system works.

This is based on research I have done over the last couple days (combined with my longer term knowledge of what is going on), so it is likely incomplete. Anyone who has a correction or addition, feel free to comment – this is a work in progress.

Beer regulations (in any province) are frustratingly complex – which is why I am certain I don’t have the full picture yet. However, I do have enough to put Premier Wall’s comments into perspective. I will try to put it together as clearly as I can.

These are the facts as I understand them:

  1. Saskatchewan has a mostly public liquor retail system (for now). There are a handful of private stores that have the right to order product directly, but the bulk of beer sold in Saskatchewan is through the SLGA.
  2. Saskatchewan does not have an open border like Alberta’s. All applications to import beer into the province must be vetted through an SLGA buyer, who has the final decision on whether the beer will be approved for sale or not. The buyer has full discretion on whether to accept or reject the application. They are not required to inform the applicant of the reasons for their decision.
  3. Alberta breweries have over the years applied to enter the Saskatchewan market but have had their applications denied. No reason provided.
  4. If accepted, the SLGA takes control over the product. They determine which stores it goes into and have a complex set of pricing rules to which brewers must comply. Saskatchewan also has a Social Reference Price – a minimum price for retail – applied to all beer sold in the province. They also apply a “high alcohol surcharge” for beer over 9% alcohol.
  5. Saskatchewan does have a tiered mark-up system, oddly set up by packaging (draught has a lower rate than bottles/cans). The lowest rate is $.66/$.98 (keg/package) per litre. This ends at 5000HL. The middle rate is $1.313/$1.842 per litre. Above 200,000 HL the full rate of $1.463/1.993 per litre applies. This rate is applied to all beer sold in the province, regardless of origin.
  6. The SLGA currently lists 571 beer SKUs available in the province (keep in mind this includes various packaging options of the same beer). Alberta lists 4,591.

What to make of this? A few things jump out at me.

The biggest is that the flow of imports is strictly controlled by the SLGA, with no accountability or transparency. There is no guarantee of listing if you apply – in stark contrast to Alberta. Further, if we look at the respective SKU numbers, it is not an unreasonable conclusion that one of the criteria they use is to ensure not too many imports make it into the Saskatchewan market. In other words, they may try to ensure Saskatchewan is not flooded with imports which squeeze out local producers. That is, I will admit, conjecture as the SLGA does not report their decision making criteria, but it is a logical assertion.

That Alberta breweries have been denied entry speaks quite loudly to the system’s ability to create border controls over beer. Why deny an Alberta brewery access to your market unless you think they are a threat to a Saskatchewan brewery?

The Saskatchewan mark-up system is significantly harsher than Alberta’s – a complaint I have heard from Continue reading Some Info on the Saskatchewan Beer Regime

Wall Government Makes Mark-ups Political

bradwall2

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall

A story published on the Edmonton Journal website yesterday afternoon (read here) reports that the Saskatchewan government of Brad Wall is speaking out against the new Alberta mark-up policy announced last week (read my overview of it here). In particular they are suggesting it runs “counter to the spirit and intent” of the New West Partnership. The story adds that Premier Wall will raise the issue with Premier Notley this week.

This is the first time a government has come out publicly in opposition to the policy, and suggests an escalation of the issue. I had been told by sources that after the first shift in the fall, the Ontario government complained via private discussions but opted to stay silent publicly.

What to make of this development?

My first instinct is – not much. Brad Wall has made a history of being bombastic, contrarian and, in particular, takes delight at poking at anything the NDP does – anywhere, anytime. It is, naturally, a divisive strategy. Some people love him for it, while others think he is grandstanding rather than trying to make things work. I will not comment on that, but will simply say that this is not entirely unexpected from his government.

My second thought is that this may signal more trouble brewing for the Alberta government on this file. If Great Western Brewing, the only Saskatchewan brewery to publicly complain (and, to be fair, the only one who has a significant reason to complain as the others are small and mostly focussed on their local market), gets the backing of the government in any action against the policy it could quickly develop legs. They may not even need to launch an expensive lawsuit themselves if the government creates a New West Partnership complaint.

But before people get too far ahead of themselves and declare the policy illegal (and I have seen lots of that in recent days) we need to remember the grant that supposedly offends all of these sensibilities hasn’t even been released yet. We don’t know what it will look like. That is likely why the Saskatchewan Finance Minister was careful with his choice of words. We have no idea whether this will stand up in court.

Unlike the new phalanx of trade law experts that have emerged out of nowhere in recent days, I won’t pretend to know the outcome of all of this. I am but a humble beer writer and policy wonk.

Still, it is an interesting development. Stay tuned, folks, I predict there will be more before this is done.

[QUICK UPDATE – 4:00pm. Premier Notley has responded to Wall by saying ““I will not be lectured about any efforts that our government might take in the future in order to support our small brewers, our economic diversification, our workers and our industries”. This could get interesting.]

Black and White?

Photo courtesy of thebeerdiaries.tv

Photo courtesy of thebeerdiaries.tv

I am going to start this post by admitting I don’t buy it. Regular readers will know that I am a bit old school when it comes to beer styles and how to identify what a beer is. If you are not sure what I mean read here and here.

Craft breweries love to experiment with bending styles, combining features of two styles or pushing a style outside its traditional parameters. To accommodate their myriad experimentation, they have started to blend style names or add adjectives to a traditional style to reflect what they are up to.

Sometimes I am totally cool with it. White IPA is a perfect example of trying to describe what you are doing. And I have come to terms with Cascadian Dark Ale (although I still refuse to call it Black IPA). But other times I get get grumpy at the twisting involved. Just because you have made a big version of something doesn’t mean you should call it “Imperial”.

Which brings me to the topic of today’s rantings – which actually is supposed to be a beer review. White Stout. This hybrid moniker has floated around for a few years, but hasn’t really taken off like some other hybrids have. From the beginning I have been skeptical. Being inky black is a defining feature of Stout, so how can you have a white one?

However, I will admit up until recently I have not actually tried one, so my complaints were purely linguistic and semantic. Then an old friend brought me a care package from B.C. It included some of her favourite offerings from the Fraser Valley. Specifically she brought a bottle of Old Yale’s Yeti White Stout. It is available in Alberta but I never got around to trying it.

As she is a good friend and I am one never to spurn new beer, I gave it a try.

It pours light gold and build a dense, pockmarked white head – very stout-like actually (except for the colour). The light gold immediately makes me ponder that at the very minimum they should be calling this hybrid Golden or Blonde Stout, as it is definitely not white.

The aroma gives off coffee, dark chocolate, touches of grainy malt and a soft fruit lingering in background. The coffee character gives me hope, but I remain unmoved as to the name.

The front of the sip is grainy malt, some toffee, light fruit and a hint of chocolate. In the middle I start to pick up bready notes and a bit of smokiness. Only after that does a sharp coffee roast kick in. The back end allows a light touch of earthy hops to emerge, but strictly in a back up role. The linger has a harsh coffee character reminding of getting a bit of grounds in your sip of coffee. It also has a slight alcohol vapour floating in the reminants (likely because the beer clocks in at 8% alcohol). The body is big rather than a stout-like full.

If I put my biases about the name aside, I find the beer to have an interesting mix of flavours. It comes across as a kind of smoky coffee ale. That said the roast, especially in the linger, is a bit too harsh and distracts from the beer’s finish. As well, I would  have liked more chocolate in the flavour to balance the roast and to give it more of a stout-like character overall. A real stout would be fuller but more importantly smoother.

Sell this to me as a coffee blonde ale or some such and I am sold. It is not perfect but an interesting quaff. The problem is when you stick the word stout in the title you change my expectations. Suddenly I am looking for those qualities that define a stout – full body, light roast mixed with chocolate and dark fruits, and a smooth, malty and roasty finish.

This beer doesn’t have that. Maybe there are so-called white stouts that do. But at the moment I remain unconvinced that white stout is a thing.

 

B.C., Sask Brewers Howl Over Mark-Up Changes

scalesofjusticeCould another court challenge be in the works? The day following the Alberta government’s announcement to scrap a tiered mark-up system and establish a grant program for Alberta-based breweries (read my analysis here), B.C. and Saskatchewan breweries have started complaining about the new policy, according to a Calgary Herald story released this morning (read it here). (Full disclosure – and obvious if you read the article – the reporter called me for comment as well.)

That representatives of breweries in the two provinces are complaining about the change is not surprising. Their business interests are being negatively affected and so, of course, they are opposed to the change. They are threatening increased prices, which is not only likely but, to be frank, the point of the policy. That wasn’t particularly noteworthy for me.

It was this quote that caught my attention: “It would be offside in two areas: the New West Partnership agreement, and also I believe with the Constitution Act”. these words come from Michael Micovcin, CEO of Saskatoon’s Great Western Brewing.

After the last fall’s changes which restricted lower mark-ups to breweries in Alberta, B.C. and Saskatchewan (read here ), Toronto’s Steam Whistle launched a lawsuit arguing the rules were unconstitutional as barriers to internal trade (read here). This week’s changes were, in part, aimed to address Steam Whistle’s complaint.

That Great Western is already sabre rattling around the same issues make me wonder if they might be planning a similar lawsuit? I have not spoken with anyone from GWB, nor if I did would I expect them to tell me their plans. I imagine that less than 48 hours after the announcement they don’t even know yet. But that is the kind of the language that can often be a precursor to a lawsuit, and it got my spidey-senses tingling.

I suspect this issue will not go away anytime soon for the government. Which, I guess, is what they were desperately hoping would happen.

My opinion – and be clear I am not a lawyer – is that two key things make this issue different than the Steam Whistle case (of which there was no certainty would win, by the way). First, the whole purpose of removing the tiered mark-up was to ensure that every brewery has the same rate apply to their beer, regardless of where they brew it. Equal treatment: a key principle in free trade deals. There are no restrictions (in my understanding) to governments offering subsidies or grants to local companies to promote their development. Ontario does it all the time for its brewers. It is a much harder legal argument to claim that Alberta is somehow restricting internal trade under this policy than under the old one.

Second – and more importantly for me – any attempt to somehow claim that a government grant is a trade barrier leaves the complainants vulnerable to a counter argument. If offering direct financial support to local breweries is a trade barrier, what do we call policies that give government agencies the power to determine (and restrict) which beer are allowed to be sold in the province? Or policies that give preferential treatment on store shelves to local products?

Liquor Board import controls directly restrict which beer can enter their market. To my eye, that is a more direct violation of internal trade than a province with an open border but a policy of offering grants to its breweries. Breweries in other provinces have grown in an environment that has restricted the degree of competition they must face. How would Ontario breweries have fared if they had to deal with the couple thousand import SKUs Alberta breweries have had to contend with?

To be clear, I am not particularly opposed to those policies; I believe governments have a role to play in fostering and developing a local beer industry. What is starting to really bug me, as we enter round two of this debate, is the hypocrisy of accusing Alberta of being “protectionist” when it is the most open province in the country in terms of imports. Breweries that benefit from significant barriers erected by their own governments should be very, very careful what action they take. They may open a can of worms they will come to regret.

In particular in the shadow of the New Brunswick court challenge, which could throw provincial border controls into chaos.

I fully suspect we have not heard the last of this. I will keep you posted.

 

 

Alberta Re-Vamps Mark-Up Policy Again

aglc-logoYesterday afternoon the Alberta government put out a short media release regarding a change to the beer mark-up policy. I will quote it in its entirety:

“The President of Treasury Board and Minister of Finance, Joe Ceci, has directed the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission board to set the beer markup to $1.25/L, regardless of the size of the company or location of production. The markup takes effect August 5. The change applies to beer only. In the coming weeks, a grant for Alberta-based small brewers will be provided to support the development of the industry, while supporting local entrepreneurship and investment. More information on this grant will be available soon”

Many of the early news reports (at least those that didn’t talk to me) are getting the wrong end of the stick so far, but I can understand why. Many reports are suggesting the government is backtracking on its two-tier mark-up implemented last fall. This is likely due to the media release itself, which emphasizes that aspect and only briefly mentions the grant for Alberta brewers.

The grant, however, is the lynch pin in this policy.

Last fall the government implemented a new policy which offered lower mark ups to small breweries in Alberta, B.C. and Saskatchewan while the full $1.25 per litre rate applied to beer originating elsewhere, regardless of brewery size. For a more detailed analysis of that policy read my post here. The inclusion of B.C. and Saskatchewan was due to Alberta’s participation in the New West Partnership trade deal.

The new policy caused howls of outrage from importers in the province and sparked a lawsuit from Toronto’s Steam Whistle Brewing (read here). One of the effects of the policy was an influx of beer at discounted prices from B.C. (read here).

Yesterday’s announcement eliminates any graduated mark-up for beer. All beer sold in the province will be subject to the $1.25/litre mark-up, no matter where the beer is made or how small the brewery is. At first blush this may seem a bad thing for Alberta breweries, most of whom go from the lowest rate of 10 cents/litre – a 1250% increase.

But you need to read the line that says “a grant for Alberta-based small brewers will be provided”. The media release is woefully short of details – which I think is an unfortunate media strategy mistake on the government’s part – but it makes all the difference. I have heard from various sources that the goal of the grant is to make Alberta breweries whole from the increase. They will get a grant equivalent to the difference between what their old mark-up was and the new rate.

The reason it was not announced yesterday is they are still working out important details like how often payments will come and how to calculate the amount. My guess for why they rushed the announcement this week is to get ahead of the scheduled hearing on Steam Whistle’s lawsuit next week. The new policy essentially makes that lawsuit moot. There is no trade infringement if the same mark-up applies to every brewery.

Plus, grants to local producers are not unique in Canada. Ontario offers millions in development grants to their craft breweries each year. Nothing unconstitutional there.

So what does this new policy mean? My take is that this is a net gain for Alberta-based breweries. While the arrangement is a bit convoluted they will end up in the same spot they are now. Their mark-up goes up meaning they have to choose between keeping their prices the same and thus lowering their margins but getting the cash flow back after, or they opt to increase their prices, lose the competitive advantage but getting some money back to make up for it. My guess is most (if not all) pick the first strategy as it makes the most business sense.

For most imported beer, the announcement changes nothing. Since last fall they have been dealing with a $1.25 mark-up and so nothing changes for them. B.C. and Saskatchewan breweries are the losers in this picture, as they now find themselves in the same boat as Ontario or Nova Scotia or California breweries. Whether this is good or bad depends on your perspective, but it is likely to bring an end to B.C. breweries’ practice of shipping low-priced beer to Alberta with the purpose of gaining market share. Saskatchewan didn’t really participate in this strategy, so it will have less impact on them.

What is the likely outcome of all this? The fall mark-up policy resulted in Continue reading Alberta Re-Vamps Mark-Up Policy Again

Annex Ales About to Take Centre Stage

annex logoWhen you are an established brewery one of the things you have to get used to is your highly skilled brewers leaving you to go start their own project. That is something Village Brewing is dealing with these days as they watch Andrew Bullied, their brewer of 4 years, kickstart his own operation.

He calls it Annex Ale Project (their Twitter handle is @annexales – now that I do that!). And he is one of an increasing number of new breweries on the cusp of opening in Calgary in the coming months. And, despite the name, he has no intentions of being an afterthought add-on to the Calgary craft beer scene.

Annex is the brainchild of Bullied and his partner Erica O’Gorman, who is Head Chef at Village Ice Cream, an artisanal craft ice cream producer (no connection with Village Brewing). Bullied and O’Gorman are excited by what they see going on in Calgary’s beer scene. They thought the time was right to launch their own take on a brewery in Alberta’s largest city.

“We are seeing a lot of new breweries open up in Calgary using the same model,” says Bullied. “A larger production facility making more approachable beer. It is a great model for Calgary”. While Bullied is excited for all the new breweries and wishes them well he wants to distinguish his project a little bit. “We haven’t seen people push the model that much further. What we are trying to do is help mature the market a little.”

He plans on going a little smaller scale, but not so small as to be a nano. He is building a 10HL system with three 20HL fermenters and two 10HL fermenters – a mix of volume and flexibility. He wants to do what he calls the “Pacific Northweat Butcher Shop Model”, which is small, locally-focussed, emphasizing quality and on-site sales to locals.

“We will have a rotating tap list. Not many core brands, but we want to turnover six beer all the time” says Bullied. In fact, he plans only two mainstays and everything else will be seasonals, rotationals and one-offs. “We plan on releasing a new beer every month. People can come and get their growler fills. We will do 750ml bottles of our core brands plus keg sales”.

At the moment the two core brands will be and Extra Pale Ale (XPA) and a North American Bitter. He sees the XPA as being a deviation from North American Pale ales. “It will be a North American Style English bitter. It will have all the nuttiness, caramel you expect with the  English bitter balance, but with a big North American nose to compliment malt profile”. He sees is as taking off from Nova Scotia’s Propeller Bitter, of which he is a huge fan.

As for the Bitter, “it will light malt profile, west coast character, but not a huge bitterness. Instead it will have a gigantic hop aroma. It will be approachable and appealing to hop heads. I want something stylistically we haven’t seen before”. [Edited to correct style – Bullied indicates he is not brewing an IPA.]

In addition to beer, they also plan on producing a craft, non-alcoholic root beer – a first for Calgary. For Bullied it seemed a natural link between the partners occupations. “It is an odd way to start a brewery,” he says, but he feels local, artisanal root beer has potential.

The root beer is actually due out any day. It was produced a few weeks ago (at Banded Peak) and the plan is to release it in early July. Bullied was surprised how hard designing an authentic root beer recipe was. “What is interesting is I have been workig on doing it from scratch. It was far more difficult to figure out than any beer I have ever brewed”.

With the release of the root beer, Bullied hopes they will enter the next phase of the project. They are close to securing a lease on a space not very far from Continue reading Annex Ales About to Take Centre Stage

In Search of … The Secret Alberta Brewer

cochrane red deer 017A few weeks ago as part of my efforts to get caught up on all the new Alberta breweries opening (as I report here), I asked the AGLC for a list of the existing active licenses. Mostly, I wasn’t surprised by who was on there as if they are selling beer in the province I am pretty confident I know about it.

But there was one brewery that I had no clue about. And as I asked around in the days that followed, most of the people in the industry had no clue either (although I must acknowledge a couple did know about them). The only info I could find was a street address and a phone number. Messages to the number were left unanswered. I was frustrated.

So, when I embarked on my three-day brewery tour this week, I added the brewery to my possible stops, even if I hadn’t connected with the brewery at all. It was worth a shot, I figured.

What brewery am I speaking of? (I will keep you in suspense no longer) King of Springs Brewing in Didsbury, of all places. (No website, as I mentioned). As near as I can tell they have been open since early in 2016. But before today that is all I knew.

So after visiting Half Hitch Brewing in Cochrane in the morning, and on my way to Blindman in Lacombe, I made a stop in Didsbury. The brewery is right downtown in an small retail space on the main street. Alas, it was closed up when I got there. A sign indicated it was only open to the public on Friday and Saturday afternoons. Knocking on the door and peering in the door offered little. I couldn’t see in well enough to get a gander at the brewhouse.

So, I popped in next door, which happened to be a liquor store. They knew very little about the brewery and didn’t carry their beer. I got a few snippets of info, but nothing that helped get me closer to finding the owner.

However, a sign on the brewery door indicated their beer could be purchased at a different liquor store across town. I headed there. Indeed, at the back of the well-laid out store was a refrigerator stocked with pre-filled howlers and growlers of King of Springs beer. Six different styles, ranging from a pale lager and cream ale to brown ale to pilsner to IPA.

I spoke with the store manager who knew a little more. She knew the brewery had been operating for “a couple months” and at first tried to sell their beer directly out of the brewery. However, the owner – she said he is an engineering working in Calgary – couldn’t balance day job and brewery and so has contracted to this store to sell his product. She said he delivers beer to the store in the evening and she thinks he brews on evenings and weekends.

All she had for me is a first name and an alternative phone number (which I haven’t tried yet since I have been traveling, but will soon). She also told me she didn’t think he lived in Didsbury but opined he might live in the region somewhere.

cochrane red deer 019As a last bit of intel, she indicated that “his beer have been our best sellers” over the past few weeks. She says the locals are happy to embrace a local brewery they can call their own. Price might also be a factor. The 1-litre howlers go for $4 and the growlers $8, with a lowly $1 deposit on the bottles.

I picked up a couple howlers. I intentionally have not yet tried them so that this post could be exclusively about my search for the brewery, rather than a debate about the beer.

I know there are people in the province who have heard of King of Springs, and likely some who have tried the beer and maybe even met the owner. I am told they made an appearance at the Calgary Beer Festival a couple months back so awareness may be higher in southern Alberta (although most people I spoke with down there during my trip didn’t know about them).

That some people know (and I didn’t) doesn’t change the strange curiousity of this story. Most new breweries want as much attention as they can get. When do you ever see a brewery that actively eschews it? I continue to be intrigued by the man behind this small operation in an unlikely town. I will continue to make efforts to reach him and talk with him about the brewery, his story and why he picked Didsbury.

And rest, assured loyal readers, once I do connect with him and finally solve the mystery, I will be sure to let you know.

A Tale of Two Breweries

Lethbridge 039I am on a three-day mission to hit some of the new breweries around the province that I don’t normally get to visit given my grounding in Edmonton. The stop on day 1? Lethbridge!

One city but a tale of two very, very different breweries.

My first stop in town was with new nanobrewery [Theoretically] Brewing (the brackets are part of the name, I learned today). This small brewery opened in November and has been quietly creating beer for beer aficionados in this southern Alberta city.

I was impressed by their DIY approach and grounded local ethic. The brewhouse – a small 5-HL system – is a marvel of ingenuity. Specially designed for them, it reminds me more of a homebrew system than a commercial brewery. The mash tun has a sieve that is inserted to hold the grain and removed by a hoist to assist shoveling the spent grain. Their chiller consists of a big bucket of ice water with a copper coil. All bottling is done exclusively by hand. There is no question this is a low-tech operation.

The beer – all of which is conditioned in the bottle/keg – has a distinct British influence. Their Frequency Hopper IPA is clearly an English-style IPA and their Publish or Perish Porter (my favourite beer name in a while – which is the academic in me coming out) is a sharp and tangy version of the style. They also have an American Wheat, a Hefeweizen, an Amber and an Irish Red Ale on the go at the moment.

Theoretically's removable mash basket.

Theoretically’s removable mash basket.

I am impressed at how lean the operation is – it is just Kelti Boissonneault and Kris Fischer plus a part-time worker to help on bottling days. These days Kelti does most of the work, as Kris is still engaged with his UofL job. They find creative ways to make things work, including a modified freezer for their keg system and a decision to create interesting events linking their beer and other cultural activities, including yoga and beer nights, beer and movie nights and other special events.

My favourite DIY story from [Theoretically] is that Kris has included his beer in the lab assignments for his science students. He gets them to test the beer, measure the alcohol level and evaluate the micro-organisms in the beer. A great form of outsourcing.

In contrast, Coulee Brewing, my second stop of the day, is a large, highly professional operation. The brewery is very shiny and very, very expensive. Custom built for the new brewery, it reminded me of a commercial operation than a small microbrewery. The brewhouse isn’t actually all that large at 30 BBL and they only have a half dozen fermenters at the moment. But it is in a spacious, well-designed building that shares a 200-seat restaurant. First driving up to the building was kind of awing. The size is impressive and unexpected.

Lethbridge 025I can say unequivocally that Coulee has left far behind its questionable origins as a contract brewer (when it went as Wildcraft). The brewery is being run by a very experienced American craft brewmaster and a former brewer at Alley Kat. They know what they are doing.

The beer are, for the moment, designed for the Lethbridge market, emphasizing accessibility, but they are undoubtedly clean, well-brewed and possessing lots of potential. The IPA is a real American-style version with solid west coast varieties, the amber has a nice toastiness to it and the brown offers an attractive nuttiness.

Given how much capital the owners have sunk into the place (we are easily talking seven figures here), I suspect we will see their beer across the province sooner rather than later. The brewers tell me they will begin canning next week, marking the next step in their development.

The contrast of the two visits was quite stark for me. I find it fascinating that a mid-sized city with little craft beer history has found a way to support to very different types of breweries. Both are in their early days, I appreciate, but together they represent a very encouraging shift in the Alberta beer scene.

More on the rest of my trip in the coming days (I am not going to promise daily posts – so you just have to wait or check out my twitter tweets).

Beer Myths, Beer Trends and More

Image courtesy of Vue Weekly

Image courtesy of Vue Weekly

I always like the end of June. In part because that is Vue Weekly’s annual Beer Issue. Sure, I like the fact that the issue gives me a fair bit of column inches (usually I write 3 different pieces), but mostly I appreciate that a local paper is committing an issue to the subject of beer. Wouldn’t it be great if every magazine did that?

Anyway, the 2016 edition hit racks last Thursday, just in time for Canada Day. (Yes, I know I tweeted about this already, so for those of you following @ABbeerguy this is not news. I am still figuring out cross-promotion with this new, ultra-modern beerguy persona.) As usual I penned three pieces for the issue, including the cover feature.

The cover talks about the burgeoning Alberta craft beer boom (read it here). It uses the same stats as the post I did here a couple weeks ago, but offers a slightly different angle on the issue. But I figure the story bears repeating. Finally, after all these years, Alberta is catching the local craft beer wave. They are exciting, heady times we live in.

The second article looks at some of the trends in the craft beer world (read it here). In particular, I highlight the rather swift rise of Kettle Sour in this neck of the woods as well as the equally rapid shift to cans for craft brewery packaging. Of the former, I am intrigued that breweries think there is a space for the unusual flavours of a sour beer, and early indications seem to suggest they are right. Cans are a mixed bag for me – I can be very old school – but there is no denying it is the wave at the moment. The piece also briefly highlights the second generation of gluten-free beer which are far superior to their cousins of a few years ago.

Likely the most newsy of the trends I identify is the sessionification of styles. For years we have been subjected to Imperialized versions of classic styles. Imperial Stouts and IPAs make complete sense, but recently we have seen Imperial Reds, Browns and even Weizens and Pilsners. Some are quite successful and are rather enticing. Others not so much. At any rate, we are accustomed to ramped up versions of styles.

More recently, however, I am noticing a desire to get smaller. It started with Session IPAs, (a moniker I still struggle with), but more recently we are seeing more styles getting the lower-alcohol treatment, including pale ales and stouts. Taking a broad perspective I suspect this is a good thing – all the flavour with less alcohol (tastes great, less filling?!?). But just as with Imperials, I often wonder if some styles are not suited for sessionizing. What is a session pale ale, other than a bitter? Is a session brown really a mild in disguise? And when does a session pilsner just become a light beer?

Likely I am just (as usual) being an old fuddy-duddy, but I do wonder about how much we can twist and turn classic styles to meet the latest thing. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think breweries should stop experimenting in this way. Innovation is good. I just quibble with the naming regime.

The final piece in the series is more playful. I take a quick look at some of the more common beer myths that seem to circulate incessantly (read here). For the knowledgable readers of this site, you have long recognized the silliness behind some of the claims. But I think, for all the light-heartedness of the piece, it is actually an important bit of information to put out to the general public. I cannot tell you how many times I hear that Sapporo is gluten-free or that cans create a metallic taste in beer. Worse, the whole “breweries are putting chemicals in their beer” seems to be a perpetual motion machine. I am no friend of the corporate brewers in general, but I can state quite certainly they are not putting anti-freeze in their beer. And fish gills? Good, old fashioned isinglass, people.

Anyway, that is Vue Weekly’s beer issue 2016. I hope you enjoy the reading. And if you do, send the editors a note saying you want more of this kind of content. How about a semi-annual Beer Issue. Music to my ears, at least.