This past weekend at the Rocky Mountain Wine and Food Festival in Edmonton, Alberta’s newest brewery tapped its first keg of beer. Ribstone Creek Brewery has unlikely origins: its four founders are rural Albertans from the area around Edgerton, near Wainwright, with no background in beer. The four include a farmer, a lawyer, a municipal official, and an automotive technician. No beer cred there, but they felt a need to try something new that might both make some money and give their community something new and interesting. And so, on something of a fancy, they decided to start a brewery. But being serious business guys, this was no flight to nowhere. They amassed some capital, built a business plan and moved forward.
One of their big coups was to talk David Beardsell into taking a share of the company in exchange for brewing advice. For those of you who don’t know Beardsell, he is a long-time veteran of Canada’s craft beer scene. The founder of Bear Brewing in the early 1990s (which was since sold and closed) he has had a hand in many craft breweries over the past 30 years. His latest venture is the impressive Noble Pig Brewpub, which I wrote about here. According to the founders, they described the beer they wanted and Beardsell designed it.
For the moment the beer is contract-brewed at Yellowhead Brewing in Edmonton. But the owners plan to open their own brewery in a year or so. They report they have already purchased a brewhouse and are searching for a location to install it.
And what of the key question – the beer? I had a sample or two. They have produced a straightforward pale lager that reminds me of Mill Street Organic Lager and other basic entry beer. It is clearly all-malt but it keeps everything else at a low level. There is no noticeable hop presence, like Charlie Flint, nor a rich malty flavour, like Yellowhead. It is very clean and rather pleasant. It is a bit boring for a guy like me, but I have to admit it is well brewed. It is not offensive and can be a rather nice quencher in the right circumstances. Just don’t expect a classic beer.
Which is clearly what Ribstone is going for. Their first focus is rural Alberta – trying to get taps in small town bars by selling it as a local equivalent. A canning line will follow shortly after they set up their brewhouse. The next year is about building the brand and getting some core accounts, most of which will be outside any major centre.
There is some potential in this business plan. Small rural bars are largely ignored by the reps from the big boys, meaning they might be susceptible to the local product sales pitch. However, the pale lager segment of the market is VERY crowded, and we have seen many failures in recent years (see: Maverick, Kohler, Brecknock). To avoid that fate, two things need to happen. First, they need to make sure the beer is ALWAYS of high quality. It need not shiver my timbers but it needs to be clean, flavourful and more noticeable than the big boys. Second, they need to give beer drinkers in their target market a reason to pick them over their regular beer. Unfortunately in this area price is king. Which means, paradoxically, they need to keep the beer inexpensive, but need to find a way to do it without compromising quality.
Not an easy task. However, as local Alberta boys trying to build a beer brand in an area normally dominated by multi-national corporate brews, we should offer them our best wishes. I know I do. I will keep you posted on their progress.