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Craft Pints in Fort Mac

wood buffalo brewingWork found me in Fort McMurray last week (does anyone go to McMurray for reasons other than work?). In a fortuitous turn of events, the Wood Buffalo brewpub was a block away from my hotel. I had planned a visit to the pub, but had not planned being so close. I was able to pop in one evening for dinner and also a quick visit with Head Brewer Kyle Smythe.

Wood Buffalo is, of course, part of the growing Bear Hill brewpub chain (which includes Jasper, Banff Avenue and the impending Last Best in Calgary). The pub is situated in a non-descript office building on one end of the city’s main downtown street, like so many things in Fort McMurray seem to be. Inside it offers a casual, low-key atmosphere and the client base was noticeably youngish.

The beer is similar to the offerings in the other locations. There are five regular taps. Gold Digger Golden Ale is a simple blonde ale, offering a light grainy malt aroma and a fresh, sharp flavour. The Wood Buffalo Pale Ale is on the lower end of the bitterness scale for pale ales but has a really pleasant malt character. I picked up some toastiness, biscuit with a light fruitiness to accent. The hops give off a spicy note. Overtime IPA is similar; nice malt flavour as well as a floral, resiny hop aroma, with subdued bitterness levels. The Black Gold Stout accents light roast, chocolate, some coffee, and a demerara sugar sweetness. I was hoping for a bit more body and thickness in the stout, but the flavours are in the zone. The Lift Kit Lager was sold out the evening I was there, but it appears to be an all-malt pale lager.

There were also two seasonals on at the moment. The first, a raspberry wheat ale, is, as you would expect, nothing to write home about but I am told it sells well. However, the surprise for me was the Northern Light Lager. Running at 3.8%, I wasn’t expecting much from this straw-coloured lager. However, I found it has a clean  honey and grassy malt profile with a nice balance between sweetness and grainy sharpness. Not much hopping, but not overly sweet. The beer had a delicate flavour with a subtle but noticeable body. I was impressed how much flavour they were able to put into a basic low-alcohol pale lager. It is a nice example of how beer doesn’t have to be big to be flavourful. Nicely done.

From my visit with Kyle, it is clear Bear Hill is a company on the go. Along with Calgary there are plans afoot for a Grande Prairie location at some point in the next couple of years. The Wood Buffalo location, as the only craft-oriented place in town, is booming much like the city around it. Bear Hill is also actively moving into craft distillation. A distiller became operational in the Fort Mac location a couple months ago – the first batch is sitting in barrels and they have plans for some beer schnapps. The Calgary location will also distill, as might Banff down the road.

The Wood Buffalo distilling operation is small, producing only 250 litres at a time. So this will be localized, boutique items. Kyle says they are not quite sure what direction they want to go with the distillation, as they are still getting used to the system and playing around with ideas.

It is interesting to me seeing the growth in this company. I remember having a beer with Brett Ireland, one of the founders, shortly after Jasper Brewing opened, just a few short years ago. Today they are beginning to rival Brewsters for the number of locations in Alberta. (They already have more breweries, as Brewsters has concentrated its brewing in two locations). I am curious where this heads over the next few years.

2 comments to Craft Pints in Fort Mac

  • Wes Bray

    Jason, any info on the plans for a brewery in Grande Prairie? We are crying out for a brewery up here!

    • beerguy

      Wes, as I mention in the post, Bear Hill is working on a Grande Prairie location. Other than that I have not heard anything. It will come, I trust. It might take a few years, but someone will figure out a way to serve the GP market with craft beer. Cheers. Jason

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