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From Bear to Beer: Polar Park to Open Later This Year

polar park logoIt’s not often when a brewery can pay homage to a local landmark. But Polar Park Brewing (no website yet) intends to do exactly that. Polar Park (originally called Alberta Game Farm) was an exotic animal destination. They housed a variety of species, from giraffes, camels, lions, cheetahs to pandas and polar bears, ultimately focusing on  cold climate species. Polar Park, the park, was the life passion of Al Oeming a wrestler and zoologist who opened it in the 1950s to feature rare animals for public viewing. The park closed in 1999 (and the animals shipped to other zoos and reserves) due to declining attendance and shifting attitudes regarding zoos.

Polar Park, the brewery, is the passion of Robert Oeming, Al’s grandson. The family still owns the 924 acre parcel of land, complete with now aging enclosures, buildings and equipment. Oeming admits his first idea was to open the brewery on the family land. “Our original plan was to re-purpose some of the enclosures to create the brewery”.

After discussions with other partners and industry people, they quickly abandoned the idea as not practical given the out-of-the-way location. So they kept the name and changed gears completely. The new plan is to head right to the heart of Edmonton’s most hopping area – Old Strathcona.

The old Bee Bell Bakery building.

The old Bee Bell Bakery building.

More specifically, the old Bee Bell Bakery on 80 Avenue and 104 Street. The three-story building has sat empty since the Bakery’s closure in 2013. Despite its high traffic location, Oeming is not thinking about any kind of brewpub or full service bar. “Our focus is retail sales. We will have a tap room where people can come, have a pint or a flight of our beer, have a pretzel and leave with a growler”. They don’t want the hassle of a full-service restaurant, but are open to partnering with a third party who might open up a place for food in the building.

The retail focus doesn’t mean they are not interested in attracting foot traffic. Oeming wants the decor to be open and attractive. “They will see the brewhouse as they walk in. There will be a circular bar around the brewhouse, a growler bar in the front. They will see growing vegetables, herbs, etc.”

The latter feature is a reflection of the company’s environmental values. “We are a conservation-first brewery, looking to give back to community, wildlife, wetlands, and marshlands”. They hope to use as many organic ingredients as possible and have partnered with an organic farm in the Okanagan who will grow many of the brewery’s flavour additives, including micro-greens and other curious additions. They also hope to use the Polar Park enclosures to create “vertical greenhouses” to grow other ingredients.

They are planning on turning the third floor into a special event space that people can rent, so in that respect they will be creating a gathering space in the brewery.

polarparkcansAs for the brewhouse it will be a 25 hectolitre system built in B.C. with six 30 HL fermenters. “We are working with what will fit in the building, but will also give us capacity” says Oeming.  They plan on three year-round beer in what Oeming calls the “Canadian Archipelago Series”. The flagship will be Man of the North White Ale, which Oeming describes as not being your usual white ale. The other two beer will be Arctic Fox Trot India Pale Ale and Raiders of the Lost Arctic Red Ale. Oeming’s head brewer is German-trained and so he anticipates the beer will be designed and brewed classically with an eye toward keeping all the elements in balance. They will package the beer in standard-size cans, much like many of the new entrants these days. Oeming chose cans “based on simple fact that you eliminate light and air pollution. Plus linings have come a long way”.

The three mainstays will be supplemented by “rotationals and seasonals available only at the brewery”, points out Oeming. In particular they hope to have fun with customer-suggested cask ales for brewery consumption. “We are looking to have people make their own recommendations of what should be in the weekly cask”.

At the moment they are running an Alberta BoostR campaign to try to raise some initial investment capital. They are looking for $12,000 in crowd-sourced funds. Funders will receive a range of benefits, depending on the size of their donation, ranging from ball caps to free growler fills to a custom keg offering.

Of course, there is the unavoidable question that Oeming is moving in less than three blocks from the soon-to-open Situation Brewing on Gateway Boulevard (see my profile here). How will the two start-ups interact? “We hope to work with Situation,” says Oeming noting that the two companies are taking very different approaches. “They are a brewpub where people come to enjoy good food and beer. I would like us to be a retail product first and foremost”, with the on-premise sales a secondary focus. In that regard, Oeming doesn’t see the two in competition with each other.

So, how long do we have to wait to try some Polar Park beer? Oeming is very aware of the pitfalls of predicting an opening date. “The City utility demands can be enough to push a brewery back a couple of months,” he observes, adding that there are many steps where things can go wrong. So Oeming is cautious with his prediction for when beer will be rolling off the canning line. “Ideally April 2016, but I have started saying we opening in 2016 in general. I have the brand, the location, things going. I don’t want to miss a milestone.”

While initial focus will be building a name in the Edmonton market, Oeming does see openings to expand. “I want to distribute provincially in three to four years time”. The brewhouse is big enough to support sales outside the Edmonton region.

Oeming’s grandfather had grand plans, big courage and the determination to make it happen. Who opens a wild game park in Alberta? Opening a brewery isn’t quite as daunting as running a game park, but it still requires just as much courage and determination to make it happen.


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