Most 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 and 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 much of their effort is selling their product in cans. “Medicine Hat is not a draft-y place. Lots prefer cans”, says Patriquin. Cans also work for nearby Suffield, home to a Canadian Forces Base that “for obvious reasons” Patriquin quips, “doesn’t use bottles”. That said, Patriquin says the growler and crowler ( 32-oz cans) sales out of the tap room have exceeded expectations. “It is stunning the volume moving out of the tap room”.
Original plans envisioned some limited distribution to Calgary and parts north. Due to the unexpected demand that has shifted, at least in the short term. “We won’t sacrifice local supply to expand distribution. We are turning down requests from the rest of Alberta right now”. Their commitment to supplying Medicine Hat is about honouring their local roots.
However, Alberta beer drinkers can take solace that they are not closed to wider distribution once production capacity can handle it. “We will let the business grow organically.” Patriquin acknowledges they are emulating the model being pursued by central Alberta brewers Blindman and Trouble Monk, which is about serving local markets first and moving out as supply allows.
And what about that name? Simple, the founders wanted to give Hatters a sense of their own history. All of the beer are named after some noteworthy historical story in the area. For example, Polly’s Pale Ale commemorates a stagecoach driver (Frank Pollinger) famous in those parts for his cunning, wiliness and longevity.
As for the brewery name, anyone who lives in the area knows full well what it means. It comes from a Rudyard Kipling quote. Traveling through the region in 1907 he quipped – commenting on the area’s abundant natural gas fields – “This part of the country seems to have all hell for a basement, and the only trap door appears to in Medicine Hat”. So, what might seem on the surface to be a negative association is actually a matter of local pride around those parts. So the name seems natural.
Hell’s Basement will soon be joined by a second craft brewery, the third incarnation of Medicine Hat Brewing, but given the initial response to having a local brewery, I fully trust there will be room for both of them.