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Gypsy Brewers Coming to Alberta?

The world’s most famous itinerant brewer, Mikkel Borg Bjergsø of Mikkeller. Photo courtesy Sydney Morning Herald.

Last Friday I decided to focus my attention in my CBC column on something that might, just might, become a thing in Alberta in 2017. Namely that the oil province may pick up on an international trend that has, so far, mostly eluded Canada. I speak of Gypsy Brewers. (You can listen to the column in its entirety here.)

Or at least that is the common name. I struggle a bit with the cultural insensitivity of the label – the Roma (the group to which we normally apply the term) have long faced discrimination and stereotypes in Europe for their nomadic lifestyle. The term “gypped” is a derogatory reference to the Roma. The term “Itinerant Brewer” would be more appropriate. Alas, the term gypsy brewer has stuck.

In short an itinerant brewer is a brewer who, rather than build their own brewery, arranges to have their beer brewed at a variety of breweries around the region, or even the globe. They avoid all the upfront capital and sunk costs of operating a brewery and, therefore, be more experimental and edgy. Itinerant brewers are a sub-set of contracting brewing, a long tradition of paying another brewery to produce beer rather than constructing their own brewery (or while waiting for its construction). The difference is that contract brewers usually stick with a single brewery, while itinerant brewers intentionally move around. Itinerant brewers also usually eschew the idea of a bricks-and-mortar brewery as part of their business plan.

Itinerant brewing has its origins – curiously – in Scandinavia. The first and most famous itinerant brewers come from that region. Danish brewer Mikkeller would be the highest profile, but there is also To Øl and Sweden’s Omnipollo. The trend has spread to the U.S. with noted itinerant brewers Evil Twin (interesting owned by the twin brother of Mikkeller’s owner), Pretty Things and Stillwater.

Western Canada has not been a region available for an itinerant brewer. There simply have not been enough breweries operating with sufficient capacity to accommodate such a business model. There have been contract brewers from time to time, but the model employed has been more a temporary arrangement while building their own brewery. We simply lacked the infrastructure to accommodate such a model. Plus Canada’s range of complex provincial beer production laws make travelling to breweries across provinces notoriously difficult.

Is Elbeck Alberta’s first itinerant brewer?

However, I suggest (possibly prematurely) that conditions might be evolving to allow for the possibiilty of an itinerant brewer in Alberta. A slew of new breweries have opened up in the past 18 months (there are now 43 independently operated breweries in the province, with more to come). Many of those breweries are running full tilt to keep up, but others have excess capacity (for a variety of reasons). It opens the door to a more itinerant approach to the contract brewing arrangement.

In fact Alberta has one, possibly two and maybe more itinerant breweries operating or soon-to-be operation. The lack of precision is that, especially in these early days, the boundary between a contract brewer and an itinerant brewer is quite fuzzy. The one self-proclaimed itinerant brewery is the soon-to-be Elbeck Brews (which I recently profiled here) based in Edmonton. Owner Bruce Sample intends on brewing different beer at different breweries over the next year or two. He does have longer term plans for a brewery, but he is content to brew this way for a while and see how things go.

Down in Calgary Outcast Brewing recent shipped its first batches to thirsty drinkers. Patrick Schnarr’s plan doesn’t quite fit the itinerant bill, but comes close. His brewery plans, for the moment, are tentative – he mostly wants to see how this project goes. Currently he is brewing exclusively at Cold Garden (with his own fermenter), but given Cold Garden is recent start-up, it is hard to know how long they will have capacity to accommodate him.

Others say that Brauerei Fahr and Six Corners Brew Works might also fit the bill, as both have contracted to different breweries at different times. However, to my mind both are actively pursuing the construction of their own brewery and may better fit into the category of temporary contract brewing.

I appreciate it is a fine line, and I could be wrong, but I really believe that with the extra capacity that will undoubtedly appear across Alberta breweries, some other enterprising brewer without capital will realize this is a workable model these days.

At least that is my thinking on it for the moment.

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