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The Dilemma that is Mill Street

I am in Calgary for a couple of days for some work stuff. As usual I am trying to find some time to do a little bit of beer stuff while I am here (hopefully more on that soon). Yesterday I dropped by the new Mill Street Brewpub that recently opened on 17 Ave SW.

There was no debate regarding whether I should give it a try or not – I feel quite strongly it is important to visit every new establishment at least once to get a sense of the place. It was after finishing my flight of in-house made beer that I started contemplating how I should view this new entrant to the Alberta beer scene. That contemplating, of course, led me to a broader reflection on Mill Street’s position in the Canadian craft beer world since its purchase by AB-Inbev, the world’s largest beer corporation.

But allow me to take a step back. The brewpub. I have now been to all of the Mill Street Brewpubs (Toronto, Ottawa, St. John’s, Calgary andย  Pearson Airport – the latter of which isn’t really a brewpub). Other than the St. John’s location, which is bizarrely sharing the space with beer hall chain Bier Markt creating a very disjointed experience, all of the pubs follow a similar approach. All are situated in an older building with some history attached to it. The Calgary pub is located in the 1920s era Costigan House (with a more modern annex).

The decor and atmosphere are fairly similar across locations as well. Lots of muted greys, brick and wood that create a subdued but relaxed ambience. The historic buildings are cool but I am left feeling like the interiors are a bit generic.

As for the beer, the Calgary pub had 24 on tap, split equally between brewery core brands and beer made on-site. One frustration was that I had to work too hard to determine which were which and finally requested that the server walk me through the list. This was important to me as I wanted to see what the local brewers were producing. My flight included the hefeweizen, the latest IPA, the double IPA and the Bock (which I interpret to be a Maibock).

I won’t review the individual beer here – suffice it to say they were cleanly brewed but uneven in terms of bringing out interesting flavours. Some were quite pleasant, while others had me hoping they had put a little more courage into the recipe. My overall impression was that the locally brewed beer didn’t seem all that different from Mill Street’s regular offerings or what I have sampled in other locations for that matter. That is not a criticism, per se, just more of an observation. I appreciate Calgary has only been open a short while and the brewers are likely still catching their feet on the system, but I was left with a niggling suspicion that some of that lack of distinctiveness across locations might be by design.

Judged in the context of a local brewpub, it offers me enough that I might drop by once in a while if in the area and the mood strikes me but it wouldn’t become a regular go-to place for me. Fair enough.

However, I don’t know if I can simply judge it in that context. Mill Street, for better or for worse, is now part of the largest beer empire in the world. I have not seen any evidence of the corporates meddling with the beer, at least not yet. But the consequences of their ownership sticks with me like a harsh astringency lingers across the roof of my mouth.

I find myself with two contradictory sets of expectations. Part of me expects more from them. With all the resources, money and expertise Mill Street can now tap into, shouldn’t the operation stand-out more? Shouldn’t the decor be a bit more original and the beer just that much more interesting? Isn’t that the point of selling into such a large company?

Then the other part of me can’t help but be a bit distrustful. With the locally owned Trolley 5 brewing beer just a few blocks away and a growing cadre of small local breweries peppering the Calgary scene I wonder if my money (and time) are better spent hanging out in places where I can get truly local beer? I know the Mill Street beer is brewed locally as well (or at least half the list) and the brewers are part of the Calgary beer scene, but they answer to an entire different set of interests than do the local brewers. And, for me at least, that makes a difference.

What makes my dilemma even harder is that over the years I have appreciated Mill Street. Their Tankhouse Ale is an excellent pale ale, and I have developed a great deal of respect for Brewmaster Joel Manning and some of the things he has tried to do (their Don Valley Bench a few years bac, which attempted to emulate an unoaked chardonnay was a masterstroke in brewing subtlety). Does the fact their paycheques now come from ABInbev change that? I don’t know.

What I do know is that my visit to the Calgary Mill Street was complicated. It stirred up many questions, most of which I don’t have easy answers for. And that, my friends, is the dilemma of Mill Street.

8 comments to The Dilemma that is Mill Street

  • Dan

    Next time you are here you should ask to sit down with Bennie for a bit and talk to him. Help clear your confusion about this. He is head brewer there that has a lot of ideas for the site.

    As well you usually can tell by the names which beers are which there. I actually got to try the stouts side by side there and I found the one that Bennie produced had a lot more flavor than the Mill St. Standard one.

    However, learning how Bennie did brewing there was a great experience too. Yes Trolley 5 is nearby and they put out some great beers, but they also did a collaboration with Bennie too.

    When you are new in the market you will play it safe, most places do, and IPA here a Pale Ale there, it comes down to what they can do differently to make their beers stand out from the others.

    If you want please check out my article about Mill St Calgary. My experience seemed a bit more different than yours when I actually sat down with the brewers and got to try their stuff and have a great conversation with them.

    As well, two of the brewers are from Paddock Wood (as I’m sure you know) so they do have the experience and the freedom to brew what they would like there.

    Cheers!

    • beerguy

      I agree. I usually do like to visit with the brewers – my schedule didn’t really permit it this time. That said, I sometimes find it useful to go “in cognito” and just experience a place as any average customer would.

      My difficulty with the source of the beer wasn’t the standard line up – I well reognize Tankhouse, Cobblestone, etc. – but there were a handful of one-offs from Toronto on tap. That was less clear (there is nowhere on the menu or the board where they clearly indicate which are brewed in Calgary). I also recognize I had 4 beer of the 12 on-site beer offered, so may have missed some of the gems. And don’t get me wrong, some were quite good and all cleanly, professionally brewed. I also fully recognize the brewers are part of the Calgary scene – but that doesn’t mean we ignore the broader context.

      Thanks for commenting!

      • Dan

        Yeah I never really got to see the menu… Bennie was nice enough to help me pick the ones he thought I would enjoy.. and I did! So I can see where you are coming from with that, I know that if they said it was brewed in Calgary it would sell a lot more too, so I can agree.

        The Broader content is such a grey line as well, with these brew pubs.. black and white is a lot harder to define. So I do see where you are coming from with this article.

        Thank you for posting it and bringing up a great debate that will be years in the making for sure in the Brewery world.

        Cheers

  • Dan That was a well written article for the average joe beer drinker. It was a thought provoking article and not advertising yet made a good point and something to think about. Thanks

  • KV

    I am not a ‘beer geek’ by any means. But I love trying new beers and reading stories about the beer scene …

    Anyway one of my fav beers is actually Mill St Stock Ale. I’ve always been hesitant to buy it often here in Calgary though. As I’ve had a few 6 packs that clearly were well past their prime. Not a popular beer I guess, so not much turnover.

    This discussion about the yyc brewery got me thinking … Are there any local beers that are comparable to Stock Ale?

    I’d rather buy fresh local beer ๐Ÿ™‚

    Personally haven’t been to the yyc location yet, but that’s because of lack of funds not a moral decision not to support a behemoth.

    Thanks!!!

    • Dan

      I’ve never had a Stock Ale before so I wouldn’t know. What local beers have you had to try? Maybe see if Big Rocks Traditional Ale is something you like?

      With so many breweries showing up now in AB it is tough to say. What flavors do you look for in the Ale?

      Cheers!

  • KV

    according to website stock ale is …

    A golden export-style ale
    This beer represents the way blonde ales were made 100 years ago.

    Hops Variety: US Nugget
    Malt Variety: Pale 2-row barley malt
    Yeast: American Ale

    Tasting Notes: A dusting of hops in the nose; light malt flavour in perfect balance with hop bitterness
    Appearance: Pale Gold with white head
    Aroma: Slightly sweet cereal/bread
    Body: Medium

    anything local sound close??

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