It has been quite a few years since I was last in Banff. I forget just how stunningly beautiful the mountain peaks are around the townsite. I don’t forget, however, how desperate the beer options were during my last visit about nine or 10 years back. I and a friend had just finished a Jasper-Banff bike trip and we were looking for a celebratory beer. The best we could find was a pint of Guinness at one of those faux authentic Irish pubs.
As life happens sometimes, I haven’t been back until this week when my day job landed me in the beauty of the Rockies for a couple days (hence my visit to Canmore Brewing – read here, and the “new” Grizzly Paw production brewery – story to come).
I also made the required visit to Banff Avenue Brewing (which wasn’t open yet on my last visit), part of the Bear Hill Brewpub group. That I hadn’t visited Banff Ave since its opening in 2010 kind of shocked me, but sometimes things work that way. Located on the main street (Banff Ave – get it?), it doesn’t have the best street frontage, being on the second floor of a wood building with an eclectic mix of businesses. But that is not uncommon in Banff, where commercial space is at a premium.
Once you climb the stairs and find the pub, your efforts are rewarded. While it did seem a bit dark, it has an comfortable, relaxed feel. The outdoor veranda (more accurate than patio in my mind) is a very nice highlight. The brewery space is impossibly small and cramped. General Manager Pete Grottenberg tells me the jaw dropping story of having to dismantle the outside wall – twice – to fit the brew equipment in (the second time is because the engineering firm calculated floor strength for the weight of EMPTY vessels – oops!).
The beer follow the same pattern as Bear Hills’ other small town brewpubs (Jasper and Wood Buffalo). The beer is accessible, clean and designed to create an entry point for a range of beer drinkers. They anchor with a blonde ale, an easy pale ale and a cream ale and stout, both on nitro. The Brewer’s Oar Cream Ale is really an ESB designed for nitrogen. I really like how the nitro creaminess accented the rich British malt flavours in the beer. I also appreciated their Lower Bankhead Black Pilsner (which is really a Schwarzbier) with a nice dark chocolate character. I will forgive them their loose style naming only because they do indicate the appropriate style in their menu descriptions.
While sipping on a pint during my visit, a customer told me about a brand new place in the basement of the same building that, they said, carried 48 taps. Skeptical (you can fill a lot of taps with corporate beer masquerading as craft), they assured me it was a good selection. So, after I finished up at Banff Ave, I walked down the stairs to High Rollers, which may be the most unique business model I have seen in a long time.
The bar’s tagline is “pins, pints and pizza” which is confusing until you walk into the place. One half of the restaurant is a six-lane ten-pin bowling alley. As for the pizza, that is likely self-explanatory. They only opened in January and so word is still working its way out about the place.
The tap list? Indeed 48 taps. I did a count and found 23 Alberta beer, 16 BC beer (including two ciders), five American craft offerings and only four corporate beer (two of which were Granville Island). Pretty impressive! They did have some corporate in the bottle, but I can understand that decision.
I did not partake in the bowling (being more of a five-pin man, good Canadian that I am), but stayed for a pint. The noise of the bowling was a bit distracting, but otherwise it was an interesting beer experience.
Banff now also has a craft distillery with a restaurant/tasting room on the main street, called Park Distillers. I didn’t have time to visit there, so can’t comment on it.
Overall, my beer time in banff this week was a huge step up from my last visit. Another signal that things are changing fast in the Alberta beer scene.