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Good Beer Under the Radar at Undercurrent

Sylvan Lake is not seen as a craft beer hot spot, but that may soon change. Rumblings have it there are some things afoot in the central Alberta town located just west of Red Deer on the popular lake of the same name. Sylvan has long been a summer tourist destination, but with the downturn in the economy they have witnessed some hard times.

Maybe not the best time to open a brewery in town, but as it turns out in the coming months there will be not just one but two new craft breweries throwing open their doors to thirsty consumers. The first of the two is Undercurrent Brewing (they are first simply because I spoke to them first – the second brewery will be profiled in the coming days).

Until recently Undercurrent was definitely swimming under the radar. They have been working on this project for almost two years. Undercurrent is the husband and wife team of Bryan McHale and Kathryn Blair. Both are/were lawyers. Both had successful practices, first in Vancouver then in Calgary when they wanted to move closer to home to raise kids. But recently they decided they had enough of lawyering. “We decided we wanted to get out of the business and find something else”, says McHale in a recent interview.

“When we were in Vancouver we watched what was happening with beer and were very excited,” he says. “The mix of craft beer, food trucks and local culture was amazing.” When they returned to Alberta a few years ago they started to notice things were lagging behind Vancouver but looking up.  “We heard about things happening here. We said we gotta get on it, let’s do it.”

Their vision is a small operation focused on local. “Our inspiration is 33 Acres and Brassneck [in Vancouver],” McHale says. “A community-based brewery, close to a lot of traffic where people come in and sit and have a pint. We want it to have vibe.” The plan is to not package but only do growler fills and pints in the tasting room.

“We’ve been looking for 18 months for a good location,” says McHale. At first they searched in Calgary but quickly decided that market was getting quite full quite quickly. So they started looking at Sylvan Lake. Blair grew up in Eckville not far from there and so she knew the area well (McHale, for the record, grew up in Fort McMurray). Its mix of locals and tourism economy made it seem like the ideal place.

They finally found a spot on the main strip in Sylvan next to the lake. “We took over a former gas station at 50th and Lakeshore Drive – kitty corner to where waterslide used to be,” notes McHale. The location, they suggest, will help both with integrating with other businesses in town and capitalizing on the high summer traffic.  “We hope to take advantage of the tourist population by doing more of a tasting room focus,” he says. “We have no plans to go through Connect [Logistics warehouse]. It will be all from the tap.” Although he acknowledges they hope to sell a small portion to local restaurants and so forth.

The busy Sylvan Lake beach

Due to their plan, they are installing a very small brewhouse – 5 Barrels with five-10 Barrel fermenters, which they think is enough to keep the community supplied year round. While the couple have homebrewed they know enough to know they don’t know enough to brew commercially. They have brought in long-time Saskatchewan/Alberta brewer Dave Neilly to consult on the initial construction and recipe design and plan on hiring an Olds College graduate to become head brewer after start-up.

The initial beer plan includes four anchor beer but with a goal of an ongoing mixture of styles, “like what Dandy is doing in Calgary,” McHale notes. The first four beer include a California Common, West Coast IPA, Porter and Belgian Strong. They hope to have eight on tap at any time.

“Each beer is very different,” says McHale. “We want to offer real choice. We want something drinkable, but beer is very subjective. We want to have enough variation to let people try different styles. We want people to explore and learn more about beer.”

The name Undercurrent comes from their attitude about opening a brewery. “A lot of craft beer is about counterculture. There are the macros and the little guys,” observes McHale. “We worked ‘for the man’ as lawyers. We wanted to find something that fit better for us. Undercurrent is more the social meaning for us than the water meaning. There is something under the surface, something more meaningful. It just fit.”

The brewery is currently under construction and they have started their AGLC licensing process. Their hope is to have beer available sometime in November, but recognize lots of things can delay things at this stage.

Whether in November or early in the new year, Undercurrent if finally have to stop going under the radar and publicly tell the world they are open and serving beer. And won’t that be a great day for Sylvan Lake?

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