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Snake Lake Hopes to Slither into Consumers’ Hearts

A few days ago I told you about one of Sylvan Lake’s upcoming breweries (read here). Today it is the second brewery’s turn. Snake Lake Brewing.

Snake Lake is the original name of the town, after what the local indigenous peoples called the area due to the inordinate number of garter snakes found on the lake’s shores. “There were so many garter snakes around they had to lay planks down to get to beach,” says Snake Lake co-owner Adam Nachbaur. While they quickly realized the name lacked a certain appeal and so changed it to Sylvan Lake, the history of the name has stuck for locals.

Nachbaur and his co-founders, brothers Bill and Dean Beekman, are all from the area, spending much of their adult life in the region. Snake Lake Brewing in many ways is a product of the recent economic downturn. All are tradespeople. Nachbaur is a mechanic and commercial pilot. Bill is instrumentation technician while Dean is a rig hand who worked his way up in the industry.

The recent downturn led the three of them to contemplate other work. “We started looking for something different to do other than trades work,” says Nachbaur. “Originally we started out with the idea of a homebrewing equipment store, with a storefront in Sylvan and an online store,” he says. “It slowly snowballed into ‘why don’t we just join the trend and try opening a brewery’.”

This revelation was in February of 2017. The threesome have moved very quickly since. In short order they found a building they bought, located at the traffic circle on the edge of town. “It is the old NAPA building right on highway across from Tim Horton’s,” Nachbaur points out. Sounds good, no?

The busy Sylvan Lake beach

Construction on the site has been ongoing for weeks with the brewing equipment arriving any day. They are installing a 35-hl system with 8 35-hl fermentaters. With that size they know they need to grow outside the small town of Sylvan Lake. Their plans aren’t set yet but they hope to “go as far as we can go,” says Nachbaur. “We will easily outgrow Sylvan so will try to get into liquor stores and pubs in town, Red Deer and then down to Calgary.” Plans don’t yet include distributing through Connect Logistics.

The plan is 355-ml cans along with the usual keg and growler sales. The three owners are homebrewers but have decided to hire a professional brewer from B.C. to be their brewmaster. The initial vision for the beer reflects their tag line: “Hard Working, Easy Drinking”. Nachbaur suggest they aren’t “out to prove anything but make really good beer that are easy drinking.”

“In Sylvan Lake there are not a lot of craft drinkers,” Nachbaur suggests. “So we want an entry level craft beer that will get people in drinking beer and venture off after into different styles.” They plan to supplement the regular offerings with more adventurous styles to appeal to a more seasoned craft drinker.

“There will be four core beer, at least at first. The pilsner will be our flagship,” says Nachbaur. It will be accompanied by a porter, a red ale, a porter and an IPA “not super high on IBUs but will be a decent sized IPA.”

They also hope to give their brewmaster some room to experiment. “We want to give him some room to play, give him the reins to brew what he wants on our [60-litre] pilot system.”

The anchor of the business will be a 80-seat tap room with an equal sized patio to fit the summer tourist rush. It will also, the owners hope, anchor the brewery in the community. In five years they hope the brewery will be “a landmark in Sylvan, part of Sylvan and as well known as the [now closed] waterslide,” says Nachbaur. “We want to support the town. It is a cool way to be involved with such a wicked place, and that is where it will we hope it will go.”

As for Undercurrent Brewing, which I previewed a few days ago, they see them as a perfect complement. “We are building very different models. It is almost kind of cool. People can come to our brewery and  we will say check out Undercurrent while in town. And I suspect they will do the same,” says Nachbaur.

They are hoping to open their doors sometime in November, but are “okay with later” if that is what it takes.

Whether it is sooner or later, Alberta beer drinkers will soon be able to slither up to a pint from Snake Lake.

Edmonton Modernizes Brewery Zoning Laws

Late on Monday night Edmonton City Council passed bylaw changes that will make more city districts available for breweries (as well as wineries and distilleries). The bylaw roughly parallels (in intent, not language) a recent bylaw change in Calgary that appears to have helped nudge the exploding local beer scene down there (read here for details on Calgary).

Up until this week, officially breweries were only permitted to operate in industrial zones. This rule is a throwback to when the AGLC required all breweries have a minimum capacity of 5,000 HL, meaning they were relatively larger operations.

The consequence of this policy is that breweries were forced to open in areas where there is basically no foot traffic. Think about Alley Kat’s location for a minute. Some breweries, like Yellowhead and Situation, were able to finagle their way around the rules, but that was exhausting and, frankly, unbalanced.

Briefly, the new rules make breweries, distilleries and wineries a “discretionary” use in commercial zones, including Whyte Avenue (which has a moratorium on new bars). They limit the size of the public (non-brewing) space to 80 square metres (about 860 square feet), but will allow pints, food, off-sales and private function rooms. They can also have a patio if it doesn’t affect residential property. Residential zoning remains off-limits (understandably).

I want to pause briefly and explore the consequences of the decision. The City has decided not to make a brewery an accepted use in commercial zones, but instead a “discretionary” use. In the documents supporting the motion, the City officials say that classifying breweries as discretionary is “the recommended method for managing a complex use that can occur in a variety of sizes, zones and contexts, with as few regulations as possible. As a discretionary use, the Development Officer is able to apply policy and discretion, and avoids the need for complex rules to manage a variety of scenarios.”

While I do get what they are saying – every brewery application will be different, requiring a case-by-case approach – I do get a bit nervous leaving the approval process in the hands of the development officer. I am not touting some anti-government hysteria theory here. I just know how these things work. Every officer approaches their job differently. One officer might be fine with a particular application while a similar project could be denied by a different officer.

I don’t want to make too much of this. I trust over time officers will work out a common strategy for handling brewery applications, but there will be some early bumps and I am concerned for those first brave few who try to test out the new rules.

Don’t get me wrong. I think this is a smart approach to the issue. Better to allow flexible responses then bog everyone down with a long list of rigid rules. But no policy is perfect. Just pointing out the downsides.

Overall, I am thrilled this policy passed. It may seem like a small thing – zoning blah blah blah and all that – but I believe it is the municipal equivalent of the AGLC’s removal of the minimum capacity rule. It just opens up so many doors to people contemplating a brewery.

I could be wrong but I predict in the next two to three years, Edmonton will see a quick expansion of the number of breweries. That was starting to happen anyway, but this new policy will help accelerate the process.

Good job, City Council! Get cracking, aspiring brewery owners!

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?

Ale Spruced Up And Nowhere To Go But In My Glass

Grande Prairie’s Grain Bin Brewing is a small outfit (as I have explained here). Yet someone seems to be making an effort to try to get at least a few bottles of their product down to Edmonton, as it pops up once in a while at Sherbrooke Liquor (and maybe other places too).

A recent find was a bomber of their recent seasonal release Ale Spruced Up, an American Pale Ale flavoured with local spruce tips. While spruce beer is not exactly my favourite style (I generally find the balance is out of whack) the novelty of getting a rare Grain Bin beer made it a no-brainer. It sat in my cellar for a couple weeks or so (which means it might be sold out now. If so, sorry for posting this too late), but I did finally get around to cracking it last week.

It pours medium gold with a slight haze to it. It builds a big white head and leaves a fair bit of lacing on the side of the glass. Carbonation looks a little light. The aroma comes out with a soft pine note at first, followed by some spruce aroma, all backed by a honey malt accent and some light graininess. Not a bad start.

The front of the beer has an earthy, spruce/pine character along with some honey and light fruity esters. I immediately notice there is an interplay of pine and spruce going on. The middle brings in more hop flavours of citrus and pine, but with the spruce still lurking in the background. The linger is fresh spruce bough, pine, and a light grainy note. Bitterness level is moderate but present. My initial suspicions of the carbonation are borne out – it could have a bit more fizz to bring out some of the subtle flavours more.

My main impression of this beer is its balance. The spruce makes itself known throughout the taste but doesn’t take over the beer, leaving other qualities to shine as well. Spruceheads (is there such a thing?) will likely call for a bigger spruce character but, me, I prefer its more subdued approach.

I also suspect that the hop additions were intentional to draw out a pine character. I really appreciate the interplay between the spruce and the pine. Not only does it create an enticing tree-ness, the two combined offer a bit more complexity, allowing the beer to escape the risks of being a one-note wonder (which I find can happen with this style). For an American Pale Ale, it likely could do with a bigger bitterness impression, but that might come at the risk of throwing off this cool pine-spruce tension the beer has going on.

Just goes to show you that little gems that can be found in every corner of Alberta these days.

A nicely done beer.

Evidence of How the Beer World Has Changed

From This…

I was at a party this last weekend. Invited by a couple of close friends, but mostly an event where I didn’t know most people. You know what those kind of nights are like.

The evening was fine. I took a couple growlers of homebrew, which seemed to warm up a segment of the crowd. The people I talked to seemed very nice and I enjoyed myself.

But that is not why I am telling you this. I am writing this because I observed what beer every0ne was drinking.

This was a party of older, more established people who have known each other for decades (I can honestly say I was the youngest person in the room). The people I did know I classified in earlier years as Bud, Kokanee, Coors Light drinkers. They respected my beer knowledge but did not come along the ride with me. I was okay with that – I am not  into forcing people to drink something they don’t want to. I respect where people are at, beerwise.

That is what caught my attention this time. Sure there were a couple of Kokanee cans floating around, but they were dwarfed by a whole new breed of beer. Here is an incomplete list of what I saw: Alley Kat Full Moon, Blindman River Session Ale, Troubled Monk Open Road Brown Ale, Common Crown Coppersmith Brown. For good measure I also found some Newcastle Brown Ale and Pilsner Urquell.

For the beer aficionado, that list is likely nothing special. However for this crowd it was nothing less than revolutionary. These were beer that five years ago none of these people were drinking. In particular the fact that most were local Alberta beer is amazing.

… To This.

It tells me unequivocally that something is happening in the beer market. Yes, I know I have been saying that for a while and anyone watching the explosion of Alberta beer can see it. But, sometimes it takes a specific moment, a unique event to really force you to realize that the world has change.

That is what this party was for me. It was when I truly realized that the Alberta beer scene has changed. For many, local is now the default. But more importantly, local has infiltrated portions of the beer world that used to be closed to it.

I was  hanging out with a group of people who a couple of years ago were happy to get Kokanee at happy hour prices. But today they were, without reflection, happily consuming local craft beer. I even found that the couple of people who were drinking macro were apologetic (which might be a talking to the beer guy effect).

Local beer is for real. It is not going away. Get used to it.

What a nice thing to say. I am very thankful to the people at that party for showing me that the beer world is changing. Craft beer is on the rise, no matter what the big boys do to try to stop or infiltrate it. A wider range of consumers are finding local craft beer and, thankfully, enjoying it.

Look out world. Local craft beer is on a rampage! At least in this part of the world.

Origin’s Original Approach to Opening a Brewery

We all know the standard craft beer story. Longtime homebrewer (or professional brewer toiling for another brewery) has a vision of starting their own brewery. The pour their passion for beer into getting the new brewery off the ground and start making good beer for craft beer consumers, at either a smaller or larger scale.

That is not Kyle Geeraert’s story. He had a different passion and kind of stumbled into beer.

Geeraert is a member of a fifth generation farming family near Strathmore. They have been growing malting barley for forty years. “We were the first farmers to sign a barley contract outside the Canadian Wheat Board,” says Geeraert. “We signed with Lagunitas in 2012”. He indicates they have always had surplus barley after meeting their contractual obligations, and it was that surplus that got he and partner Josh Michaluk thinking about opening a malting operation.

“We had been talking about how to do more vertical integration on the farm,” says Geeraert. They about a year ago discovered Chris Anderson from Fargo Brewing in North Dakota who had created small-scale malting equipment. Suddenly the prospect of a craft malting operation was feasible. “We said let’s run with it!”. The result was Origin Malting (now Origin Malting and Brewing).

At that point their planning moved quickly. They found a building in Strathmore in March. At that point they realized the building was bigger than their malting needs. “The front addition, frankly, it was a waste of space”, says Geeraert. That recognition led to a moment of inspiration. “We realized it woull be cool to turn the space into a tap house and sell beer made from our malt”.

But Geeraert and Michaluk knew they weren’t beer guys, and so they brought in a friend, Nick Patterson, to be the head brewer. Patterson’s story is much more familiar to craft beer fans. After graduating he started working in transportation. “Night and day it was headache after headache. I got tired of doing the same job all the time,” says Patterson, who has been an avid homebrewer for a number of years. “I wanted to do something beer-related. I did a lot of reading and research into starting a brewery.”

Geeraert and Patterson played hockey together and Geeraert approached him about running the brewing side. “It just worked out. I can just brew the beer and they can worry about the other end of things”. In short order they located a six hectolitre brewhouse with four fermenters and six bright tanks and build up the brewery and tap room. They officially opened the brewery doors on August 4.

The goal of the brewery is small scale. They don’t plan any distribution outside the tap room and maybe a few accounts in Strathmore. “The goal is local, to do something different for the town,” says Geeraert. “In fact one of the reasons is to test and ensure quality of our malt”.

The tap room opened with four beer and now has eight on tap with a goal of having 12 different beer available at a time. They plan on being creative, to experiment and keep the offerings rotating. “We are starting off Continue reading Origin’s Original Approach to Opening a Brewery

Does Pale Ale have a Country?

Beer fans have long understood the world of the Pale Ale. On one hand there is British Pale Ale – sometimes known as Strong Bitter (or Extra Special Bitter, a name the BJCP has done away with) – which offers moderate bitterness and a classic caramel, toffee character. On the other there is American Pale Ale, drier and more assertively hopped with American hop varieties. Simple. Label your beer one or the other and people immediately know what to expect.

Then there is, of course, Belgian Pale Ale, recognized for its distinct spicy yeast character. Again, the Belgian adjective tells the drinker what they need to know about the beer.

But what are we to make of other country labels tacked on to the pale ale name?

I offer two cases in point. This summer Village Brewing in Calgary has released Village Neighbour, which they call a “Canadian Pale Ale”. At the same time new contract brewer Rapid Ascent Brew Company (formerly called Summit Brewing) has released cans of their inaugural beer, Finnigan’s Irish Pale Ale.

Both beer are decent. The Village Neighbour accents a citrusy hop flavour balanced with a biscuit, caramel malt base. The beer has a pleasant balance and, overall, less bitterness than an American Pale Ale. The beer seems to be twixt and between British and American versions – it has the malt profile and bitterness perception of a British pale, but distinctly American hop varieties.

The Finnigan’s Irish Pale Ale has a light,  honey malt and a noted fruitiness. It finishes fairly dry with a grassy hop flavour and only moderate bitterness. It seems to me the beer is tweaking a British Pale Ale with an Irish influence, making it a bit drier and softer in the mouthfeel.

While both beer are decent quaffs, I find myself uncertain what to do with the names. I can’t determine what they are telling me about the beer and what to expect.

To slip into style curmudgeon mode (on of my favourites states of being), I am uneasy with the quick application of a country or region to describe a beer. Existing regional identifications are anchored in history and tradition (e.g., Czech lager, Baltic Porter) or in distinctive brewing approaches (e.g., Belgian anything). More recently we have added “American” or “British” to distinguish between the two very different approaches taken by traditional British brewers and American craft brewers.

I don’t think any of these explanations can be applied to a Canadian or Irish Pale Ale. It may be that there is a strong link in Ireland to pale ale, but I am not familiar with it and it hasn’t yet emerged in the increasingly region-inclusive BJCP guidelines. And I am certain there is no such thing as a Canadian Pale Ale. (In the past I have criticized Great Western over this very moniker – read here.)

So why call it that?

Likely in both cases (and I haven’t spoken with either brewery about it) they are trying to signal to the customer that there is something different about their pale ale. And likely they are successful in that, given the profile of each beer does seem to align with their descriptions, sorta.

But to my mind that is insufficient reason to try to create a whole new style. To make a beer Canadian, it needs to be more than something of an American-British hybrid. Where is the link to history, unique Canadian approaches to brewing or some other distinctiveness?

The same questions can apply to the Irish descriptor as well.

I don’t intend to beat up on either brewery or to discourage you from trying the beer – both are enjoyable and flavourful – but I can’t help myself when I see beer styles being treated lightly. Something just sticks in my craw a bit – curmudgeon that I am.

I am particularly sensitive about pale ale because for years that name has been tossed about to describe a whole host of beer that have absolutely no links to the style. In many respects, at least for a while, pale ale was used as a generic term for “this beer has more flavour than Budweiser”, even if that flavour should not be found in a pale ale.

There is more than one way to signal to consumers what to expect in the beer. I would suggest brewers contemplating releasing their Canadian Stout or Alberta Dark Lager to ask themselves whether their beer has a true link to the region’s history, brewing techniques or tradition flavour profile. If the answer is no, I gently recommend you find a different way to name your beer. None of us get to just create a new style because it is clever. Style names mean something.

At least to me.

Now, I am going to go drink some Village and Rapid Ascent beer (just to prove I am not mad at them).



Beer at Farmers’ Markets: Small But Symbolic

This coming weekend will be the first where Alberta beer and spirits producers are eligible to hawk their wares at local farmers’ markets. The Alberta government announced the change a couple weeks back (when I was on holidays, damn them!), which came into effect officially on August 15 (read the government announcement here).

At the time of the announcement there were few regulatory details. I checked again this morning and the updated Gaming and Liquor Regulation was not yet posted, meaning I still don’t have answers on some of the niggly matters, such as whether growler pours will be allowed, size and number of samples allowed or other restrictions.

Regardless of those uncertainties, I wanted to comment on the general thrust of the new policy and what it might mean for brewers. Wineries (including meaderies) have been permitted in farmers’ markets for years and the double standard always seemed odd to me. I am glad there is now one consistent policy for all alcoholic beverages.

In provinces (including Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia) that have allowed beer sales at farmers’ markets for some time, the reviews have generally been positive. Breweries like the increased profile and the explicit association for their beer as locally produced, sitting alongside locally grown vegetables, locally produced handicrafts and other products.

What might the new opportunities mean for Alberta’s burgeoning craft beer scene? Both more and less than you think.

On the more front, having beer sold in farmers’ market has powerful symbolic effect. It is a firm indicator and reminder to consumers that beer is made locally. It further advances the associations with eating (and drinking) local, which can only enhance the craft beer industry in the province. It increases the profile of Alberta beer in general.

The less requires a bit more explanation. Setting up a stall in a local farmers’ market offers more in the way of profile for a brewery than actual sales. Selling a few dozen growlers and/or six packs on a Saturday morning (or Thursday evening or whenever) is nothing to sneeze at, but for most breweries it will not really move the needle in terms of overall sales.

The benefit lies in the opportunity to get your product in the hands of people who many not normally find you and to get your name out there more. To this end, my opinion is that the farmers’ market route is likely to benefit smaller and newer breweries more than the more established breweries. For Alley Kat, Wild Rose and even newer breweries who have already established some broad distribution such as Blindman and Bench Creek, their name is fairly well known and consumers will have already worked out where they can find their beer. The farmers’ market is just a convenient additional source.

Who would benefit the most are smaller operations. Imagine finding Bent Stick or Boiling Oar or Grain Bin at a local farmers’ market? Many customers will not know them and not found them in their local pub or liquor store yet. It will be a great first experience opportunity paired with – if they like the beer – a regular source for buying more (each week as they pick up eggs and new potatoes).

I don’t want to overstate my argument here. I recognize craft beer possesses less than 10% of the beer market (if we include Big Rock’s sales in that number). There is tonnes of room for growth. I know there are lots of people who still have not experienced Alley Kat or Wild Rose. But, relatively speaking, their brand is better known and product more widely available.

For many breweries they will do the math and decide a few hours of staff time and the cost of renting the stall are worth it for the extra sales and increased profile. Being at a farmers’ market each week has more upside (in terms of sales) than attending a beer festival where the patrons can’t buy beer to take home and will have to seek you out on their own later.

But I suspect many others will carefully consider and decide the marginal gains are not worth the extra effort. Either decision is fine with me.

Which is why I am emphasizing the symbolic importance of the decision. It not only corrects an historical inequity, it boldly tells consumers that beer is local food, too. And that is a very, very good thing.

Beer Tent Blues and How to Cure Them

Having completed my post-Edmonton Folk Festival recovery 2017 edition, I have had some time to contemplate the state of beer at one of Canada’s largest and most successful folk festivals.

I appreciate the Folk Fest is mostly about the music, and every year there is plenty of great music to go around, but I write about beer. Plus this year the beer gardens were the major topic of conversation on the hill, even by those who don’t spend much time in there. The crux of the controversy was the organizers’ decision to eliminate pitchers and limit patrons to two beer per purchase, but I think it is a symptom of a larger dilemma facing the Festival around the appropriate place for beer in the events of the weekend.

I want to address both the narrow issue of pitchers, but also contemplate a way forward for the beer garden more generally.

The stated reason for the elimination of pitchers seemed to shift as the weekend went along. At first they were saying it was a logistical issue of keeping up on washing the pitchers. Then provincial regulations became the culprit (although I can find no rules restricting pitchers). I think the two reasons are one in the same – they are referring to concerns by Alberta Health Services around the sanitary quality of the pitchers.

However, only after the weekend did, I believe, the real reason emerge. In the Edmonton Journal’s wrap up of the festival (found here), Artistic Director Terry Wickham indicates that pitchers were dropped to address the issue of over-consumption. I think that is the real reason. The decisions the organizers made about the beer tent this year, including expanding it by 1/3, are all designed to make it harder to over-consume. They made it easier to come and go (by increasing capacity and thus reducing lines to enter the beer tent), but created longer line ups to buy beer and restricted the amount one could buy at a time.

Discouraging over-consumption is a good thing. Except that to address, as Wickham himself admits, the problem “100 people at the end”, he has frustrated thousands of responsible imbibers. The most common complaint was that pitchers are a more socially friendly way to consume. Four or five people can share a pitcher or two without having to get into line three times. They can also be more flexible with volume. Say I only want a half a beer – I can’t easily do that when there are no pitchers. Pitchers have their value, even at the risk of allowing some to more easily over-consume.

In short jugs are not the problem; segregating beer far away from most of the music is the problem. It creates an atmosphere where you must choose between listening to music or partying in the beer tent.

The Folk Fest is trying to navigate a challenging dilemma. They are a music festival and the vast majority of attendees want a pleasant listening experience. But it is also a festive atmosphere and people want to visit with friends and enjoy a beer or two, especially on a hot, sunny afternoon. Responsible consumption can enhance the overall festival experience. To date the strategy has been to increase the size of the beer tent and enact rules to discourage excessive drinking. They have been only moderately successful.

A better solution is to shift the culture and integrate beer and its responsible consumption into the listening of music. Ideally, that would mean an all-site license, where beer could be purchased a number of kiosks and consumed on the hill. I appreciate, though, there are significant logistical challenges for a space as large as Gallagher Park, the biggest being the AGLC requirements around security.

So how about this for a workable compromise? A series of smaller beer gardens scattered throughout the site, most near a music stage. Rather than corralling beer drinkers into one large pen on the fringes of the site, the gardens could integrate beer into the overall experience, which I argue will cut down on over-consumption. If each garden is Continue reading Beer Tent Blues and How to Cure Them

Does Independent Craft Really Need a Seal?

The Brewers’ Association (BA) in the U.S. has just launched a “Certified Independent Craft Brewer” seal. The seal, an upside down bottle indicating certified independence, is designed to identify which breweries in the States are not owned by one of the big corporate breweries. The BA says more than 1500 breweries have signed onto the certification, placing the seal somewhere on their packaging. The seal is a clear response by BA to the big boys’ recent efforts to buy up successful craft brewers as well as to launch their own pseudo-craft brands to compete against authentic craft brewers.

On the surface it seems like a good idea – find a way to differentiate real craft from pseudo-craft and give consumers an easy-to-find marker to establish authenticity. Organic and fair trade products have been doing this for years, quite successfully. Consumers know which labels mean something and therefore the system is more legitimate and reliable all around.

In that context an independent craft brewery certification seal makes sense. It is a way to quickly demarcate real craft from faux craft.

Maybe. But overall I believe it is a misguided strategy that obfuscates certain hard facts about the beer industry. Allow me to summarize a few of my concerns.

First, there is the issue of definition. What exactly does “independent” mean? For the BA it means no more than 25% of the brewery can be owned by a non-craft brewer. Is that truly independent? Case in point, last week news broke that Heineken, through wholly-owned Lagunitas, is buying a 20% stake in Michigan brewery Short’s Brewing. By the BA definition, Short’s continues to be considered “independent” despite their new corporate partners. I am somewhat dubious.

The BA also has a size requirement, kind of. To be eligible you must produce less than six million barrels (about 7.2 million HL) of beer annually. that is a lot of beer. To put it in perspective that limit is more than three times the annual production of the Edmonton Labatt plant. At that size, is the independence of the ownership the most important factor in determining if the brewery is legitimately craft or not?

Second, and this really is the core of my concern, is that the seal ignores fundamental realities of the beer industry – that it is a capitalist venture. The vast majority of BA members are corporations (there are a handful of co-operatives and employee-owned breweries). They are for-profit enterprises which (hopefully) generate value and revenue for their owners. They don’t produce beer for the good of the community, but to make money.

What, at its core, is the difference between a large, multi-national corporation and a relatively small, independent corporation, other than scale? What happens when that independent corporation becomes rather large, such as Boston Beer Co.? Does that change the picture?

Let me immediately contradict my own point by highlighting that I do think there is a difference. The ABInbev’s of the world are transactional enterprises first and beer-makers second. An independent brewery is still about beer first and foremost, and that matters. Craft brewers are, for the most part, about building a culture of beer, which also matters.

I support fair trade and organic certification because they tell me something specific and significant about the product. The certification verifies that it was produced ethically/without pesticides/etc. I can then make my choice. What does an independent seal on my beer really tell me? It tells me it is not owned by one of the big corporate brewers, that is all.

For some that is enough. And fair enough.

For me it isn’t though. What matters more is that the brewery is anchored in a community. That they come from the community and produce beer for people in the community. That connection is more important than ownership, at the end of the day.

Emphasizing local still locks out the corporate brewers, who long since traded in their community cards for global dominance, but it also allows the consumer to make cleaner distinctions about other aspects of the beer.

Promoting the independent ownership of craft brewers isn’t a bad thing. I am supportive of almost anything that undermines the hegemony of the corporate brewers. But I find the BA’s efforts on this front to be more than a little misleading. They are trading on the public’s image of craft brewers as small, local and plucky. The reality is that many of the players in the industry (including Canada), they have long moved past that stage. And having done so, the line between them and the big corporate brewers is thinner than the BA would like to admit.