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AIT Panel Rules Against Alberta Mark-Up Policy

On Friday, a panel convened to hear a complaint against Alberta’s new mark-up policy rendered its decision (read the Journal story on the decision). In a split 2-1 decision, they ruled in favour of the complaint by importer Artisan Ales and against the new Alberta mark-up policy and subsidy. You can read my background on this case here.

The panel was an adjudication hearing under the Internal Agreement on Trade, a national trade agreement between provinces. The complaint was launched by Artisan Ales, a prominent beer importer whose portfolio includes Dieu du Ciel, Trois Mousquetaires and other respected craft breweries. Artisan Ales was supported by the right wing Canadian Constitutional Foundation in its challenge.

The case revolved around whether the second phase of the policy (the Alberta government having conceded the first iteration contravened the AIT) should be seen as one policy with two components, a mark-up and a grant program, or whether the pieces should be taken as distinct actions.

The majority decided it was one policy and rendered a decision that, as a whole, the policy contravened the AIT. The minority opinion disagreed with that assessment, arguing the mark-up and the grant needed to be evaluated separately and, having done so, came to the conclusion they did not violate the agreement. This may seem like legal hair-splitting, but it is actually a crucial aspect in understanding both the intentions and consequences of the policy.

Rather than parse the decision (which I have read) for the legal fine points, which at this point seem less fruitful, I want to consider what the decision means and what happens going forward. The CCF has, not surprisingly, torqued the decision as a “huge victory” and is calling for a return to the pre-2015 mark-up policy. I suspect that outcome is unlikely.

First, the government has the right to appeal. I fully expect them to do that. At the minimum that will delay any effect of the decision.

Second, the upcoming decision in the lawsuit by Steam Whistle and Great Western is likely of more political significance, both because of its higher profile and its direct judgement on the constitutionality of the policy. I anticipate the government will not act until it hears the result of that case. Should it lose both suits, the policy may very well be doomed. Should they win the lawsuit, it will likely trump the AIT case.

I say that because there are no specific penalties for contravening the AIT, which is my third point. It has long been a criticism of the AIT that it does not have an effective method for punishing contraventions. The CCF/Artisan Ales case may demonstrate that weakness. The panel cannot order remedies to the aggrieved party – meaning Artisan gets nothing other than some of its legal costs paid for. Nor does the panel have the same force of law the courts do to compel compliance.

While I don’t expect this will happen, the government could simply ignore the ruling and face any political consequences and countervailing measures by other provinces. As I say I doubt the Alberta government wants to start a trade war, but such is the nature of trade deals. The media talks about them like they are inviolable laws, but in reality require the voluntary cooperation of the parties to have any meaning (just look at Trump and NAFTA these days).

To that extent Artisan Ale’s challenge has always been something of a quixotic adventure; it may prove a point but is likely unable to significantly alter policy. Plus, at least on the CCF’s part, it was also part of a broader ideological campaign to discredit and undermine the Alberta government (as evidence I point to their description of the policy as a “protectionist tax grab”, which is high hyperbole at its finest).

While I do not dismiss the substance of this ruling – there is no doubting it is a blow to the government’s beer strategy – personally I am waiting for the Steam Whistle/Great Western lawsuit decision for it will have more lasting ramifications (at least after appeal). It is more significant for no other reason than it can level significant financial penalties against the government, not to mention a court ruling that the policy is unconstitutional has significantly more weight than a trade panel decision.

So while this is both a noteworthy and for Alberta brewers somewhat ominous decision, we remain in the early days of this story. More significant developments await.

For fans of beer policy, it will be an interesting summer. I just hope it doesn’t all happen in the next two weeks, as I am heading off on a brief holiday. But don’t worry, I have pre-written some posts to keep you entertained in my physical absence.


Calling Out Corb Lund and Budweiser

A screen capture of the Corb Lund Budweiser ad.

I am calling out Corb Lund. I don’t normally do this. I try to stay positive while still being honest. I don’t normally criticize an individual over a beer decision. But today I make an exception.

Yesterday an ad was released (or at least I first saw it) featuring alt-country/punk musician Corb Lund promoting Budweiser (you can see it here). Not just promoting Budweiser, but backing their new “Alberta Made” campaign. The ad has Lund talking about Alberta values while alternating shots of Alberta scenery and Budweiser placements flash across the screen. The climax has Lund on stage wearing a Bud t-shirt and flanked by huge “Alberta Made” banners. In his tweet promoting the ad he calls Bud “our cowboy beer”.

Lund wouldn’t be the first musician to shill for a big beer company, nor will he be the last. So why bring this up? Because it is a very unfortunate combination of branding that, I believe, doesn’t look good on Lund.

Lund has built his career on quirky, wry songs that simultaneously honour and send up rural culture. It has allowed him to create a unique cross-genre appeal. I first experienced Lund when he was in the Edmonton punk band The Smalls and have been a fan of his music ever since. I am not much of a country music fan, but Lund maintains a distinct punk ethos in his songs that appeals to me.

Which is why his decision to do this campaign is so disappointing. Lund is an independent artist who has spent his career scrapping and fighting for attention. He has nurtured a brand of being the underdog working hard to reach fans of good music.

Sound familiar? Yeah, sounds a lot like a small craft brewery.

That is why his endorsement of Bud is problematic.

Aligning himself with the largest beer corporation in the world is an issue in itself. But I can at least see a defence of that decision. He appeals, mostly, to a country music crowd who are more likely to still be attached to Bud, Coors and other standard lagers of that nature. On that level it is a safe call.

Except that he is also well-known and respected by a more alternative music crowd (including me). Connecting himself to ABInbev becomes particularly problematic for that segment. Which is why it might be a mistake for him.

Further, it is one thing to hold up a can of Bud and say “this Bud’s for you”. It is another thing to participate in ABInbev’s crass attempt to re-position its American-born, global brand as Alberta made. I wrote the other day about the campaign and its repugnant attempt to link Bud to Alberta values (read here). It is fundamentally dishonest.

To associate himself with such intentional misleading risks damaging Lund’s very strong brand. Plus he is contributing to the dishonesty, which is just unsettling.

I am sure they paid him a lot of money. Good for him. I am also pretty sure this tempest in a beer mug will do little to derail his rising career – music fans won’t vote with their feet over beer. But it is one of those things that can linger. It will leave a caustic, bad taste in the mouths of many of his fans – me included – that will reverberate in the years to come.

I don’t know what it will mean, but I do know that his decision to promote Budweiser’s Alberta Made campaign marks a turning point for Lund. One that might very well mean I leave him behind. Which, after 20 years of being a Corb Lund fan, makes me very sad.

Budweiser’s Infuriating “Alberta Made” Ad

Over the weekend I was watching a CBC program online and noticed an odd ad kept playing at the commercial breaks. It was an ad for Budweiser. The first time I saw it, I was perplexed. The more I watched it (CBC has the annoying habit of playing the same ads during each online break) the angrier I got.

The ad features close ups of a Budweiser label. It zooms in on portions of the label that say, in turn, “Edmonton”, “Calgary”, “Lethbridge”, “Red Deer”. The camera then pulls out to show the whole can, with the words “Alberta Made” comprising more than half the label. Beside the can are the words “Proudly Brewed Here Since 1980”.

The voice-over is simple. Here is the entire script: “This is the famous Budweiser beer. Made with the same passion that build this province. Alberta made. Proudly brewed here since 1980.”

I have been unable to find the ad through google searches, so my guess is that it is designed for online streaming to targeted audiences (i.e., Albertans). I was able to grab a couple screen captures, however (which are the photos attached to this post).

What to make of this odd ad? Lots.

First, it is hit you over the head with a mallet clear that they are trying to position Budweiser – a distinctly American beer – as Albertan. Not only made here, but associated with the mettle that is Alberta’s mythology. It takes a significant amount of gall to try to portray “America’s Beer” as Albertan. To drive that point home, on my shelf I have a special can design released during the last U.S. election that is an apex of American nationalism: a large, stylized “America” dominates the label with various catch phrases scattered about, including “land of the free” and “liberty & justice for all”.

If the ad stopped at incredulously wrapping itself in the Alberta flag that would be infuriating enough. But it is determined to push the boundaries of  honesty even further.

It is true Budweiser has been brewed in Alberta since 1980, when Labatt (then still an independent corporation) contracted to produce Budweiser in Canada, starting with Alberta and Saskatchewan. These kinds of arrangements marked the 1980s as U.S. beer weaseled its way into the Canadian market. The first Canadian-made Budweisers were brewed in Labatt’s Edmonton plant.

The ad, though, also flashes through Calgary, Lethbridge and Red Deer on the label. All cities with brewing heritage for sure. However, Labatt has never operated a brewery in any of those cities. Adding the other cities creates the impression it was/is brewed in those cities as well. In my books that is darned close to lying. One might say they are just highlighting other major Alberta cities, but if so, why not Fort McMurray, Grande Prairie or Banff or Jasper? Why pick cities that have brewery history of some note if not attempting to insinuate yourself in that history?

Plus, while it is true Bud has been brewed in Alberta since 1980, that basic fact does not make it an Alberta beer. The ad glosses over the uncomfortable fact Budweiser remains an American-branded beer owned by the largest beer corporation in the world.

My current theory is that this ad is in advance of the launch of a new, Alberta-specific labeling for the product. If so, that means their push to be seen as local goes beyond a niche online ad for quirky CBC watchers and is aimed squarely at the mainstream of beer consumers. And that is a direct shot across the bow at Alberta’s burgeoning craft beer scene.

In one way AB-Inbev’s need to position its flagship as local speaks to their concerns about the growth in the “Drink Local” sentiment among consumers. They are worried where that movements leads. However, if the small uptick in local beer market share is enough to spark special branding, to what lengths will they go if the craft beer industry starts to gobble up significant market share?

I know I shouldn’t be surprised that the big corporate breweries are prepared to mislead consumers to protect their market share. This is standard fare for their marketing departments. It is just VERY  interesting they are feeling the need to target a specific provincial market in this fashion.

As usual, buyer beware.

When Three Rich Kids Open a Brewery

Photo courtesy of Forbes

This isn’t my usual beer beat, but I came across this story the other day and haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. It seems the best way to clear my brain of it it so write about it.

The story, in case you haven’t clicked on the link yet, is a Forbes article profiling a new California brewery called Barrels & Sons. What makes the brewery interesting is that it is founded by Carlo Mondavi, Jacob Busch and Elliott Taylor – all heirs to prominent and wealthy food and beverage families. Mondavi is of the famous wine-making Mondavis. Taylor is the son of a successful restauranteur and Busch, as the name gives away, is the latest in the line of beer-making Buschs (or at least until Inbev bought them out and pushed them out of the company).

The profile has been making the social media rounds (which is how I found it) and has received much skewering from many. I am not a pile-on kind of guy, so have no intention of going for the low hanging fruit of mocking three rich (and GQ-esque handsome) men creating a brewery-plaything.

However, two more substantive elements of the story have bothered me since reading it.

First is the arrogance of the men. They aren’t just setting out to make excellent beer for consumers to enjoy. That is too hoi polloi for them. They set their sights much, much higher, as seen by this quote from the article:

“We want to focus, keep small and yield a beer capable of sitting with the world’s finest,” says Mondavi. “This vision will take over a decade to reach. The world’s finest wineries and breweries are not measured in years or even decades, but more in generations.  With that in mind, and in the near future, we would love to see Sons in the top restaurants of the world and be poured alongside the greatest foods and enjoyed. Our goals for Sons are to put all of our energy, resources and time into creating one classic beer. We don’t want to make ten beers but rather just one beer at the highest level.

You see, pleasing average beer drinkers is for all those other breweries. These boys want to impress the best chefs and restaurateurs in the world. Plus, they have only been open less than a year and already they are deigning to make one of the best beer in the world. Wow, that is some fast learning.

Second is that they reveal a stunning lack of awareness of beer and how it is made and no respect for traditional styles or history. Others have made this point but it bears repeating. The most damning quote is this one:

Four New Breweries, Four New Ideas

I have mentioned that I did a mini-beer tour last week, hitting Calgary and other points along Highway Two over two days hitting some breweries that have recently opened. In addition to Red Shed (read about that visit here) and my surprise connection with Tool Shed (read here), I hit four new breweries: Annex Ale Project (open about 10 weeks), Zero Issue Brewing (open about 3 weeks), Caravel Brewing (open since April) – all in Calgary – and Siding 14 in Ponoka (open 3 weeks).

It is always interesting hitting a brand new place. The equipment is still shiny, everyone is enthusiastic and the place always has the smell of potential. When talking about breweries just on their first batches of beer, I am careful not to offer too detailed of reviews as I know they will undergo tweaking over the coming months. However, I do think you can tell a lot about a place by tasting their early offerings in terms of their philosophy and approach to beer.

My overall impression of the four newbies? The diversity of models continues to expand. I found four VERY different operations over the two days. Allow me to contextualize each one briefly – in order of my visit.

Annex Ale Project was first. A bright, attractive tasting room in what seems like a tucked away light industrial area. I found out during the visit it is actually quite close to people and other breweries like Banded Peak and Cold Garden, creating a fascinated beer circle in that area of the city (shows what I know about Calgary). It is small scale. The plans are for most of the beer to be sold out of the tasting room in one fashion or another. There is beer passion going on in there. Five beer (plus a sample from the conditioning tank) are available at the moment. Annex offers a range of styles, but all seem to have a signature character. The hefeweizen is made with oats, not wheat, for example (yes, I know it isn’t really a weizen then, relax, it is still a weisse). They offer a Bitter with North American hopping. And the conditioning tank sample was a Pineapple Saison. Pineapple is an uncommon brewing ingredient, but I can say it really comes through in the aroma. You get the point.

Zero Issue Brewing has, as most of you know, a comic book and sci-fi theme. The tasting room feature wall is a Donkey Kong matrix and the beer all have distinctly sci-fi names. That is clearly working for them in the early days. The MacDonald brothers tell me of repeated experiences of customers wandering in, ordering a beer and admitting their joint love of comics and craft beer. It seems the MacDonalds have created something of a safe space for craft beer and comic/sci-fi geek to mix. The beer seem to aim for full flavoured without becoming hard to access. A Pilsner, White IPA, IPA and a Pale Ale constitute the starting line-up (subject to change). Each is respectful to the style while offering their own take.

Caravel Brewing was next. Located across the street from the airport in a newly developing industrial area, I admit to finding the location odd. Plus their space is huge. Huge. Did I mention huge? Their plan is to grow into both the brewhouse (30BBL with 6-60BBL fermenters) and the space – they have visions of holding music events and festivals in their space. For the moment they use a fraction of what they have. They had 5 beer on when I arrived. Three, a pilsner, a hefeweizen and an Irish red ale, are their anchors supplemented by a coffee pale ale and a ginger beer at the moment. Their beer had a classic, European feel to them. No fancy hops or tricks; just straightforward flavour true to traditional styles. There is a feel of an appeal to a broader audience with their approach.

Finally there was Siding 14 in Ponoka. Siding 14’s vision is about farm to glass – the ownership group includes a barley farmer and a hop farmer who will be providing ingredients to the brewery. Their hope is to supply all their ingredients from the farms, but the unpredictability of barley farming has them hedging their bets on that front. The brand new brewery on the edge of town is fresh, bright and the decor fits the town feel. The beer, right now a golden ale, a  honey blonde ale, a brown ale, and an IPA, are all careful in their execution. You can tell they are still trying to feel out what Ponokans are looking for in a local beer. I fully expect they will branch out in the coming months as they catch their feet.

Four breweries with very different branding and very different approaches. What I observe is each trying to chart a unique course. Zero Issue is quickly distinguishing itself with its clear themes. Annex Ales, on the other hand, is aiming for in-the-know popularity, while Caravel has broader ambitions. Meanwhile Siding 14 balances introducing themselves to a rural local market while still appealing to beer drinkers around the province. Each has a unique feel and the beer seem to match.

For me that is kind of cool – seeing how breweries link their branding with their product. I am well aware the beer itself will shift over the next year or so – as it should be – but even right at their beginnings I can tell each is going a different direction. Which, for the consumer, is nothing but good.


Good Malt Comes in Small Batches at Red Shed

One of Red Shed’s malting vessels

Who would have figured? Red Shed Malting operates out of an actual red shed.

Last week I did a quick jaunt south to hit up some of the new breweries that have opened up over the last few weeks (more on the tour in my next post as well). Since I was already working my way down and up Highway 2, I figured I should also make a visit to Red Shed just off the highway near Penhold south of Red Deer (as I mentioned in this post).

I have toured hundreds of breweries in my days but have only seen one malt house – Rahr Malting in Alix. It was impressive in its industrial scale and fine-tuned quality control. I have a decent handle on the malting process – which starts the germination process to transform starches to sugars available to yeast – but am hardly an expert. The technical details are a bit of a mystery to me. I just know I love the results! So stopping by Red Shed was a much-anticipated experience for me.

Joe Hamill, one half of the Hamill brothers who operate Red Shed, showed me around the facility. My first impression was to note just how small it was. Even though I knew they are a micro-operation, producing 2.5 tonnes per batch (Rahr produces more in a day than Red Shed can do in a year), I was still surprised at how small scale and low tech the operation is. It consists, basically, of two cooler-sized rooms each containing a large steel bin. The outer room holds a roaster the size of large commercial washing machine. A side room serves as the lab to ensure the process goes smoothly and things are measured properly. The entire space is likely 5,000 square feet at most (I suck at area estimation).

I over-simplify, of course. The malting rooms are actually constructed to handle both the germination and kilning phases and the roaster, while small, still requires quite a bit of technical know-how. But I wanted to highlight my impressions of the size to drive home the point that this is truly an artisanal, craft-oriented operation. I came away impressed at the Hamill’s ingenuity and determination.

Craft malting is new (very new in these parts) but does seem like the natural extension to the craft beer revolution. If you are going to produce local beer, why not use local malt?

I am a bit surprised (pleasantly) just how fast Red Shed has developed a name and reputation in Alberta. Most Alberta breweries are at least experimenting with their malts and many are actively promoting their releases as “brewed with Red Shed malt”. Not bad for a company that has been operating for just over a year. I think their early success demonstrates the time is right for local craft malting. There are at least three other maltsters in the building process in the province.

Red Shed’s red shed (only half of which is the malt house).

The reality is that Red Shed’s product is more expensive – about 50% higher than the big malt houses. That means, practically speaking, their most likely market space is in specialty malts – the darker and more flavourful malts that are added in small portions to add flavour and complexity to a beer. Breweries can likely afford to use slightly more expensive specialty malts since they only comprise five to ten percent of the malt bill.

Plus the base malts made by Rahr and Calgary’s Canada Malting are high quality products (I can say this from personal experience, having used their malts in my homebrewing for years). This is one way in which the malting industry differs from beer.  While the large maltsters make big quantities (Rahr can produce about 150,000 tonnes per year, Canada Malting is even bigger), they keep a keen eye on quality. No cutting corners here. Plus they, for the most part, use barley grown in the region. No reason to turn one’s back on them.

The place for Red Shed and other craft malting houses is to provide malts with interesting flavours. Plus they can experiment more given their small batches. The pairing of small craft maltsters with small craft brewers is ideal.

And we should never forget – to return to my recent visit – Red Shed is engaged in a very artisanal, hands-on project. There is minimal mechanization and the Hamill’s have to use their skills and instinct to decide when a malt is ready. I came away with a clear sense of just how intimate the process is for them. They touch every aspect of the malting process personally. Meaning we can trust that their malt is malt made with love.

And you gotta love that.

[Edited to correct a factual error about their location.]

Alberta’s First Terroir Beer?

Tool Shed’s Graham Sherman pours samples of his new terroir beer.

In the wine world terroir refers to the impact that local environments have on the flavour and characteristics of wine. The nature of the soil, water and air where the grapes are grown affect the final shape of the wine. Terrior is less of a thing in beer, in part due to the global nature of the industry (we can get quality products from around the world) and in part that local influence generally expresses itself in terms of styles rather than the soil, etc.

If you think about it, lambics are a legitimate terroir beer, as they are profoundly shaped by the local micro-fauna. Some US breweries have been experimenting with terroir beer, using local ingredients and wild yeast to create unique product, but that particular approach has eluded Alberta. Until now.

In a random, unexpected and rather pleasant coincidence yesterday, I got to try a sample of Alberta’s first terroir beer. I was on my way home after a quick beer trip to hit some of the new Calgary breweries (more on that in a future post) and stopped by Red Shed Malting for a visit. When I arrived who was there but Graham Sherman of Tool Shed! With him was Wade McAllister, one of the owners of Antler Valley Farm, a nearby barley farm operation.

They told me that over at the farm that afternoon they were hosting tours (as part of a larger agriculturee event) and pouring the first offerings of a brand new, all-Alberta beer and invited me over. The beer is Prairie Pride and it is a beer three years in the making. It is made exclusively Alberta ingredients, right down to the  yeast. The barley was grown at Antler Valley and malted at Red Shed. The hops were grown by Northern Girls Hops. There is some wheat from Rahr that Sherman indicates was sourced in Alberta. And the yeast – that is the real story.

About three years ago I remember Sherman telling me about a project he attempted to harvest some Alberta wild yeast. He fashioned a portable coolship and mounted it on his pick-up truck. He drove with the coolship filled with wort around a variety of farm fields and orchards, even leaving the truck for a few hours inside an old barn. The goal was to collect some yeast indigenous to Alberta for a beer experiment. I didn’t hear anything further about it so assumed the project didn’t work. I was wrong.

Instead he worked with the staff at the Olds College Brewmaster program. They isolated the various yeast and bacteria strains in the resulting beer, finding 13 different organisms. They then brewed a beer with each of the isolated organisms and evaluate the results. Sherman reports most ranged between unpalatable to undrinkable, but they found three that had potential. After further analysis they selected one that turned out to be an un-identified wild Saccromyces yeast – beer yeast!

With the yeast in hand, the beer came together rather quickly. A simple recipe of 50% Antler Valley malt, 50% wheat and a low IBU dosing of Northern Girls goldings hops with an aim at a 4% to 4.5% alcohol beer. The yeast attenuated more than expected with the resulting beer ending up a bit over 5%.

What was the beer like? It poured quite hazy with a light blond hue with orange highlights. Not much head to speak of. The aroma had a distinct and assertive orange character to it, along with some soft wheat graininess and an earthy, musty note. The sip had a noted orange-lemon citrus character, a soft sweet body and a slightly earthy accent. The finish was light and refreshing. It was recognizable as a farmhouse ale, with the expected musty, peppery yeast flavours.

What caught my attention the most was the orange-citrus character. That had to have come from the yeast, as no citrus or citrusy hop were used. That is fascinating. It gives the beer a unique flavour that makes it stand out.

Yesterday’s sampling was just a preview. The beer will be released to the general public within the next couple weeks and will be available on tap and in cans. It is worth picking up simply for the experience of sampling a true 100% Alberta beer.

Beer Bragging Begins Soon for Bragg Creek

One of the cool things about how Alberta’s craft beer scene is expanding is that the growth isn’t just in the big cities. New operations in small centres are popping up across the province. And for some strange reason, many of those breweries appear to have “creek” in their name.

Take for example Bragg Creek Brewing, which plans to open in the next 12 to 18 months in, you guessed it, Bragg Creek, a small hamlet of about 600 residents southwest of Calgary. Bragg Creek (the brewery) is the brainchild of Kirk Bodnar, Baruch Laskin, Adam McLane and John Jackson. All four have some connection to the area.

Calgary beer aficionados will know Bodnar’s name well. He is the CAMRA Alberta Education Director, beer writer, Cicerone, BJCP judge among other things. Oh yeah, he is also a full-time teacher in the Calgary area. Laskin runs an entertainment company and is a professional magician (I can guarantee he is the only magician-brewery owner in Canada!) and has lived in Bragg Creek for a number of years.

“I met Baruch a few years ago at school,” says Bodnar in a recent phone interview with me. “We turned into beer buddies and he kept talking about getting involved in a concept in Bragg Creek.” About 18 months ago they started to get serious about opening a brewpub and restaurant in town.

Third partner McLean also brings regional connections, coming from nearby Turner Valley. Jackson, the fourth partner, is co-owner of Charcut and Charbar, two popular and highly respected Calgary restaurants, bringing some serious food chops (no pun intended) to the project.

The vision behind Bragg Creek is simple. “Being a destination is a big part of our plan,” says Bodnar. “Bragg Creek is a small, destination community. It draws people who are big into hiking, mountain biking, the outdoor experience. Right now it is under-serviced. The town was hit hard by the flood and lots of restaurants left town.”

So the timing was right to create a brewpub for the hamlet. “We want to bring people to Bragg Creek, support community and be community-oriented”. The phrase brewpub is mine; Bodnar prefers the term “brewery-restaurant” and for good reason. Due to Jackson’s partnership, Bodnar says “the food will be ridiculous!” The food vision remains a work in progress, but Bodnar says it needs to fit the community and the space. “It won’t be a big city concept, the needs here are different.” They see a couple of aspects to the food, including a quality grab-and-go focus in the mornings to serve outdoor enthusiasts. “Meat will also be a component as well,” says Bodnar, referring to Charcut’s meat-y reputation.

Right now they have purchased property by the river and will be building the brewery from scratch. They are currently in the middle of the zoning application process,  hoping for approval in the next month or two. “As soon as that goes through, we start building.” Bodnar is estimated up to 18 months before they are brewing beer.

And what about that beer? This far out they have not yet finalized their plan, but they do expect to have eight to 12 beer on tap at any one time. In terms of their interest Bodnar says they are “interested in a bit of everything.” Bodnar speaks of living in Germany for four years where he developed “a big affection for quality German lagers”, but also a big love for Farmhouse Ales from the time he spent in Belgium.

Their approach is to “target action sports enthusiasts coming to Bragg Creek, so we want to keep it sessionable,” he says. “But if doesn’t have flavour don’t want to sell it. I don’t want any beer that we have to make excuses for.” At the end of the day Bodnar wants to brew beer that “excites me”.

One thing Bodnar is clear about is that a coffee beer will be one of their flagships. “We are also roasting coffee as a separate operation.” Their coffee business is Continue reading Beer Bragging Begins Soon for Bragg Creek

An Enthusiastic Blind First Tasting

Most Alberta beer fans already know that Biera by Blind Enthusiasm started its soft launch this past weekend – Thursday to be specific. Biera is Blind Enthusiasm’s brewpub located at the Market at Ritchie. The spontaneous fermentation brewery is still quite a distance away (the building is still under construction a couple blocks over from the brewpub).

Given that this has been the single most anticipated opening in the Alberta beer scene in quite some time I knew I had to find a way to get over there. Thursday was out as other plans took precedent. But Friday – right after my CBC column (post coming on the soon, I hope) – I dropped by for a quick visit and a sample of the beer (they offer 250ml and 500 ml pours). As it works out, I also ended up there on Saturday night, too, for dinner with a couple friends (their suggestion, not mine!). Two out of the first three nights, not so bad!

Both nights the space was hopping. I was told there were 90 minute wait lists on Thursday! It is a very open space with the gorgeous copper brewhouse anchoring the room. Lots of windows and sunlight contrasts the dark wood and metal. A small patio offers a bit of fresh air. The whole market space is quite remarkable. I really appreciate the fluid boundaries between the four spaces (the pub, the butcher, the coffee shop and the bike shop – I think there is a children’s nursery rhyme in there somewhere), as much as AGLC rules allow. It feels like a community hub, which I think was the plan.

They are doing a very conservative opening. Limited days (just the weekend for now), limited hours (4-11) and only three beer to start (they hope to have 8-10 when fully up and running). They are trying to feel out how much beer they will sell on a given day so that they can ensure a reliable supply. God forbid a brewpub run out of beer!

The first thing I noted is that they are embracing the realities of offering up first incarnations of their beer. They have refused to release the names of the beer, offer a three letter code followed by 1.0 (signifying the first version). I am told their plan is to tweak the recipes until they are happy, releasing each as subsequent versions (2.0, 3.0, etc.) until they hit where they want to be. At that point they will release the official name of the beer.

So, let’s get to the beer. They are not formally identifying the styles of the beer, but to be honest it isn’t too hard to work out what they are going for. ZES 1.0 is a soft, light-bodied hefeweizen. DEB 1.0 is an English-style bitter, likely strong enough to be an ESB. ESM 1.0 is the hardest one to pin down, offering  a fruity, west-coast IPA-ish beer, but without the assertive bitterness that can be associated with that style. It is a curious beer.

I won’t offer a full-length review of each of the beer, as I have a longstanding policy of providing some space for new breweries to tweak their recipes. I can easily say a couple of things, however. The beer are well made, professional and offer flavours that keep the drinker interested through the glass. I can see where they are going with each beer and each has a lovely accent feature. The ZES is soft with the banana and clove in a nice balance. The DEB has a classic ESB malt character that I always appreciate. The ESM is flirty and elusive – the hops are there but try to play mind games with you. Kind of fun.

Plus can I say that they have a 500ml marker on their pint glasses? I love that. More breweries need to be that open.

As for the food (remember, I am not a food reviewer), some of the menu offerings were a bit odd for my non-hipster palate, but everything I tried was beautifully presented and quite delicious. Of note for beer fans, they have what they call Malt Crunch, which is a kind of barley popcorn. They take barley malt (from the taste my guess is Maris Otter) and pop it (sorta) and add some spices for a flavour accent. They are crunchy but quite yummy, at least for me as someone who is used to chewing on malted barley. Not sure how non-beer people will react to the texture.

Biera will be open again next couple Thursdays to Saturdays and after that they will establish more regular hours. No official word on the grand opening.

And for those of you itching to pop by, be patient. There will be enough beer for all of us. They aren’t going anywhere after all.




Are Contract Brewers Craft?

Does having a real brewhouse matter?

Yesterday in the Globe and Mail, Ontario-based beer writer Ben Johnson wrote a piece exploring whether contract brewing helped or hindered the growth of craft beer. You can read the original article here.

Johnson offers a very balanced and fair piece, asking questions and letting different people in the industry answer. However, his article hit a question that I have been contemplating for a long time. What is the role of contract brewing in the craft beer scene?

Let’s take a step back and quickly explain contract brewing. A contract brewery is an operation that rather than build its own bricks-and-mortars brewery arranges to brew their beer at an existing facility. The degree of control and autonomy over the beer varies depending on the contract. Sometimes the contractee takes responsibility for all aspects short of selling the beer. Other times the contractor handles most aspects under the supervision of the contractee staff.

Sometimes contract brewing is a stop-gap while the owners build their own brewery – a chance to create some name and cash flow. Other times it is the core business model, avoid the costly upfront capital costs at the expense of smaller margins.

The source of the controversy is whether you can legitimately call yourself “craft” if you don’t actually make your own beer.

It is a big question and I know it is controversial, as evidenced by my decision in my brewery stats posts to offer up both contract-inclusive and contract-exclusive numbers (for example here).

Those opposed to contract brewing argue, in short, that having your own brewery provides skin in the game, giving you a solid motivation to create the best beer you can. It also, from their perspective, provides more credibility. You are crafting your own beer with your own hands (and equipment), which is the essence of craft.

On the other side, contract supporters argue that a commitment to creating quality beer is not linked to owning a bunch of expensive equipment. You can create and produce amazing craft beer using someone else’s equipment.

Johnson’s article seems to suggest that there is a difference between using a brewery but employing your own recipe, skill and staff and simply paying them to brew a beer for you that you have little connection with. He may have a point. But I think it may also be beside the point. I know of a couple brewery owners who know little about beer. They hire staff to make beer for them. As it happens they also own the equipment, but how different is that from using someone else’s equipment?

There are lots of points on both sides. In the interest of efficiency I will briefly outline some of them without comment:

  • Craft is linked to artisanal production, meaning you need to get your hands dirty.
  • Contract brewing has existed for decades. Longstanding breweries like Boston Brewing used conracting to make their name and became respected breweries.
  • Contract brewers undermine craft by pretending to be a real brewery when they are not.
  • Many respected breweries had their start by contracting.
  • Contract breweries lie to consumers by saying they are one thing, or come from one place, and really are produced in a different location.
  • Contract brewers have less control over the process and so can’t provide the same degree of quality control a real brewer can.

I exclude from that list some specious arguments, such as contract brewers produce non-craft beer for the mass market (a claim implied by the Johnson article). The relative accessibility/mass market nature of the beer generally has nothing to do with whether you have a brewery or are a contractor.

I think I also reject that location doesn’t matter and that the only thing that counts is the quality of the beer. In my mind, the craft beer ethos demands honesty with your customers. You can’t say you are from Edmonton if your beer is brewed in Kelowna (to pick a random example not linked to any current arrangement). There needs to be accountability.

There is no question this is a complex question, and there are no easy answers. Personally, I continue to be torn about how to handle contract breweries. For me, I think much of it depends on context and intention. There are a couple breweries in Alberta currently making their beer at other breweries. Their short or long term plan is to open their own brewery. That feels different than a company that never plans to open a brewery.

But my distinction on that front only takes us so far. It is easy to say Continue reading Are Contract Brewers Craft?