By the end of 2017 Alberta will have close to 60 microbreweries. That’s a cool thing (no. 51 on this blog) because in 2013 there were only 14. Here’s a little background on why local kegs are increasingly what’s on tap at your favourite watering hole.
Craft breweries and small brewpubs are defined as brewers producing less than 300,000 hectolitres per year. One hectolitre equals 100 litres or the equivalent of a “two-four.” (That’s a highly technical Canadian term for a case of 24 x 341 mL bottles of beer – translated here for foreign readers.)
In 2013, the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission removed the minimum production requirements for liquor production. Previously there was a 5,000 hectolitres minimum for brewers and 2,500 for wineries and distilleries. Now, if start-ups can meet health board standards they can launch a business without having to meet a specified volume output at the outset. Weekend warrior home brewers began to ferment business plans and some, like Bent Stick Brewing produce as little as 400 hectolitres per annum – just for the creative challenge of making quality over quantity.
In July of 2016, the provincial government announced a $1.25 per litre mark up for all beer sold in the province regardless of size. At first, microbrewers were concerned because some had previously only paid 10 cents a litre based on a sliding scale for production. It looked like the industry growth might flatten like a stale beer but two weeks later, the government announced an annual grant of $20 million to return a significant portion of that money to the small operators.
These are huge factors in why we’ve seen growth in the industry but there are a few others that are also key. Alberta has fantastic raw materials for brewing and distilling and Albertans have a growing pride in and preference for all things local.
The four main ingredients in beer are water, yeast, malt barley and hops. Statistics from Alberta Barley reveal that half of Canada’s eight million tonnes of barley produced annually come from Alberta.
Alberta also produces over half of the high quality malting barley and though we export $180 million worth annually, there’s still lots left for our brewers. Often, for small town breweries, that barley might be grown in the field next to their headquarters. That really speaks to those who love supporting local.
Still, it’s one thing to love making home brew on weekends and another to develop a business plan and acquire the skills to become a Brewmaster in charge of the chemistry and art of creating beer Albertans will enjoy drinking. Another important factor in the growth of this industry was the development of a Brewmaster and Brewery Operations course at Olds College.
Estimates in a recent Edmonton Journal article are that craft beer makes up about two to five per cent of beer sales in Alberta while British Columbia is closer to 25 per cent and in Portland, Oregon, the Mecca of hops and holy land of micro and local, the majority of all beer sold is craft beer. This means that the potential for the industry is immense.
In the world of food tourism, the growth of microbreweries and brew pubs is exciting. Guests are already seeking authentic tastes of local, now Alberta has another dimension of local food culture to showcase.
Indications that micro brewing has definitely entered the mainstream include the development of an Alberta Small Brewers Association, a quarterly free guide to Alberta Beer and a proliferation of beer specific bloggers and festivals. The Alberta Culinary Tourism Alliance has developed a “Sippin’ Alberta Guidebook” connecting the dots between breweries, meaderies, fruit wine makers and distillers in the province.
Both Calgary and Edmonton have third party brewery tour operators aggregating fun experiences for beer lovers. Calgary Brewery Tours has been in operation two years now. They will expand and have tours from Calgary to Banff in 2017 on Saturdays. Edmonton will see a bus tour like the Calgary group’s but also an innovative multi-person pedal powered bike unit that will tour and be environmentally friendly at the same time.
Beer tourism is real.
Alberta Food Tours, Inc. partners with Situation Brewing in Edmonton for a regular Saturday afternoon tour, tasting and beer inspired dessert as part of their Edmonton Food Tour’s Strathcona Feast. That company also features tastings of several other Alberta brewers on their tours throughout the province including: Blindman Brewing in Lacombe, Grizzly Paw in Canmore, Trolley 5, Village Brewing, Brewery Fahr, Last Best, Wild Rose, Cold Garden, Tool Shed and many more.
On a recent visit to Situation Brewing in Edmonton, I watched a family soaking up the relaxed vibe of the brewpub. My beer infused mussels arrived along with a sleeve of Clean Bite Double IPA. It was hoppy, I was happy. If the day comes that food travellers will journey to Alberta to sip their way through the delectable suds of this province, then I think that will be a great way for them to explore Alberta and savour it all.