A History of Calgary's Alehouses
From yesteryear's beer parlours to today's taprooms, here's 16 places in Calgary to enjoy a good brew now
Back in the last century - before the mid 1980s, getting beer in Calgary public houses was at best, a pedestrian experience. There were no stand-alone pubs or bars, no drinking on Sundays or holidays (without a meal), and you simply ordered "draft" in beer “parlours".
The meagre selection of taps was whatever the bar was pouring, from Molson, Labatt or Carling O'Keefe (and rarely all three in the same location). It was served in an ALCB approved draft glass, which you knew was legit because it had ALCB embossed along the white pour line. The bottle selection came from the same three breweries, with a couple of mainstream imports sprinkled in. You could only drink in licensed restaurants, or else in beer "taverns", nightclubs, and lounges within, or attached, to hotels.
During the lead up to the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics, things began to change. Pubs, bars and nightclubs were opened by any qualified applicant in any approved location. Sunday drinking was approved and, most importantly, new beers began to show up in the province. First it was a trickle, with Big Rock leading the local charge, but a few new bottled imports began to appear and a variety of draft (now spelled draught) beers in actual pint glasses became available.
In the 1990s, Calgary public houses, outside a couple of notable vanguards, were reluctant to expand their beer menus which had remained largely unchanged for decades, with the exception of adding a Big Rock here, or a Wild Rose there. Eventually, as the new millennium headed towards its second decade, a new wave of beer bars began to spring up.
What had begun slowly turned the corner in 2011 with the opening of the big beer bars; National, Craft and Beer Revolution. With their multiple and frequently rotating tap lines, a tenfold increase in the variety of draught beer happened almost overnight. Their success has led to a trickledown effect; new, smaller locations are creating great beer lists and some established venues have embraced craft beer by simply revamping their beer menus.
When Stuart Allen opened Bottlescrew Bill’s Pub (140, 10 Ave. S.W.) in 1985, next to his established Buzzards Restaurant, it was the first location in Calgary to have an expansive beer list. Not much was available from local breweries, but Bottlescrew Bill’s soon had Calgary’s largest selection of imported beers. They now serve over 300 bottled beers from over 40 countries, have 26 tap lines, and tap special casks on Thursdays. They were the first to produce a Beer Passport, which allows one to “travel around the world in 80 beers”.
Opened in 1990, almost everyone has heard of the Ship and Anchor Pub (534 17th Ave. S.W.), known usually just as the “Ship”. One of the first pubs to ignore mainstream beers, they have 28 taps and 35 bottles. Besides being busy almost all day, every day, their patio is legendary for opening any day of the year if people are willing to sit there.
Just a few of blocks away, in an old house just off Central Memorial Park, lies the Hop In Brew (213 12 Ave S.W.). Opened in 1996, owner Dick Hoppener has made it a policy to keep a good beer selection on hand. While rather small, they continually rotate taps and have a large bottled beer selection on hand.
If you want to try an unusual beer outside downtown, Limericks Traditional Public House (7304 Macleod Tr. South) has been around since 1999. With two levels, two patios, 48 taps (44 craft and domestic and four Flex Taps), and 26 bottles, this is one of Calgary’s largest pubs. By using both 20 oz. pints and 12 oz. glasses, this was one of the first pubs to have line pricing for its draught.
Up the hill from downtown is Nixx Pub (2418 Edmonton Tr. N.E.). It has expanded and changed owners since it first opened in 2003 as Nicastro’s, but it has one of the best bottled beer selections outside downtown. During a renovation about a decade ago, they added a huge beer cooler with six-foot doors at the back of the bar. This let customers see the over 60 beers, coolers and ciders that lay therein. They now have 15 taps, of which 5 are seasonal or rotational, with beers from all over the world represented.
Belgo Brasserie (501 8 Ave. S.W.) opened in 2006 and was one of the first restaurants with a large Belgian beer menu. The last couple of years, the beers have expanded and changed, but while it has added a few more North American beers, its 14 taps and over 40 bottles still maintain a strong European bent.
Have you ever been to a coffee house and found out it had a great beer selection? If you haven’t, then you’ve never been to Kawa Espresso Bar (101, 1333 8 St. S.W.). Established in 2008, it looks and smells like a coffee house, but its 60 bottled beers are a different brew. The beer menu changes often with new, mostly import beers, arriving every month. Nothing mainstream here, as 650 mL bottles, 500 mL cans and a whole host of exotic beers dominate the menu.
When 1410 World Bier Haus (1410, 17 Ave. S.W.) opened in 2005, 17th Avenue SW was awash with bars carrying the same beers (except for the Ship). Now it and its sister location 1600 World Bier Haus (1600 90 Ave S.W.) carry well over 100 bottled beers from 16 countries and 27 taps from nine countries. They deserve applause for letting customers know the alcohol content of the beer on the menu along with a two-page description of 16 beer styles. They offer an array of glass sizes from 250 mL to 1-litre steins to 2-litre boots. You can also try 5 oz. tasters of any draught beer for $3. Check out their newer location, Roosevelt (933 17 Ave. S.W.), which has Canadian and European beers on tap.
The New Wave
The group that resurrected the Unicorn (one of Calgary’s first pubs, and a good beer pub in its own right) took over an old, somewhat seedy pub down the street and reopened it as the Libertine (223 8 Ave. S.W.) in 2011. Its two floors and two bars have 18 taps each, most of which rotate almost monthly, and they carry a couple of dozen bottled beers as well. Their theme is North American craft beer, and they have special cask nights and Tall Can Tuesdays, where $8 lets you try one of several 473 mL or 500 mL cans. If East Coast beer and music is more your liking, check out Below Deck, located downstairs.
You’ll find the North Taphouse (55 Skyview Ranch Rd.) way up in the northeast, in the new community of Skyview Ranch. While it only has nine taps, it does have about 200 bottles, which continually change to include seasonal and new releases. They carry beers from all over the world, in all sizes, from 275 mL to 750 mL and they also offer a Beer Passport. They just opened up a sister location in Chestermere (320 West Creek Dr.), which has 12 taps and 100 bottles.
In Bridgeland, along 1st Avenue, lies the family-run La Dolce Vita Italian restaurant. A neighbourhood icon since 1978, its upstairs became a pizza bar in 2012 named LDV (916 1 Ave. N.E.). Done in the style of a rustic Italian pub, this cozy bar has 8 taps that go through a constant rotation and about 30 bottles on hand. While the beers tend towards the European, there is a touch of local brewery flavour.
Newly opened this summer in Kensington, Midtown (302 10 St. N.W.) has replaced the former Greek restaurant that was there for years. With 12 fully rotational taps and over 40 bottles, this pub features local and North American craft beer. Here you can also try a four-beer flight for $8, and they have 650 mL bottles too.
Also newly opened this summer is Local (310 8 Ave. S.W.). The first in Calgary of a chain of gastropubs run by Joey Restaurants of Vancouver, their eight rotating taps are divided into lager, wheat, mild ale, American ale, IPA, + fruit, sugar and spice and Brett’s pick. They also have an additional 11 permanent taps rated from light to full-bodied and 11 bottles. With just a couple of exceptions, all the beers are North American.
The Bottlehouse (102 10 St. N.W.) is in a location on Memorial Drive that has changed hands almost yearly. Reopened in 2013, it kept the same name and somewhat the same theme as its predecessor. It now has 11 taps (two rotational) and over 40 bottles from all over the world. With plans to add and change beers a couple of times a year, hopefully Bottlehouse 2.0 stays around a while.