craftOxford English Dictionary
noun- an activity involving skill in making things by hand.
verb – exercise skill in making (something).
They started appearing on Alberta liquor store shelves a couple of years ago, viz. specialty spirits, beers, ciders, meads, and wines from local producers. Alberta had not seen new distilleries since the mid-1970s, and no one knew what mead is, other than it was seemingly the Vikings’ favourite drink, so this was indeed a shock to a couple of new generations.
Sure, there had been a trickle of new craft breweries since 1985, and the occasional fruit winery and meadery popped up here and there, but distilleries always seemed to be in the realm of the multinational corporation. Let’s face it; they advertise on television, in magazines, at sporting events – almost everywhere. This is not a game for tiny three or four person enterprises.
However, nobody seems to be building any multi-acre sized distilleries or breweries anymore. Thanks mainly due to government restrictions enacted in the 1910-20s (at least in North America), only a handful of hard liquor companies originated in the twentieth century and new breweries didn’t start appearing until the 1980s.
Boutique wineries began in B.C. around that same time, but for obvious reasons, Alberta did not become the next Napa Valley. Nonetheless, fruit wineries arrived early this century and mead has now become an alternative beverage, even if most people still don’t know what it is or how it is made. Cideries are just beginning to get their locations built in 2019.
During the last century, Alberta had, at most, three distilleries, eight breweries and two wineries (anybody remember Andrés and Andrew Wolf Wines?). Once the laws changed in late 2013, the explosion began, and the province is now home to 29 distilleries, 110 breweries and 12 estate manufacturers (AGLC-speak for meaderies, cideries, and wineries) and counting.
Continued advancement in sensible government regulations has helped improve the playing field and the province’s liquor landscape has changed forever. While Alberta may have come late to the party, this kind of growth has pretty much been constant across most of Canada and in almost every state south of us intent on shaking off the shackles of Prohibition.
All these new ventures are the very definition of craft. Yes, machines do some of the work, but most operations are manned by less than five people and occupy spaces smaller than a movie theatre. Coincidentally, the first new distillery to get a license in Alberta in over 40 years, Eau Claire Distillery in Turner Valley, is in an old movie theatre and dance hall.
As with many new industries, a large number of other firsts have transpired; first distillery ever in Edmonton (Strathcona Spirits Distillery), first meadery (Chinook Arch Meadery, Okotoks), first cidery (Uncommon Cidery, Calgary), first ever estate winery (Field Stone Fruit Wines, Strathmore), and every brewery built in a place not named Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, or Red Deer, is the first brewery in that town.
Craft is a word that may mean a more personal involvement with production, but it also defines size. By definition, all craft associations have limits on how big an establishment can be, how much they can produce, where their head offices are located, and even who is part of the ownership group.
This is all in an effort to separate craft businesses from the conglomerates that dominate manufacturing worldwide. In addition, craft producers enjoy an affiliation with their region by not only sourcing as many ingredients as possible from local suppliers, but also cultivating a relationship with the community as well.
This craft beverage culture has moved beyond just the sphere of alcohol. Craft sodas, syrups, tinctures, bitters, juices, and more have also arrived. These products can be sold anywhere, and consumers appreciate their quality and more natural ingredients. Some have even shown up in national chain supermarkets.
The bar and cocktail scenes have had a parallel growth, pairing these craft alcohols and mixers together to create unique libations. Because they offer a greater variety of local or unusual ingredients than the mainstream varieties, mixologists are delving into flavour profiles hitherto unexplored.
Recent regulation changes now allow bars and restaurants to mix liquor products with ingredients such as spices, herbs, and fruits, to create exclusive house-aged liquor products. The level of crafting has now migrated right into the bartender’s hands.
The winner in all this is the consumer. The efforts of these companies are directed to more than just propping up the local economy or trying to make a living – there are easier ways to make money than starting up a craft beverage business. However, the people behind them have a belief in, and a passion for, what they are doing.
Their obvious devotion to their craft also provides a kinship with local suppliers, a rapport within the community, and a connection to the consumer. You owe it to yourself to try as many locally made craft spirits, beers, meads, wines, ciders, non-alcoholic mixers, amari, and, yes, cocktails as you can.
You won’t have to travel far, the experience will be worth it, and your taste buds will thank you.