You may not know it, but we are living in the Golden Age of Alberta brewing. Now, to the uninitiated, that might seem like a bold statement. Yeah, you know Big Rock has been around since before the Calgary Olympics, and there have been a few new ones since, but the Golden Age? Really?
Although Alberta has been a province for more than 110 years and a territory for a few decades before that, it doesn’t exactly have a distinguished brewing history. Given that Alberta lies in a location with some of the best brewing malt and water for brewing on the planet, it’s a bit perplexing. However, up until the mid-1980s, only three major breweries dominated brewing in Alberta, and even with the new ones since, we are only now on the cusp of a brewing explosion.
Before Alberta was even a province, entrepreneurs like A.E. Cross and Fritz Sick built breweries in Calgary, Edmonton, and Lethbridge. A couple of other minor ones entered the landscape in the 1900s, but most either closed shop or were bought out by bigger fish. Brewing in Alberta may not have begun with Molson, but it sure often ended with them, as they terminated no fewer than four breweries in three cities throughout the century.
As a result, Alberta usually had only three to five breweries operating at any given time up until 1985: Molson and Labatt’s in Edmonton, Sick’s Brewery in Lethbridge, Calgary/Carling O’Keefe in Calgary, and Uncle Ben’s/ Rocky Mountain/Drummond in Red Deer. The mid-1980s brought change in Canada, and the requirement of national breweries having operations in each province was dropped. As a result, dozens of breweries either closed or were sold. However In both Canada and the U.S., this was also the shotgun start for craft breweries.
Uncharacteristically, Alberta was at the forefront! Thanks to Ed McNally’s vision, the Big Rock Brewery opened up in 1985, the first brewery to open and survive in Calgary in almost a century. Despite its success, two expansions, and a move to a new custom-built brewery in 1996, the floodgate of new craft breweries did not open in Alberta (or Canada, for that matter) like it did in the United States.
In fact, only nine other breweries and seven brewpubs opened between 1985 and 2013. This low number was partly a result of the trepidation felt by potential investors in bankrolling a business that would have to compete with two giant corporations who, at the time, had a 95 per cent market share. Also, it was partly due to archaic provincial liquor laws, one of which dictated a minimum brewery size, which discouraged many more, until the minimum size was thankfully eliminated in December 2013.
As a result, in the two years since this minimum requirement was abolished, seven breweries/brewpubs have begun operations with at least eleven more facilities scheduled to open in 2016/
The Olds College Brewmaster and Brewery Operations Management program began in 2012, producing graduates qualified to work in breweries, and providing a location where the art, science, technology, and business of breweries can be studied. As Alberta grows from a province that boasted single-digit number of breweries through most of its existence, towards 40 and possibly 50 or more before this decade is out, you also begin to see a shift in the “beer culture” locally.
Craft breweries have proven to be good for the economy. They employ people, use local renewable resources, create and support other industries, and provide a sense of local pride as they can be built almost anywhere. In Colorado, many small towns are lobbying for craft breweries to locate there because they see their beneficial economic impact. Local breweries also tend to be more involved with the community – supporting the arts, donating casks to charities, and generally being more conspicuous.
So, how far can this go? No doubt, craft beer and brewing are still growing. However, as Alberta is only now joining a club that has been in existence for more than 30 years, we do have some points of reference. British Columbia has more than 100 breweries, and San Diego, California, a city similar in size to Calgary, has more than 50 breweries. Colorado, a state with about the same population as Alberta, has around 250 breweries. It’s clear we have a long way to go.
Drink it in Alberta. These new breweries are open for business, so try their beer, or better yet, visit them. They all have tasting rooms and you can meet the people behind the beer. Currently, on average, two breweries a day are opening in the U.S., the equivalent of one opening every 40 days in Alberta. So, with eleven scheduled to open this year, we are right on pace. If you want to see (and taste) them all in one place, be sure to visit Calgary International Beerfest, May 6-7. Alberta is world famous for many things; maybe next it will be for its beer.