In December 2013, the Alberta government made a decision that was akin to giving a beer bottle a good shake before opening. Until then, if you couldn’t produce at least 500,000 litres of lager and ale annually, you couldn’t sell even one. With the regulation removed, local brewers have been as busy as yeast in fresh wort, fostering a craft beer explosion that’s seen the industry spill into every corner of the province. Today, more than 40 brewers have become destinations for unique beer, artisanal snacks and fun, informative tours.
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Bring a designated driver when touring Alberta’s craft breweries (and know your own limit when sampling)
Calgary’s Tool Shed Brewing, for instance, produced about one million litres last year, making it one of the scene’s biggest newcomers. Co-founder Graham Sherman attributes the size of the operation to his and business partner Jeff Orr’s tendency to take hobbies like homebrewing to extremes. “We’re just beer nerds,” says the former IT professional, who’s now also a proud advocate for the local farmers who make the malted barley used in Tool Shed’s flavourful, accessible beers. Try a crisp cream ale, satisfying stout and more in the Alberta barn board–clad tasting room.
That local focus is equally evident at Banff Ave. Brewing. Predating the beer boom (it opened in 2010), the brewpub is still a main-street hot spot. In summer patio season, “You have to be here by 1 p.m. or you’re not getting a seat,” says head brewer Kent Paterson. Patron favourite Lower Bankhead black pilsner pairs well with anything on a dining menu peppered with Alberta produce. Or see what’s available from the “community tap”: $1 from every pint and bottle supports a local cause.
Not far from Jasper National Park, Edson’s Apex Predator Brewing (formerly Bench Creek Brewing) embraces the surrounding wilderness, which owner Andrew Kulynych refers to as “a solitude of black spruce and poplar.” Its five approachable but robust beers—including White Raven IPA, one of Alberta’s best India pale ales—can be enjoyed on the taproom’s seasonal patio or at a table indoors beside the brew works.
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Apex Predator isn’t alone in being a slightly out-of-the-way place for a pint. GP Brewing opened in Grande Prairie last March, and serves the likes of Harvest Hefeweizen and Blowout Stout in homage to the region’s primary industries: oil and gas, and agriculture. Or try Fort Saskatchewan’s Two Sergeants Brewing for a taste of the U.K.: The outfit produces full-bodied ales using English malt. “You can’t beat the flavour and the mouthfeel,” explains co-founder and brewmaster Kevin Moore. The British pub atmosphere is bolstered by the fact that Two Sergeants is one of the few Alberta breweries that offers live entertainment; cover bands, East Coast folk ensembles and more have been known to take the stage. The indoor street-food cart serves up hot dogs and pretzels to complement your ale.
In contrast to Two Sergeants’ penchant for overseas malt, Blindman Brewing in Lacombe brings it all back home. Like the brewery’s base malt, taproom snacks come from mere minutes away: Sylvan Star cheese and Canadian Rangeland Bison and Elk pepperoni are among the options. Co-owner Shane Groendahl points out that the brewery takes its name from a nearby river, which also graces the label of the flagship offering, a hoppy, low-alcohol ale. Blindman’s beers can also be sampled at nearby eatery Cilantro and Chive, which takes pride in pouring dozens of brews from throughout the province.
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Charlie Bredo, co-owner at Troubled Monk, also has cause to be proud. In May 2016, the Red Deer brewery’s Open Road American brown ale earned a silver medal in the prestigious World Beer Cup. Bredo takes the achievement seriously, but his brewery keeps things light. “Craft beer should be quirky and fun,” he says, which explains the Berliner weiss recently served in the taproom: The sour beer came with a surprise shot of sweet syrup. “We want to come up with things that challenge people and grow their palates.”
Bredo might as well be speaking for much of this burgeoning industry. Albertans seeking out great craft breweries no longer need to travel far. Something fun, flavourful—and maybe even a little unusual—awaits in one of the province’s many local taprooms.
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