Let’s get one thing out of the way: Albertans love a good drink. More specifically, we’re crazy about craft beer, and for a good reason – Alberta has been the de-facto brewing hub of the West for what feels like forever. We’ve seen an enormous change over the past few years in how many of our favourite breweries and distilleries are Alberta-made.
With that in mind, we talked to a few operators and owners in the brewing scene to get an understanding of what it’s like operating a brewery or distillery in Central Alberta.
For these businesses, creating the beer or spirit is just the first step. It’s tapping into a vision that engages the community in a way that’s more than drinking a beverage. This connection extends from the taprooms and tasting areas to bars, pubs and living rooms across the province. Creating lasting relationships and getting the community excited on something built in their backyards is some of the perks of working in Central Alberta’s brewing scene.
Hops, IPAs and Sours, Oh My!
In Lacombe, you can find Blindman Brewing and Old Prairie Distillery within spitting distance of one another. Besides sharing parking space, both breweries are excellent examples of local done right. Both showcase a firm belief in supporting local industries and are proud to be Albertan. They’re both passionate about creating high-quality products. And they both have retail storefronts that look way more like cozy hangouts where you and a bud can talk about the day’s events over a refreshing beverage.
Hans Doef, one of the founders at Blindman, described the brewery as “a product of five beer geeks gathering together… wanting to make great beer for our friends, family and further.”
“Mostly we really, really like craft beer and wanted to raise the bar in Alberta for craft beer.” He says. Nowadays, Blindman’s ales and sours can be found in more than 400 locations across the province and beyond. Not bad for five beer geeks.
Olds is where students go for expert tutelage in all things brewing – specifically Olds College. It’s one of three places in Canada that offer brewmaster courses, its state-of-the-art facility drawing in plenty of brewing aficionados from all over the world. The average joe will enjoy touring the 2,300 square foot brewery and making their way through its tasting room. The on-campus retail store is home to all of Olds’ seasonal and popular brews in cans, bottles and kegs.
2018 has been a good year for Sylvan Lake – it’s seen two breweries open up in the beach community for the first time. Snake Lake’s Albertan roots shine through their choice of name (named after the original name for the lake), their choice of locally sourced grains and their insistence that their beers, all named for local stories and legends, will be your new best friends. Built right on the banks of the lake itself is Undercurrent Brewing. The family behind Undercurrent started out as lawyers but made the decision to switch into brewing after they realized just how much they enjoyed it.
“Our goal is to share the microbrewery experience we had come to know,” their website reads. “Sitting in a local tasting room, sampling unique styles of beer that you can’t find on the bottle shop shelf.”
In Red Deer, you can find the province’s first store dedicated to craft beer, Craft Nation. It’s a name and ethos they don’t take lightly – this one of a kind store carries more than 600 different varieties of craft beers. Complete with a massive growler bar featuring sixteen rotating taps, a Beer Club that provides a number of exclusive craft beers for members and an open display cooler that makes selecting choice brews an absolute breeze. Why can’t more places be like this?
What you’ll also find is Troubled Monk Brewery, one of the craft beer strongholds in the region. The name comes from legends of European monks, obsessed with brewing and crafting the perfect beer. The real-life brewery embraces a similar strategy; experimenting and creating new beers and sodas in search of something great. Each beer that comes from Troubled Monk comes with a story, like the Pesky Pig Pale Ale; it’s an American ale named after the Red Deer pig that escaped a slaughterhouse.
“You never know if it’s the right one until you’ve tried it.” Charlie Bredo, co-founder, says about Troubled Monk’s penchant for experimenting. “That’s one of the good and bad things about this stuff. But through talking to the team and the community and getting a sense of what the interest level is out there and combining it with our passions, we try to do different things nobody else is doing and having fun with it. It’s art and science for sure.”
Luckily, they seem to strike it right more times than not.
“We have won a number of awards for our beer at the local, provincial, national and international levels,” Bredo adds. “I think what we’re proud of is the innovation we’re doing, coming up with the different spirits and sodas and beers. We’re unique in that sense, being passionate about craft beverages altogether.”
Good Community = Good Brews
A stone’s throw away in Innisfail lies the aptly-titled Stone Heart Distillery. It’s a family-operated business on a farm that’s belonged to the Scotts for generations. It’s where you go when you’re in need of high-quality spirits that goes down smooth. We’re not the only ones who think that – Stone Heart ranked silver in the Canadian Artisan Spirit Competition this year for their smooth vodka. Long-term longevity is the goal for Stone Heart. Co-owner/operator Marnie Scott and her husband Ian want to make it something their son can proudly carry on along with taking over the farm.
“There is an incredible support system here,” Scott says. “The Shop Local, Support Local scene is just amazing, and people and businesses are making it possible for distilleries and breweries to thrive.”
Over in the Foothills of Alberta lie two great things: Fallentimber Meadery and honey. Local honey is essential to the story of Fallentimber – the local hives found in the eastern edge of the foothills give the mead a certain feel you can’t see anywhere else. As CEO and sales manager Dan Molyneux puts it, the story of Fallentimber all began with an unusual problem – having too much honey.
“My uncle’s father set up the apiary on this site in 1969, which was taken over by my uncle,” Molyneux says. “As an active apiary, my cousins had access to lots of honey, and as their homebrewing interests grew, they decided to start fermenting the honey. After some thought and practice, it was decided opening a meadery as a value add-on to the apiary might be a good idea and bring in extra cash flow.”
It turns out the value they got was a lot more than they anticipated. It stands to say that with great honey, you can make fantastic mead. It helps if the people surrounding you are great too.
“Working in Central Alberta from the farm is special because we are able to do just that – operate from the farm,” Molyneux adds. “There are not many circumstances where one could move back to a modest farm and create something that is growing so quickly, employ more people, pushing an emerging industry forward with the original components of the family farm, dreams and some equipment; it’s pretty amazing!”
For these owners and operators, the business of brewing is less about turning a dollar and more about following their passions and sharing the fruits of their labour with the communities they are indebted to. We enjoy going to the bar for a drink because it’s a social activity that never fails to get old and for people like Bredo, being a part of that activity is a privilege.
“Craft beer is very much about community,” Bredo says. “Sharing a beverage with friends is a way of connecting with people. We set the stage by creating drinks people are excited about, the community takes over when they try our stuff, like it, and can’t wait to share that next drink with someone else.”
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