That’s right. Calgary.
The city gets a bad rep in most parts of B.C., particularly in Vancouver, because… well, why is it exactly? Because it’s flat? Because it’s cold? Or because of the Flames? Or the cowboys? Or the oil?
Maybe it’s because of all of that. But we’ve heard rumblings of a craft beer scene coalescing in the Prairie capital, and since we have an almost terminal case of F.O.M.O., The Growler decided to scope the city out for ourselves.
As it turns out, we were a bit early to the party – about six months early, actually.
There were only 10 breweries open at the time, with another, Cold Garden Beverage Company, opening since our visit.
Another 24 craft breweries are in various stages of planning and are set to open by the end of 2017. In fact, despite Alberta’s troubled economy, Calgary seems to be in the midst of a cultural renaissance, of which craft beer is just a small part. In the past few years, there’ve been a score of trendy, sophisticated businesses opening up: boutique restaurants with adventurous menus and coffee roasters aplenty. It’s as though millennial business owners visited Portland and Brooklyn en masse and brought the influence home.
But it’s perhaps the craft beer industry that’s generating the most optimism, in part because of new rules established by the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission that have made it easy for breweries to open. Up until three years ago, the AGLC wouldn’t sign off on a brewery until it could prove they could sell 500,000 litres (or 5,000 hectolitres) of beer. This was such an enormous investment (since the brewery had to be built beforehand) that startups were scarce.
That all changed in 2013, allowing new breweries to open up. And while the AGLC hasn’t exactly made it easy for the beer industry – they instilled a prohibitive markup on all breweries selling beer in Alberta, including breweries from Alberta – it has at least made it possible for craft beer culture to exist at all.
So if you go, this is what you should see.
Banded Peak Brewing
Tasting room culture does not yet exist in Calgary in any meaningful way, but Banded Peak comes closest to what spoiled BC beer fans are used to. Their facility – located in an industrial park five minutes out of town – has a small space at the front with small tables nestled under metallic storage shelves. This is Calgary’s newest brewery, started by three life-long friends and homebrewers who quit their jobs working in oil and mining to start it up. The lure here is the beer, especially its three core beers: a saison, a hopped wheat ale and an IPA. All three are impressive, considering the brewery was barely two months old when we visited. The three beers offered creative variations on styles aficionados are used to, which manage to be approachable and satisfying for novice palates – a crucial demographic for Calgary’s nascent brewing industry.
The Dandy Brewing Co.
Alberta’s smallest brewery is also quite possibly its most DIY. Dandy’s mash tun and brew kettle are two halves of a recycled bright tank from Wild Rose. They use plastic fermenters. All the beer is bottled by hand. This is also one of the first breweries to open after the AGLC changed the rules. But rather than pander to newbies accustomed to drinking Labatt, Dandy came out swinging with a lineup designed to lure the beer nerd. This is a brewery that thrives on experimentation and the element of surprise, whose flagship beer is (inexplicably) an oyster stout – and a damn fine one to boot. It’s also the only local brewery we visited that made a sour beer and a Berliner Weisse. The tasting room is tiny, cramped and lacking air conditioning, but its impressive all the same.
Last Best Brewing & Distilling
Last Best is the newest brewery founded by beer the industry mogul (and wickedly named) Socrates Korogonas, who opened his first brewery, Jasper Brewing, in 2005 after winning the lottery. With Last Best, he’s created one of only two breweries located in an urban (as opposed to industrial) area. And by “brewery,” we technically mean “brewpub,” because this is a full service restaurant as well.
It’s also a must-see, with beautiful brick archways, canvases from local artists, occasional live music on the patio and an eclectic selection of beer that should satisfy everyone from the average beer drinker to the surliest of beer nerds. If that’s not enough, well, they have a small but adventurous menu with really good food. We’ll recommend that you eat here.
Tool Shed Brewing Co.
Tool Shed is one of our favourite breweries we’ve ever visited. Full stop. This is due in part to brewer and co-founder Graham Sherman, a sparkplug of personality who’s gracious and hilarious, and is known to give patrons the time of day, any day. It was Sherman, along with his business partner Jeff Orr, who was responsible for pushing the AGLC to change the laws that allowed them to open in the first place. The AGLC even tweeted out congratulations to Tool Shed when the changes were announced. The front tasting room is designed to look like a tool shed, complete with unfinished wood panels on the walls and bar In the back is an enormous space with picnic tables for patrons, looking out onto the production area. The beer is designed to be sessionable – balanced, flavourable brews that are expertly crafted that can no doubt lure in anyone coming off from Molson Canadian.
Trolley 5 Restaurant & Brewery
Located on Calgary’s up-and-coming 17th Avenue, Trolley 5 – a gorgeous, three-floor room perennially crammed full of attractive young people – is one of the few brewpubs The Growler has ever visited that does everything right. The brewhouse and the beer are given equal weight to the food. Both are excellent. The food menu offers “global comfort,” everything from Oklahoma-style barbecue to Chinese dumplings. As for beer, we tried a white IPA and a porter, both helmed by head brewer Jeff Demaniuk, formerly of Phillips and Parallel 49, who brings a West Coast flare to the operation. These can’t come to BC soon enough.
Village is the oldest of the new batch of breweries, standing somewhere between the artisanal aspects of Tool Shed and the commercial ambitions of Big Rock. It was originally founded by four Big Rock honchos who didn’t like the corporate direction it was taking and wanted to open something smaller and more artisanal. “Smaller” now means 11,000 hl per year, which is sold and distributed primarily through draft and packaged product. Village has no tasting room per se, but they do offer brewery tours that are followed up with a visit to a lounge, where beer tastings are offered.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Arts is boutique hotel in downtown, similar to what you’ll see in Portland or Seattle – trendy bar, funky décor, comfortable beds at a reasonable rate. Again, nearly everyone working and staying was under 40 years old, exclusively so in the terrace pool, which was crowded with 20-somethings in skimpy bikinis sipping cocktails. It almost feels like Vegas.
A tour of Calgary breweries is mostly a tour of the city’s industrial parks, which are spread out across the sprawling city. Calgary Brewery Tours is the best option, though it doesn’t visit all the breweries quite yet.