We need beer here

With increased awareness comes the need for more local brews
Drew Anderson

Did you know that beer sales in Alberta in 2012 were almost $1 billion? Let that sink in for a moment. That’s right, sit back, sip that brew and let that number settle — $1 billion. Now think about how many microbreweries we have in the province, or better yet, consider that Calgary, a city of 1.1 million thirsty souls, has only three microbreweries (plus some brewpubs). With those numbers alone, it’s probably safe to say that we need more local brews.

While the market share of microbreweries in our province hasn’t been pinned down by an august organization like Statistics Canada, it hovers around three per cent, according to those who work at the breweries, leaving an astonishingly large market share to lure. In the States — far ahead of Canada in terms of embracing microbreweries and innovative beers — some markets report a craft brew take of 10 to 40 per cent. Calgary needs more beer. And those that are already brewing? They say bring it on.

“Competition, I suppose, is one word for it, but overall I think a better beer scene with more brewers benefits everybody involved at this level,” says Brian Smith, the operations manager at Wildrose Brewery.

Wildrose is currently working on a new facility that will allow it to at least double its capacity right off the bat, and ramp up to approximately seven times its current level in the future. “We’ll be able to meet demand,” says Smith, sitting in the brewery’s Tap Room. “Right now we’re just doing all we can to get enough beer out the door. It will be nice to have enough space and actually be able to get ahead of things a bit, get our sales guys out there firing on all cylinders.”

In other words, one of three craft breweries in Calgary is struggling just to meet demand, and it’s not even the big guy on the block.

Out in the sprawling, wide-lane expanse that is the Foothills Industrial Park, the green metal roofs of Big Rock’s complex offer a respite from gravel, dust and car parts. Surprisingly, Bob Sartor, the president and CEO who faced the impossible task of taking over from the larger-than-life Ed McNally, agrees with Smith on the need for more faces in the local beer scene.

Sartor is a businessman whose last job was CEO of Forzani Group Ltd. Unlike Smith, who has 15 years of brewing experience under his belt, including time at Edmonton’s Alley Kat brewery and at Wildwood brewpub on Fourth Street S.W., Sartor rose through the ranks selling consumer goods, or at least managing the operations that did. “When I was in the sports business, once we turned Forzani around and got it fixed, then it was ‘Okay, who can we gobble up? How big can we get? And who’s not going to make the cut?’ It’s very different in craft beer. Craft beer is by its very nature collaborative.”

Okay, so everyone plays nice. But what does that have to do with the need for more small breweries in the city? It doesn’t matter if a bunch of beer lovers get together to talk over the mash tun, what matters is the effect it has on the city, in a general sense and in an economic sense, right?

At a recent webinar presented by Calgary Economic Development and appropriately hosted at Village Brewery, Scott Metzger, an economist and the owner of Freetail Brewing Company in San Antonio, broke it down. Although his numbers related to the U.S. market, they’re just as applicable here.

“One of the big things to highlight is the jobs that these breweries create,” says Metzger to a small crowd at the Calgary gathering. “One of the things I really want to emphasize is the relative inefficiency of craft breweries.”


That may seem like a bad argument to make, particularly to a crowd at a Calgary Economic Development event, but let’s hear him out.

“The beer market as a whole doesn’t necessarily have to grow in order for the economic impact of the beer industry to grow,” he says. “That’s because as the activity shifts away from large, multinational producers to small brewers, by default more jobs will be created, more economic activity will be created. So that labour inefficiency, although it’s not something that a business owner or manager is necessarily usually proud of, it’s that inefficiency that’s driving all of the economic growth.”

According to Metzger’s numbers, a large multinational like Anheuser-Busch employs approximately 116,000 people worldwide in its massive operations. It sells approximately 335 million barrels of beer, or about 3,000 per employee. In the U.S., craft brewers employ approximately 3,000 people and sell about 112 barrels per employee. It’s a symptom of small breweries that could offset the 20 per cent decline in brewing industry employment in Canada between 1999 and 2009 according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

More jobs means more money. That’s a pretty basic economic truth, one that even beer drinkers and writers can understand. But that’s not the only benefit to a city, a province or a country when more craft beer hits the market.

Metzger says that craft brewing has a disproportionate effect on community revitalization and tourism than other retail industries — opening brewpubs, offering local fare for diners and drinkers, and supporting the local community.

It’s something that Jim Button of Village Brewery understands well. At the same gathering, Button highlighted community as the driving force of Calgary’s newest craft brewer. The company decided to eschew the regular route of having a few large investors and opted to reach out into the community to bring more people on board. It was, as Button says, a challenge, but one that reflects the intent of the fledgling operation. “Everybody had different answers, but the one thread that went through all of them was to be a big part of the community,” he says of the people behind the brand. “So when we started building the brewery, we had that at the forefront all the way through.”

It’s a theme that runs through all of Calgary’s craft brewers, including the relatively large Big Rock. “Every craft brewer that I know wants to give back to the people who have honoured it with the purchase and consumption of their beer,” says Sartor. “So what I see is way more thriving music and arts scenes, theatre scenes, in those areas where craft beer is very prevalent to where it’s not.”

And there’s certainly room for more product. In 2010, the most recent year numbers are available, Canada was the sixth largest importer of beer in the world. Most of that comes from the Netherlands, the U.S. and Mexico. Our local shelves are bursting with options, but there is limited local variety, and a lot of those imports reflect the desire of consumers to have options beyond the mass-produced Canadian fare of the past.
If you go to a store in B.C. there are sections stocked with an abundance of local products from Vancouver, Victoria, the Interior and down the coast from the beer meccas of Portland and Seattle.

“I think we’re under-represented for sure,” says Smith. “Again, hopefully that will rectify itself in the future. I mean, you look at places like Vancouver, it’s still growing — I think there are eight or nine breweries that are supposed to be opening there this year.”

There are challenges, including a lack of investor interest in breweries. Regulations in Alberta also mean that you can’t start off really small and work your way up. You have to demonstrate the ability to produce at least 5,000 hectalitres the day you open, blocking the rise of nanobreweries (yes, that’s a trend) and preventing small entrepreneurs from entering the market. Although Alberta offers tax incentives to small brewers, not many have taken the plunge.

Amidst the dearth of local breweries, awareness about good, craft beer is growing exponentially. National, Craft Beer Market, Beer Revolution, Bottlescrew Bills and other pubs offer a dizzying array of beer styles and breweries on their taps. There are beer dinners, introducing throngs of Calgarians to the joys of beer and food pairings. If you walk into most liquor stores, the shelves are bursting with craft offerings that would have been unheard of a few short years ago.

Wildrose and Big Rock both plan on experimenting more and offering different styles of beer, and Village is now going full-tilt, so things are getting better here. What we really need, and what can only help our beer/arts/dining/tourist scene, is more local beer to feed a thirsty population.

Comments: 5

ludovico wrote:

Alberta deserves a better local beer scene, and I thank you for bringing this conversation into the public discourse. There are a few things holding the province back, but I think things are (slowly) improving here.

Big Rock isn't a 'microbrewery' by any definition. Their facility in Calgary produces more than 360,000 bottles worth of beer every day (micro?), and despite their recent efforts to rebrand themselves 'craft', the quality of their products simply does not reflect what the craft beer movement is all about. 'Craft' happens in the brewhouse, not in an office filled with hyperbole favoring public relations professionals.

Wild Rose's new facility is an exciting prospect. A larger production capacity and better location is long overdue, and the local scene will improve because of it. Village has increased their capacity substantially, but I think the craft beer community is still waiting for an exciting product from them. I am confident they will deliver on this in 2013.

The 5000hl limit in Alberta is a huge deterrent for brewpub or microbrewery startups. This is purportedly not strictly enforced (I don't believe Brew Brothers have ever made this much beer in a year), but its not hard to see that this antiquated law favors large companies and sends entrepreneurs away to more appealing markets.

Also, thank you for making no mention of Minhas and his fake-craft cronies in this article.

on Feb 28th, 2013 at 11:23am Report Abuse

Drew Anderson wrote:

Big Rock actually is a microbrewery by many definitions. There is a tremendous drop-off in terms of production from the big guys to the Big Rocks of the world. There's certainly a discussion to be had around what exactly is a microbrewery, but I'm not going to try to define it.

The initial limit rule means that a brewery has to have the capability to produce that much, you don't actually have to do it. But yes, apparently it's not strictly enforced.

on Feb 28th, 2013 at 1:49pm Report Abuse

Al wrote:

Hi Andrew,

I enjoyed reading your article about craft beer in Calgary, although given that its premise was the lack of craft beer and breweries in Calgary I was dismayed when you stated there are "3 microbreweries in Calgary, plus some brewpubs".

In fact, there are 4 microbreweries and 1 brewpub in Calgary, plus Big Rock, the second largest independent brewery in Canada and generally not considered a microbrewery. Big Rock is about 20 times bigger than the largest microbrewery in the Province. They produce a wide variety of excellent beers, some of which are considered craft beers by local industry standards, and some which are not, and as such they are not simply considered a craft brewery either. They are a regional brewery producing a variety of beers from craft to value brand styles.

And so, the missing microbreweries and brewpub:

Brew Brothers Brewery is located on 11th Ave. at 5th St. SW right beside The District Tavern. We brew five core brands and one or two seasonals at any given time in our small boutique brewery. We've been at this location for about 6 years, and are in fact downtown Calgary's only brewery. Thousands of pints our premium craft ales and lagers are consumed by thirsty Calgarians every week in various pubs across town, or taken home in our 64 oz. growlers, so why we did not merit even a mention in your article is puzzling.

Minhas Brewery has recently opened a small brewery in NE Calgary and I have to admit I don't know many details about their operation. While this new brewery here is a small spin-off of their large production facility in the US, they are going concern and should have been noted in an article of this nature.

Brewsters Brewpub has been a cornerstone of the Calgary craft brewing scene for a couple of decades - they have the largest selection of delicious craft brewed beers of any brewer in town, available at their pubs all over Calgary. From easy drinking fruit beers and lagers to robust India Pale Ales, porters, and stouts, it is hard to understand why they would not have been included in your article.

There are currently a number of brewery and brewpub projects in various stages of development opening in 2013 and 2014 in town, perhaps worth noting in some detail. I believe the local craft beer drinkers in Calgary would be interested in a more complete story, and hopefully there will be even more local craft beers and breweries in town for your next article.


Alan Yule
Brewmaster / Operations Manager
Brew Brothers Brewery
605 11th Ave. SW
Calgary, Ab

on Mar 6th, 2013 at 12:18pm Report Abuse

Drew Anderson wrote:

Hey Al, thanks for commenting. I agree, not including Brew Brothers was an oversight. I love your Black Pilsner and even enjoyed a couple pints of it last night at the Hop.

I still stand by the fact that Big Rock is a microbrewery within existing standards. If you look at the difference between the big guys (Big Rock here, Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada... in the States) they are still way below what the big producers are doing. It's definitely a debate that should happen, but I wasn't setting out to settle that one here.

As for Minhas, the fact that they are brewing in the states is the reason why I didn't feel it necessary to include them here.

As for the brew pubs. This article, strictly because of the focus, dealt with breweries rather than brewpubs. I'm excited about what I've heard about new operations coming soon, including one at the base of the Arriva tower. Again, however, we didn't have the space to look at what's coming down the pipe in terms of brewpubs in the city.

We will definitely be writing more about what's happening in the beer scene in Calgary and will touch on more aspects in the near future.

Again, thanks for writing Al.


on Mar 6th, 2013 at 1pm Report Abuse

J_marshall wrote:

As a homebrewer the idea of one day branching out to produce something marketable (on a nano-scale) has intrigued me on the occasions that my recipe has turned out perfectly.

Imagine being able to purchase beer at the farmers market, crafted by local brewers in batches of just a few hundred bottles. You could get a mix and match case of unique, one of a kind beer.

The laws being what they are (5000 hectalitres), this is impossible.

on Mar 7th, 2013 at 9:49am Report Abuse

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