I have fond memories of my first visit to Wild Rose Brewery’s brewpub shortly after moving to Calgary well over a decade ago. At that time, the main contenders for locally made beer included Big Rock Brewery, Brewsters, Alley Kat Brewing in Edmonton and not much else. Even Steam Whistle was new and buzzworthy. Yet, for a Saskatchewan transplant used to drinking nothing more than pilsner, it felt like a brave new world sipping on Wild Rose’s Velvet Fog, an unfiltered, tangy ale.
Compare that to the industry today, where a flourishing network of microbreweries stretched out across Alberta would feel overwhelming.
With well more than 100 breweries provincewide – 43 in Calgary alone, according to the Alberta Small Brewers Association – and more on the way, there has never been more selection for a beer drinker and the market they exist in has never been so competitive.
The boom began five years ago, when Alberta Liquor and Gaming Commission rules that governed the industry were significantly relaxed. The minimum output requirement for breweries, which was previously 500,000 litres – or about 1.4 million cans of beer – was removed, paving the way for small-scale brewers.
Early into the following year, Dandy Brewing Co. was one of the first craft breweries to open under the relaxed brewing regulations with its humble brewery and taproom in Calgary’s Northeast Industrial. Dandy’s co-owner, Benjamin Leon, recalls that there were only about 13 operating breweries in Alberta before Dandy opened its doors.
“Since Day 1 we have approached [brewing] from a point of ingenuity and creativity,” Mr. Leon says. “Between [co-founder/brewmaster] Dylan Nosal’s ongoing obsession with process and ingredients and [co-founder and quality-control manager] Derek Waghray’s push for quality, we’ve always [focused on producing exciting beers] for the beer drinker.”
Since then, they have watched approximately 30 competing breweries spring up. To keep up with interest and competition, the company moved into Calgary’s Ramsay area last year with an expanded set-up and more extensive taproom to further capture the attention of Albertans.
Rob Swiderski, a co-owner of the Calgary-based beer-hall chain Craft Beer Market – which opened in 2011 and now has locations in Vancouver, Kelowna, Edmonton, Toronto and Ottawa – knows the Canadian craft industry better than most. Being a cicerone in addition to owning a business that taps the most kegs of microbrewed beers in the country (each location boasts more than 100 beers on tap), he notes that the scene is highly competitive and that for newer small-batch brewers starting out the success needs to be found not only in producing a high quality beer, but also in pounding the payment.
“Because of limited growth and budget, some small brewers can struggle to survive in the city. Without a tap room this makes it even more difficult,” Mr. Swiderski says. “Compare that with big marketing budgets that come with carrying macro-brews and these little guys really have to hustle.”
He says one of the most effective aspects of an emerging local brewer is having a salesperson who is willing to hit the ground running, “professional perseverance,” as he likes to call it.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Swiderski acknowledges that fact, circles back to his point of the necessity of breweries having driven salespeople. He also notes that with the amount of microbreweries continuing to open across Canada, even as a craft beer-focused business owner it is very difficult to keep up-to-date.
“Right now we just can’t keep up to the new brewery openings. There are still places that have been open for six months [in Alberta] that I haven’t been to, but we still try our best,” he says. “I was just in Rimbey, Alta., at a great new brewery called Hawk Tail Brewing. We try to build quality partnerships [with local breweries] as much as possible.”
Alfons Weersink, an economist at the University of Guelph who has studied the craft-beer industry with his colleague Mike von Massow, says that while the market has reached a level of maturation, it continues to grow despite newer competitors such as microdistillers and craft-cider producers.
He said distribution, specifically securing space on bars’ draft beer lines, can be difficult, but smaller breweries can overcome those challenges by bringing customers to the brewery or taproom.
“The average winery sells 70 per cent of their wine in [their own] winery store. Brewers need to do the same thing,” Mr. Weersink says.
“Good product or, perhaps more importantly, a good idea and marketing will still succeed in the market, but it will be tough … . I’m not sure it’s any more or less risky than other small companies [trying to succeed].”
As much as both Mr. Leon and Mr. Swiderski agree that the Alberta craft-beer scene has become extremely populated, the two also speak to the fact that there can still be room for growth and success as long as long as they play to their strengths and avoid falling into the trap of beer trends.
“In today’s market, breweries have to understand what they do well, and who they can get excited about their product,” Mr. Leon says. “I think if breweries can understand that, and that loving to brew beer and possessing the means to do it are no longer the sole qualifications to be successful [in Alberta], there can be space for a lot of of us.”