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Alberta craft breweries on Calgary Stampede grounds for the first time

“The greatest barley growers in the world are an hour’s drive from us and our water quality is perfection for brewing ales. People are proud of that,” said Tool Shed Brewery co-founder Graham Sherman, shown in this April 2016 photo.

Jeff McIntosh/The Globe and Mail

What might seem like a small sip at the Calgary Stampede this year could turn out to be a big, sudsy success for the Alberta craft brewing scene.

Craft breweries will be on the Stampede grounds this year for the first time, providing another option beyond the cowboy-branded cans of Budweiser and or Bud Light, although only in one spot on the grounds.

An official craft-beer hall has been set up featuring more than 20 breweries, including Tool Shed Brewing, Village Brewery, Half Hitch Brewing from Cochrane, Alta., Alley Kat Brewing from Edmonton, and Calgary's craft giant Big Rock.

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"The term 'local' is not just a buzzword here in Alberta," said Graham Sherman, co-owner of Tool Shed Brewing.

"This community truly takes pride in supporting everything around them. The greatest barley growers in the world are an hour's drive from us and our water quality is perfection for brewing ales. People are proud of that."

The relatively limited beer choice is a result of the sponsorship model that shapes the food and drink available at the Stampede, which has an official barbecue sauce and soft drink, among others.

Anheuser-Busch InBev (the parent company of Labatt Brewing Company) has had an exclusive agreement with the Calgary Stampede for years, resulting in minimal beer offerings on the grounds and backlash from craft-beer advocates that has grown exponentially in recent years.

"It's a full-circle moment for Big Rock Brewery," said Susanne Fox, communications manager for the company. "When our founder, Ed McNally, started up Big Rock in 1985, he did it with a goal of being able to showcase the world-class barley and wheat that we grow in our own backyard. … He would be proud of this moment."

Terry Rock, the head of the Alberta Small Brewers Association, has been largely credited with being the one to help local brewers come to an agreement with the Calgary Stampede.

"First, it's really going to be a new attraction on Stampede Park," Mr. Rock explained. He said it will also be a chance to let Stampede attendees know that Alberta grows and processes some of the best barley in the world.

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"We want to draw attention to the work of our amazing farmers."

Mr. Sherman of Tool Shed said, "He's very effective and he can talk with boards like the people at the Calgary Stampede and say, 'Look, here's why this is a great benefit to you,'" Mr. Sherman said. "And, do you know what? They listened. He is a big part of this puzzle that I think was missing before."

In addition to the craft-beer hall, the Calgary Stampede is also playing host to five brewmasters dinners over the course of the 10-day event. The first, in collaboration with Big Rock Brewery, was scheduled for Friday night and was sold out.

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