Calgary·Food and the City

Alberta's first cidery joins Calgary's community of craft brewers

Alberta’s first cidery will be among the craft brewers handing out samples at Beerfest this weekend. The Uncommon Cidery started small a couple years ago in Calgary.

How do you like them apples?

Andrew Duncan, left, Brodie Thomas and Tim Houghton outside Uncommon Cider. (Julie Van Rosendaal/CBC)

This weekend, Alberta's first cidery will be among the craft brewers handing out samples at Beerfest.

The Uncommon Cidery started small a couple years ago, with co-founders Brodie Thomas and Andrew Duncan pioneering the process in Calgary.

"Cider is a very weird category," said Thomas. "You kind of straddle the wine market. If you're doing real craft cider, you get fruit once a year, you ferment it during that period and that's all you have for the year. It's an exciting product. It spans the gap between ciders and craft beers."

Although there has been a record number of microbreweries popping up here in recent years, none have focused exclusively on cider. Of course, this has a lot to do with sourcing the fruit — Alberta doesn't produce as many apples as B.C. does — but timing is also a factor.

Good cider relies on flavourful apples, pears and sometimes stone fruit, which are seasonal. To make true craft cider takes three to five months from pressing to bottling, versus about two weeks for a batch of beer.

Cross-border restrictions mean there isn't as wide a variety of imported hard cider in Alberta as there could be, either.

On top of that, taxes in Alberta are much higher than in B.C., where if you have a farm-based cidery that you sell from, it's a zero markup. Here, cider producers like Uncommon pay $1.81 per litre markup, or 32 cents for self distribution — a number that recently dropped, inspiring nearby Village Brewery to also delve into the world of cider.

"The AGLC [Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission] doesn't understand cider, they haven't come up with the regulations for it," says Duncan. "And there's no grant program like there is for brewers."

Head brewer Jeremy McLaughlin and Brodie Thomas. (Julie Van Rosendaal/CBC)

So why aren't they just brewing beer? Because they're uncommon.

The small team — which now includes their first staff member, Tim Houghton — is now gearing up for its first summer season with apple juice pressed in B.C. and stashed in the freezer last fall. They also have a newly signed lease in Manchester Industrial Park, which is now becoming known as the Barley Belt for the number of craft breweries in the area.

Uncommon bottles four types of cider: a basic dry craft cider; another made with hops that's not bitter like an IPA but floral with lychee notes; a pale pink sweet-tart cider made with Alberta haskap berries; and one they launched for Canada 150 called the Great Northern Wild.

Produced with heritage Canadian and English cider fruit along with 60 pounds of crabapples that Thomas picked himself in Calgary, it was produced with wild yeast fermentation, which is itself a tricky prospect.

Uncommon doesn't use sweeteners or apple juice concentrates. The fruit they use, along with the yeast, is what drives its flavour. They hope to eventually launch a program for Calgarians to register their trees, and offer teams to go pick the fruit from backyards and public spaces as a way to reduce waste while keeping things local — and interesting.

Tim is working on a summery cherry-apple patio cider, "a seasonal, something that's new and unique, something different from the others," he says.

Village Brewery is also delving into the world of cider. (Julie Van Rosendaal/CBC)

Not far away from Uncommon's new location (they hope to open with a small tasting room sometime in June), Village Brewery also launched its first apple cider this week. It's an almost clear, crisp, champagne coloured cider that's mid-range between dry and sweet, packaged in a 473-ml tall can designed by Evans Hunt.

"This is a step into the cider world for us," said head brewer Jeremy McLaughlin.

Made with apples from B.C., it contains some Earl Grey tea to help round out the flavours and add some colour. 

"A lot of large-scale ciders use artificial flavours and colouring agents, and we're really not into that," said McLaughlin.

It also provides a gluten-free option for those who want to go for a pint.

"Cider was one of the most challenging things I've ever had to do for Village," he said. "There's no hops, there's no barley — [production-wise] it's not the same thing at all. But the reception we've received from it has been one of the most gratifying."

Uncommon is similarly well received. The company's ciders are available in 200 locations around the city, including liquor stores and on tap at tasting rooms and eateries.

"When people think of cider, they think of sweet and carbonated," says Thomas. "We've all grown up on Growers, which is very one dimensional. We're using different yeasts, wild yeasts, and a lot of different apples. It's really about educating people, letting us know that what we're making is different."

Beerfest runs Friday (3-10 p.m.) and Saturday (2-10 p.m.) at the BMO Centre. For more information, visit the Beerfest website


Julie Van Rosendaal

Calgary Eyeopener's food guide

Julie Van Rosendaal talks about food trends, recipes and cooking tips on the Calgary Eyeopener every Tuesday at 8:20 a.m. MT. The best-selling cookbook author is a contributing food editor for the Globe and Mail, and writes for other publications across Canada.