Calgary·Food and the City

Tool Shed Brewing Co. on building relationships and good Alberta beer

Graham Sherman and Jeff Orr, founders of the tiny Tool Shed beer, share how they are building a relationship between their beer, brewery and Calgary.

'I think it's the first time anyone's done this in Alberta,' says Graham Sherman on making new yeast strains

Tool Shed Brewing's Jeff Orr and Graham Sherman have started making test batches at their new brewery in northeast Calgary. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

When you consider eating (and drinking) locally, thoughts of beef and grains may come to mind — even some of the world's best barley.

Tool Shed Brewing Co. has grown from a backyard project to a full-sized commercial brewery. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

But Graham Sherman and Jeff Orr, founders of the tiny Tool Shed beer, are going a step further by harvesting their own unique strains of Alberta yeast.

Jeff and Graham became friends while working on IT and satellite communication projects in Afghanistan back in 2007.

"When we were back home in Calgary, every weekend Jeff and I spent in my back yard tool shed, brewing beer," Graham said of their hobby. "Jeff and I take our projects way too freaking far."

(They also became enamoured with coffee, importing beans and roasting them in a roaster controlled by his iPhone. And then they got into barbecue, competing on the barbecue circuit, always in pursuit of mastering their current obsession.)

"So when we got into brewing, it was clearly the next logical step. We were like, how can we take this way too far? We need a lab. And so we built one."

Backyard brewing start

They started their company small in Graham's back yard on a basic five-gallon home brew system.

"My wife and three kids weren't big fans of me being in Afghanistan for eight months at a time, and so we decided to do this," Graham said. 

As they tried to get their small brewery set up, the National beer hall was their very first customer.

A look at some of the different barleys used at the Tool Shed Brewing Co. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

"They trusted us," Graham said. "Even when we screwed up and ran out of beer, they left taps empty, waiting for us to get beer back, because they wanted to support us."

He took samples around to his favourite restaurants, places whose food he loved, and the response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic.

"They were like, in Cattle Boyz Barbecue Sauce bottles with a homemade sticker I put on it," Graham says of their sample brews. "And they put one up on the wall at National on 17th. And it just makes me want to cry when I see it…. It was cool that when I brought the beer there he said he was going to keep the bottle [and] 'that you guys are going to be something this beer's so good.'

"From the very first moment, it was all about changing one variable at a time, so we know exactly what's going on."

They were already sourcing the very best locally grown barley, and had access to the best water, and so they looked to master brewers in Belgium for inspiration.

'We got yeast! It's alive!'

A coolship — koelschip in Dutch — is a wide, shallow vat used to cool hot wort, or liquid extracted from the mashing process. As it's cooling, the natural air of the Belgian countryside flows over the vessel, shaped to maximize surface area.

"It's called spontaneous fermentation," Graham explains. "And they know the right time of day, time of year, the temperature, and when to have it open to capture the most incredible yeasts. It's like this romantic relationship between the beer and where it's brewed."

Graham Sherman explains how Tool Shed Brewing Co. is creating its own yeast strains for different beer tastes. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

So Graham and Jeff decided to fashion their own coolship, and brought it out to the farm where they source their barley.

"We drove around for a couple hours, amongst all the different trees and bushes," Graham said. "And then I sat it in the barn for the hot part of the day. Then in the evening when it got to the right temperature again, I sat the bin out underneath this beautiful lilac bush."

He let it sit overnight, and the next morning transferred it to a sealed vessel and began fermenting it.

"It was the greatest thing ever," he said with the enthusiasm of someone on the cusp of creating or discovering something new. "When it started bubbling — you know when there's positive pressure when yeast starts to eat sugar — it creates alcohol and CO2, which creates a positive pressure within the keg. You're looking to see if it's actually working. And when you see bubbles, you're like — we got yeast! It's alive!"

It's not only the first time Tool Shed has done this, but it's the first time anyone around here has. The next step is to bring it to Olds College, where they'll help separate each strain, and then Jeff and Graham will experiment with them in their own beer lab.

"I think it's the first time anyone's done this in Alberta to create an Alberta yeast strain," said Graham. "We buy our yeast from a place down in California, and they're absolute pioneers of yeast, and they have a bank of all different yeasts around the world. We create something new, we give it to them, and anyone in the world can make a beer using Alberta yeast. If this is a good strain, this is something everyone could benefit from."

Food and the City is a new weekly column from Calgary Eyeopener food guide Julie Van Rosendaal.


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.


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