Alberta craft beer boom set to expand in 2017

The Alberta beer boom is expected to flow throughout 2017 with an estimated 20 brew pubs or breweries opening. The number of craft breweries in Alberta has more than doubled in two years, expanding from 18 in 2014 to nearly 50 in 2016.

Alberta could see 20 new craft breweries or brew pubs open in 2017

Situation Brewing owner Wayne Sheridan notices a steady increase in the number of Edmontonians wanting craft beer. (CBC)

If your taste in beer has progressed from a commercial lager like Molson Canadian to a hoppier craft brew like Alley Kat's Full Moon, you're going to like what Alberta entrepreneurs have in store for 2017.

The Alberta beer boom is expected to expand throughout the year with an estimated 20 brew pubs or breweries opening in the province.

"It's becoming part of the Alberta identity," said Terry Rock, executive director of the Alberta Small Brewers Association.

The number of craft breweries in Alberta has more than doubled in two years, expanding from 18 in 2014 to nearly 50 in 2016. The boom began after the government changed the law in 2013 to lower the amount of beer a brewery is required to produce. Industry experts believe this helped pave the way for smaller micro-breweries.

"This economy in Alberta has unleashed a wave of entrepreneurship," Rock suggested. "People are looking for places to invest that are growing and this is a category that's growing and so it's attracting investment."

The trend has spilled into rural Alberta, with breweries like Ribstone Creek in Edgerton, Blindman in Lacombe and Fat Unicorn in Plamondon setting up shop. 

"Local beer is good beer because it's good for the economy and it's the freshest beer you're going to get," said Wayne Sheridan, owner of Edmonton's newest brew pub, Situation Brewing.

Going local 

As more and more Albertans turn toward locally-made products, Rock sees the province as being the ideal spot for beer.

"We make beer in the home of the best barley in the world," he said. "Your local beer is made with your local barley and so you're supporting the entire value chain in Alberta by buying local beer."

Olds College boasts one of the country's only brewmaster training programs and is researching three kinds of hops that grow best in Alberta.

Polar Park Brewing is slated to open in 2017 in the former Bee Bell Bakery building south of Whyte Ave. (Robert Oeming)
People's tastes are changing as well, Sheridan believes. Situation Brewing opened last May in Old Strathcona and he has been pleasantly surprised by his customers' preferences.   

"Styles that I was even afraid to make or expecting not to sell well are selling very, very well," Sheridan said.

His two best sellers are the Page Turner India Pale Ale and the Afternooner Tea Saison, a beer infused with blackberry and Earl Grey tea.

"I don't believe that more glasses of beer are being drunk in Edmonton but just the segmentation of what's in that glass is changing," Sheridan said.

"Probably a few less glasses of corporate beer, and a few more glasses every year of craft beer or micro-brewed beer."

Situation doesn't bottle or can their beer. Customers can get growlers filled on site and the brewery also sends kegs to other restaurants and pubs.

So you want to start a brewery 

It takes a lot more than a passion for beer to get a brewery or brew pub off the ground.

"You need to be strong at marketing and controlling costs, and all those important things that go with running a business," Rock explained.

Those skills will come in handy for 26-year-old Robert Oeming, operator of the upcoming Polar Park Brewing on 80th Avenue and 104th Street, down the road from Situation Brewing. 

With a master's degree in finance, the support of friends, family and over 10 stakeholders, it still took Oeming two years to secure financing for the 14,000 sq. ft. building which used to house the Bee Bell Bakery.

Polar Park operator Robert Oeming's first beer is "Nation Beer", marketed for Oilers Nation fans.
Inspiration for the project came in 2014 after the death of his grandfather, Al Oeming, founder of the now-closed Alberta Game Farm, which later became Polar Park.  

"We were standing in the polar bear compound and my father decides to make a one-off comment: 'The pool in the polar bear compound is about the right size for a copper kettle brewery,' " he recalled. 

Oeming decided to forego a career in banking and instead started a business plan for Polar Park Brewing.

"I also brewed a lot in my undergrad," he said, "The first beer I ever made was a chocolate cherry porter. It was delicious."

Oeming has hired a brewmaster who trained in Munich, Germany, and is already carving out names for his beer including Man of the North IPA, Muskox Mystery, Polar Park Pilsner, and Operation Elephant.

The city of Edmonton has to approve a development plan for the 120-seat eatery, which includes a roof-top patio.

Although Polar Park could be another six months from opening, Oeming has been brewing his first batch of beer at Two Sergeants in Fort Saskatchewan.

Called Nation Beer, it's a light lager he'll distribute to pubs around the city for Oilers Nation fans.

Competitive edge

Alberta already has the most competitive market in the country with 4,000 types of beer available for sale.

Even with more businesses slated to open in 2017, experts believe there's still room for more growth in Alberta brewing. 

Sheridan isn't fazed that two more brew pubs will join him in the same area. In addition to Polar Park, Blind Enthusiasm is opening in the Ritchie neighbourhood south of Whyte Avenue. 

"We don't even really think of it as competition. If anything, the industry term that's usually said a little bit tongue-in-cheek is 'co-oper-tition.' "

"Our competition is Labatt's, is Molson," he said. "So the more craft brewers there are, the more demand for craft beer there becomes, and the more everybody wins."

For example, Sheridan is letting Oeming use his keg washing system, the one piece of equipment new brewers struggle to afford, he said.

Rock lauds the collaborative efforts he's noticing among breweries in the province.

"Places like Tool Shed Brewing in Calgary put on a seminar called 'So you want to start a brewery?', and they'll sit for an hour and answer questions, do a presentation and answer questions of their future potential competitors."

There's also contract brewing similar to what Oeming is doing at Two Sergeants, where one brewery helps another get their first batch going while they're building their operation.

"You're not going to find that kind of behaviour in a lot of industries," Rock said. 

"I think that with that kind of attitude, we can really build a strong industry in this province."

The government is also lending a helping hand with its Alberta Small Brewers Development Program for breweries producing under 300,000 hectolitres a year.

Agriculture and Forestry Minister Oneil Carlier said his department has supplied about $4.4 million of the $20 million fund to small brewers since the program started in August 2016.