Hop on to the craft beer chuckwagon
— by Don Tse
Craft beer is hot. New breweries have been popping up in Calgary faster than road construction zones. The growth in craft beer is being fueled by the overall growing interest in all things culinary. It’s a wonderful upward spiral. As more people realize that beer can have many interesting flavours, local brewers can push the envelope as what flavours they put into their beers. No longer just the domain of hipsters, beer is finally earning respect among all people with an interest in gustatory delights.
Here is a look at the trends driving these heady days of beer in Cowtown.
1. Taprooms. One of the things that has always made it hard to start a new brewery is finding a place to sell it. Convincing a bar or restaurant to replace a tried and true national brand with beer from a local start-up is hard. Recent regulatory changes do away with that problem since breweries are now allowed to have a bar right at the brewery and sell it directly to the customer.
In addition to being able to taste a brewery’s entire line up (most bars or restaurants will only carry one or two beers from any one brewery), taprooms allow you to talk to brewery staff to learn about the beer and the passion behind it. It’s like dining at the chef’s table in the kitchen of your favourite restaurant.
And if that weren’t reason enough to visit your nearest brewery, a pint from the taproom is the freshest beer you can get (without diving into one of the brewery tanks while the taproom staff isn’t looking).
One of Calgary’s original taprooms remains one of its best. Located on the former Currie Barracks grounds, Wild Rose Brewery’s taproom is inviting because of its unpretentiousness. The lack of TVs ensures you’ll have a good time with your friends.
2. Sour beers. One of the things people who don’t like beer don’t like about beer is that it is bitter. But one of the hottest trends in beer today is sour beer. Sometimes tempered with fruit, sour beers are generally light in body and high in effervescence, making them the perfect refresher on a hot day, as if beer wasn’t already the prefect hot-day beverage.
Higher levels of acidity also make sour beer a better match to many foods, which brings us to our next hopping trend.
3. Beer with food. Nachos. Wings. Pizza. This is the staple diet of the stereotypical beer drinker. But that’s not the case anymore. With beer now providing a range of flavours that covers the entire food rainbow, it is the perfect beverage to accompany your dining experience. Many fine restaurants now have a beer list to present alongside their wine list and can offer a pairing suggestion to enhance your dining experience.
There are many restaurants that offer good beer to accompany good food, but the best experiences are at brewpubs, which brew their own beer and serve their own food. Brewsters Brewing Company (five locations in Calgary) and Last Best Brewing and Distilling are two in the downtown area worth checking out while the newest kid on the block is Prairie Dog Brewing, whose speciality is smoked meats.
4. Trying them all. Gone are the days when someone had a favourite beer and only ever drank that beer, over and over and over again. With every small brewery making several different beers and having their unique flairs, there’s not only a beer for every person, but a beer for every occasion.
In fact, tasting beers has become a bit of a sport. Public beer rating websites like beeradvocate.com and untappd.com allow drinkers to log their beers with tasting notes and, in the case of Untappd, earn badges for trying many different beers in different styles. Some beer lovers (this writer included) almost never drink the same beer twice. One of my favourite hangouts is Beer Revolution (two locations). They are constantly rotating their taps (once one keg is emptied, it’s replaced by a keg of different beer), so you are guaranteed to find something new every time you go there. In fact, it’s not unusual for a few beers to change at Beer Revolution during one stint at the bar.
5. Hazy beers. Who doesn’t love holding up a glass of beer and seeing the sunlight glint through the crystal-clear golden nectar? As it turns out, there’s lots of flavour in the stuff that comes out of beer to make it clear. There are even biochemical processes that can continue to occur in the beer to change its flavour if you leave the proteins and yeast in it.
Breweries are now clearly in love with hazy beer. From old world hefeweizens to new world New England Style IPAs, hazy beers can offer more flavour. And for what it’s worth, there are trace amounts of vitamins in that haze, so hazy beers are arguably healthier for you. While you’ll never drink your way to good health, you can still make healthier choices.
6. Glassware. You would never drink wine (or spirits) straight from the bottle, but people wouldn’t think twice to drink beer from the bottle or can. If a beer was poured into a glass, it was usually a simple, straight-walled “shaker pint” and in the most egregious abuse of the beer, sometimes that glass came frosted, a technique used to make the beer extra cold and extra flavourless.
No more! Now, good bars and restaurants stock many different types of glasses in which they serve their beer. Just as there are different glasses for different types of wine, there are now different glasses from which to enjoy different styles of beer. Many have elegant stems and tulip or thistle shapes. They say that you eat with your eyes first and chefs have embraced the importance of presentation. And so it is with beer. A beer with rich colour and a thick foam cap sitting proudly on top, presented in an elegant glass, is paradoxically inviting, and yet, you almost don’t want to drink it at the expense of disturbing its beauty.
7. Packaging. It used to be simple. When dining out, your options were draught beer from a keg, or a 12 oz. bottle of beer, sometimes poured into a glass, sometimes not. No self-respecting restaurant would serve beer from a can. That’s no longer the case. First, many great craft beers now come in cans, which are effectively small kegs and protect the beer better, being impervious to light. Second, many beers now come in larger bottles, many with cork and cage closures (like Champagne). These larger format beers are perfect for sharing with a dinner companion and have an elegance appropriate for a fine dining experience.
8. Location. Location. Location. Just as Calgarians are embracing “eat local,” so too are they embracing “drink local.” Alberta is home to some of the best barley malt in the world and Calgary breweries are understandably proud to showcase our province’s agricultural heritage in their products. Some are going a step further, brewing with Alberta-grown hops. And two Calgary breweries, Tool Shed Brewing and Big Rock Brewery, have even made beers with locally collected yeast (most beers are brewed with lab-cultivated yeast strains).
These beers celebrate terroir in ways never before explored in Canada.
9. It’s Everywhere. Calgary isn’t the only place to get good beer. Craft beer is everywhere now. Canmore and Banff have their own breweries now, so wherever your adventures take you, there will be good beer nearby. In Canmore, check out Canmore Brewing Company Grizzly Paw Pub & Brewing Company. In Banff, Banff Ave. Brewing Co. is located on the main strip, making it the perfect place to stop for a pint after a day of hiking or skiing.
There has never been a better time to be a beer lover in Calgary. There are amazing beers everywhere, not just at the breweries themselves, but also at restaurants throughout the city. If you haven’t explored all that Calgary’s beer community has to offer, there’s never been a better time than now.