Welcome to Calgary, the Unlikely Epicenter for Western Canada's Craft Beer BoomFebruary 21, 2020
At first glance, Calgary might seem to an outsider as Canada’s Indus Valley for craft beer. Nestled just east of the Canadian Rockies and three hours north of the Montana border, the Alberta city is the nerve center for Canada’s oil and gas industry with an unabashed cowboy culture to boot.
Yet despite its self-proclaimed entrepreneurial spirit and disdain for the rest of Canada’s government-owned liquor stores, Calgary’s craft beer scene is just coming into its own. Craft breweries in the commercial sense didn’t really exist in Alberta before 2013, the product of an archaic law prohibiting operations that couldn’t produce more than 500,000 liters of beer (that’s around 132,000 gallons for US readers) annually from launching. “It was out of a lot of people’s reach,” says James Dobbin, co-owner of Revival Brewcade in Calgary’s trendy Inglewood neighborhood. Breweries began lobbying the government and, seven years ago, the Alberta Gaming Liquor and Cannabis Commission—the provincial liquor regulator—backed down.
Since then, Calgary’s brewery scene has exploded, with a strip along the city’s southeast now known as the Barley Belt. Over 50 of Alberta’s 120 or so licensed breweries call the city home. But Calgary is weathering tough economic times. The crash of 2014 caused oil prices around the world to plummet. Alberta, once known for plentiful oil patch jobs and six-figure salaries, found itself tightening its belt. Anywhere from 60,000 to 100,000 workers lost their jobs, depending on your estimates—a huge blow in a province of just 4.5 million people. Calgary, a city with an oil-based economy akin to Houston’s, was among the hardest-hit.
As companies folded or contracted, thousands of downtown office workers found themselves being escorted to taxis by human resources professionals with pink slips clutched between their fingers. Roughly six years after the downturn, nearly a third of Calgary’s office space remains vacant. Many of those laid-off corporate staff in Calgary’s massive office towers sunk their money into new ventures. “There’s a lot of oil and gas money in beer right now,” says Benjamin Leon, co-founder and managing director of The Dandy Brewing Company. And while local officials are trying to attract tech companies—or simply hope the oil industry returns to its former glory—Calgary’s craft breweries are gaining traction in a city where the common Pilsner and Budweiser have historically reigned.
The Dandy Brewing Company was just the 13th operation in the province to apply for its license. Leon grew up in Montreal around brewpubs. When he shipped out to Calgary in 2008, he took up homebrewing to get a taste of the craft brews he couldn’t find on Alberta’s liquor store shelves. With the help of a friend, Dandy’s co-owners cobbled together a ramshackle brewing rig with four 3.5-hectolitre plastic fermentation tanks. The cooling system had been cannibalized from an old air conditioner. “We expected there was a million groups of people in their garages ready to jump as well,” he says.
The first beers hit the bar in August 2014. Since then, Dandy has unveiled its signature Dandy In The Underworld—a light-bodied oyster stout with notes of coffee and chocolate—several IPAs, and an English summer ale called Bright Young Things. Dandy also opened a 20-seat tasting room in the front of a warehouse building—one of the first in Alberta, Leon says. By 2017, the brewery had started to outgrow that. Dandy ended up moving out of its original quarters in Calgary’s northeast industrial sector and closer to downtown. It now sports a 60-seat restaurant along with the production facility.
Revival Brewcade is a tiny 450-liter brewery-slash-arcade nestled in Calgary’s trendy east-end neighborhood of Inglewood. James Dobbin, one of Revival’s owners, says it’s the smallest licensed brewery in Alberta. Between dozens of arcade and pinball machines, Revival offers around 10 beers on tap ranging from IPAs to kettle sours, along with more unusual concoctions. Not everyone notices. “I’d say 90 percent of our customers don’t know we’re a brewery,” Dobbin says.
Its owners had their hands in a variety of different ventures: Dobbin ran several Gummi Boutique candy stores, while Archibald honed his homebrewing skills while working as a software engineer. But Dobbin came up with the idea of a bar/arcade hybrid on a trip to Chicago, the pinball machine’s ancestral home, for a candy conference. A friend took him out to Logan Arcade, one of the Windy City’s legendary arcade bars. “I thought: this is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” he says.
And Calgary’s tumultuous fortunes don’t appear to be bothering Revival. Dobbin says it’s difficult to say whether the city’s ongoing economic slump is affecting their bottom line—Revival opened its doors in the middle of it. But he says if 2020 is anything like last year, the brewery will do just fine. The customer base is steady in spite of a fairly gloomy outlook for the city’s fortunes. “Our January was insane,” Dobbin tells me, “and we’ve been consistently busy since the day we opened our doors.”
Not all Calgary breweries even have doors at the moment. All five of Evil Corporation Brewing’s co-owners still work in Calgary’s suit-and-tie ridden downtown core. By day, Anthony Jackson holds down a job in recruitment and talent acquisition—and loves it. This has done wonders for their delightful caricature of their own corporate experience and the over-the-top evil corporations of 1980s science fiction. “We decided to own it,” Jackson says. Evil’s first IPA was called Initial Public Offering. Two of its other offerings are Profit and Loss Pale Ale and White Collar Crime. (Jackson says the co-owners brainstorm their beer names in a dedicated Slack channel.)
Many of these breweries are fairly small-scale operations. Still, Jackson says, Calgary’s scene is punching above its weight. Roughly a week before we spoke, Labatt’s announced its purchase of Calgary’s Banded Peak Brewing—an operation launched just three years earlier. In early 2019, Wild Rose Brewing, a staple at Calgary bars, sealed a deal with Japanese giant Sapporo. This isn’t just good news for the local scene. Oil aside, Alberta has a huge agricultural sector that already supplies American brewers. And Calgary is trying to grow beyond its reputation as a city with a single-minded pursuit of oil companies. “Just by itself, the brewery industry has really helped diversify the economy,” he says.
Aside from the Barley Belt, Calgary’s breweries are also taking root just east of the downtown core in the trendy neighborhood of Inglewood: a section of the city known for its restaurants and relative walkability. Down there, you’ll find Cold Garden, a restaurant and brewery with an open-air patio and a welcoming attitude to local dogs. Leon says Calgarians are increasingly taking advantage of these locations—walking or biking between breweries for a drink rather than hitting the downtown clubs. “People are really embracing craft beer in Calgary,” he says.
Top photo courtesy of Dandy Brewing Company.