Is Calgary on the cusp of craft beer greatness?

Is Calgary on the cusp of craft beer greatness?

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Alberta’s largest homebrew competition was held in Calgary last month, and I was fortunate enough to take part in a number of ways, both on the competitor and the judging side of the event.

I came away feeling really excited about the future of beer in Alberta – and Calgary in particular – for a number of reasons that I’ll get into shortly.

As for the competition itself, it is hosted by Calgary’s homebrew club, the Cowtown Yeast Wranglers and is called the Cowtown Yeast Wranglers Homebrew Roundup. Quite the name! The club boasts more than 200 members – this is not just a bunch of fusty old dudes in cardigans supping away on bad beer (while there is some of that, the majority of members are younger and pushing the limits of what can be achieved by making beer at home).

The competition is open to a national audience and was the first big competition of the year. Two other smaller competitions had already taken place in Lethbridge and Olds. Results are tallied and go towards the Brewer of the Year Award, so every medal in every sanctioned competition counts.

I helped out on sorting day, where a gang of volunteers unpacked, sorted, labelled and assigned beer into BJCP categories for judging purposes. Sounds simple enough right? Wrong. There were 427 entries from all across Canada, with most entries requiring two bottles. That’s more than 800 bottles of beer – each made with love and passion, by brewers holding on to dreams of taking home a medal. It took a team of 12 people more than four hours to sort this beer into a mountain of boxes and crates.

Judging took place over six days. I helped steward one of the judging sessions, which involves making sure judges get the right beer, at the right time, at the right temperature and served correctly. It was great to hear the discussions around the room and the earnestness with which judges take their role. This isn’t a free for all booze-up – this is a professional, very well run competition with Alberta’s finest beer noses and palates behind the scoring pens (although the stewards did their best to clean up the leftovers…).

Judges be judging – Roundup 2017 

The week wrapped up with an awards gala at National on 8th on April 1. It was a raucous affair with five course of amazing food paired with local craft beer. Brewers celebrated or commiserated as categories were announced and medals were handed out (I even picked up a gold medal myself #humblebrag). When the headache finally cleared the next day, I was left with a couple of very exciting thoughts.

First, there is no doubt that Calgary is a brewing powerhouse. The Cowtown Yeast Wranglers is currently the best club in the country, with 123 points – almost double the club in second place (Vanbrewers from Vancouver). Six of the top 10 brewers are from Calgary, including four of the top five (Paul Heslop first, Jonas Hurtig second, Darrin Sayers fourth and Rob Doerksen fifth place). Calgary brewers took out gold (Paul Heslop), silver (Darrin Sayers) and bronze (Jonas Hurtig) in the Best of Show category.

Second, the cross over between homebrew and commercial brew is becoming increasingly blurry. I sampled some incredible beer during the competition that would not only win gold in a homebrew competition, but also in a commercial beer competition. Wild Rose brewer Jonas Hurtig (he was the brains and palate behind Wild Rose’s awesome new High Harvest IPA and several other tasty Wild Rose seasonals) not only brews as a pro, but spends his weekend and spare time brewing up awesome beer at home as well. He took out the Yeast Wrangler of the Year award for the most points by any one brewer in the competition, and is usually at club meetings sharing his beer and being generous with his time and knowledge. Other club members have gone on to open commercial breweries: Graham Sherman and Jeff Orr of Tool Shed Brewing, Chris Heier of Half Hitch, Jochen Fahr of Brauerei Fahr – the list goes on. It’s no wonder the club does well with such great mentors to look up to for inspiration.

Third, the quality of homebrew just keeps getting better. It is often – and falsely – used as pejorative term (ew, that beer tastes like homebrew…) but you’d be hard-pressed to identify an off-flavour or a fault in the beers that medaled in the competition. That’s more than I can say for some beers being made commercially in Alberta right now. This bodes very well for what we might see in coming years.

Is all this enough to say that Alberta – and Calgary especially – is on the cusp of craft beer greatness? Maybe, maybe not. We are definitely seeing most of the new breweries opening in Alberta clustered around Calgary – that’s not to say they will all be good, but history shows that clusters of breweries like this tend to promote competition, innovation and allows breweries to branch out and specialize on particular styles and techniques and not go down the “make beer for all palate” route. One thing is certain – the proliferation of amazing brewers exercising their creative muscle here certainly can’t hurt.