New Beer For A New Year

    Welcome, gentle reader, to the much-awaited first liquor column of the New Year. Let’s take a moment to reflect on the past year, and how the face of beer drinking changed in our fair province.

    The craft beer revolution continued to gain new adherents, with several dedicated beer parlours and gastropubs with lovingly curated beer menus opening. Truthfully, it is a wonderful time to be alive for the beer nerds of our fair province.

    Perhaps the most welcome change came from none other than the Alberta Gaming & Liquor Commission, the provincial oversight body that regulates the liquor business.

    Much to the delight of beer geeks and brewers alike, the government has done away with the minimum production requirements to start up a microbrewery.

    Up until December 2012, any would-be brewer in Alberta looking for a business license had to first build a brewery with the capacity to produce half a million litres per year. Yes, you read that correctly; before even the first dash of yeast is added to malted barley, a full-fledged brewery had to be bought and paid for before the doors could be opened for business.

    Upstart brewers didn’t actually have to brew half a million litres per year, it’s just that the brewing facility had to be capable of doing so.

    This made it very difficult for small brewers to start on a shoestring and grow the business over time, essentially making the brewing business in Alberta feasible only for well-funded megabreweries.

    Luckily, the AGLC has seen the error of their ways, and abolished all minimum production requirements. Want to start up a tiny little craft nanobrewery that only churns out a few dozen specialty kegs a week? Knock yourself out!

    The Alberta government tried to make it even more attractive for small startups, with a tax break offered for breweries that produce less than two million litres per year.

    Unfortunately, a lower tax rate for the small players in the market does not offset the tremendous economies of scale that are enjoyed by the megabreweries.

    The tax break certainly helps, but the giant industrial brewers crank out their fizzy yellow water to the tune of millions of litres per week, so the cost per litre for production will always be higher for the smaller breweries.

    This recent change to minimum production levels brings Alberta in line with the equivalent regulations in British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia, so the AGLC is not exactly breaking new ground.

    On a recent trip to BC, your globetrotting liquor reporter only had time to visit a handful of the 20 new craft breweries that have opened in Vancouver in the last year alone. Many of these micro, or even nano breweries have such a cult following that there are lineups out the door on brew day each week, with the entire production run snapped up by the local beer nerds.

    Your humble narrator has all his fingers and toes crossed that these relaxations to the regulatory environment in Alberta will allow a thousand small breweries to bloom, providing variety and increased competition to keep the major players on their toes.

    Sadly, this change came just a little too late for Tool Shed Brewing, Calgary’s newest addition to the craft beer scene.

    Started by a pair of homebrew fans who were making their own beer in backyard tool shed, they decided to go pro back in 2011, but quickly found themselves priced out of the market by the Alberta government’s requirement to invest in a facility that could produce half a million litres of beer each year.

    Not to be deterred in the face of adversity, they worked around the problem by having their beer brewed on contract by Dead Frog Brewing just outside of Vancouver. The contract brewing is just a stopgap, as they have their own brewery under construction in southeast Calgary, just down the road from Big Rock and Wild Rose, in an area which your intrepid liquor reporter has taken to calling Brewery Row.

    Perhaps next year at this time we will have a vibrant startup beer culture in Alberta, with new craft breweries popping up hither and yon. Your humble narrator will be waiting with bated breath!

    Until that time, remember to always think globally, but try to drink locally. I know I will!