Stuart Allan: Calgary Beer Bar Pioneer
A Calgary Beer Bar Pioneer on Alberta’s Beer Revolution and Flagship Beers
My wife and I stumbled into the beer thing by a combination of accidental events, commercial competition, and entrepreneurial adventuring! Or perhaps we just didn’t know any better.
We opened Calgary’s first wine bar in 1980 at the tender ages of 26 and 23. While making some private purchases of British Columbia wine, we discovered we could also trans-ship beers that were available in BC but not Alberta, so we started carrying brands like Grolsch, Henry Weinhard’s, and even Corona around 1983.
After four years, the premises next door became available and we decided to create an English pub. Bottlescrew Bill’s Old Ale and Porterhouse opened in October of 1985, featuring kegs of Guinness, Newcastle Brown, Tennent’s Lager and others, basically as broad a selection of international flagship beers as we could manage.
In the fall of 1987, I got a phone call from the Big Rock Brewery’s owner, Ed McNally, who asked me to organize a beer tasting event for the legendary drinks writer Michael Jackson. During the event, Michael asked me why I didn’t have a better selection of beer. A bit miffed, as we clearly had the largest beer list in the province, I asked what he meant.
That was my catalyst to hop on a plane to Seattle, where I met Charles Finkel, who owned Merchant du Vin, the pioneering beer importer. That was my introduction to Ayinger, Chimay, Samichlaus, Lindemans, and Samuel Smith’s, the last of which was then rarely seen even in the patch of England I used to call home.
I returned to Calgary very excited and arranged for a special shipment of a number of these beers from Merchant du Vin, for which I actually had to get a bank loan, as the provincial liquor authorities demanded 100% of the funds up front. This led to an interesting conversation with our bank manager, as I had to explain that the money was going to buy beer made by monks in Belgium which we would sell for $20 a bottle. He was bemused, to say the least.
The beers finally arrived in early 1988, just before the Calgary Winter Olympics, and away we went. Although it was definitely more of a marathon than a sprint.
Even into the 1990s, when other parts of Canada were experiencing a mini-beer boom, it was still sort of slow going in Alberta. In fact, for two decades from1990 to 2010, things moved only quite gradually forward. During this time, however, a number of things occurred to lay the foundations for the explosion that happened later, like Big Rock growing from a very small, 10-person operation to a mid-sized regional brewer, and the privatization of the Alberta Liquor Control Board in 1994, which resulted in a ten-fold increase in the number of products available.
Thirdly, the concept of a ‘pub club’ began to take over from the once-ubiquitous, Irish-themed pubs. These new spots might have 40 or 80 different beers available, but boasted more of a nightclub vibe, especially later in the evening, thus exposing a much younger demographic to different beers.
The final — sudden — step was the decision by the newly elected provincial New Democratic Party (NDP) government in 2015 to subsidize the nascent local brewing industry by giving preferential tax treatment to Alberta breweries. While this was ultimately successfully challenged in court, it meant that, for a few years, capital costs for an Alberta brewery were significantly reduced and their beers could be sold with a far lower markup. This government subsidy, combined with a number of other factors, resulted in there now being over 125 breweries in the province, compared to just 18 when the NDP government came to power in 2014.
Going forward, I think that a small brewery with a successful tap-room will continue do well – at least once this damn pandemic is finally over – and some will find a niche in off-sales and wider distribution. The current can shortage notwithstanding, growlers will eventually give way to cans, and some breweries see strength in numbers and either voluntarily join forces or be forced to merge.
The beers themselves will, I think, move to lower-alcohol and lower IBUs with emphasis on better quality and consistency rather than experimentation – basically more like old school flagship brands that we’ve carried for years, such as Phillips Blue Buck and Calgary’s own Village Wit. But in general, new brewery openings will slow down, as I fear we may have reached ‘peak beer’ already.
Flagship beers were chosen by the individual writers with no input from the #FlagshipFebruary partners or sponsor breweries.