Calgarians don’t like taking a backseat to Edmonton in any regard, but our neighbours to the south may have to cede some cachet to the capital after the inaugural Alberta Beer Awards were handed out in March.
The explosion of craft breweries across the province has been slow to reach Edmonton, but the 10 or so competitors from the Capital Region punched above their weight, winning 15 of the 66 medals awarded. In its first year of operation, Edmonton’s Blind Enthusiasm Brewing claimed the Brewery of the Year title based on its medal haul, while one of the city’s craft beer institutions, Alley Kat Brewing, came second.
Recognition is satisfying on a personal level – and it’s always fun to harp on Edmonton and Calgary’s perpetual rivalry – but Greg Zeschuk of Blind Enthusiasm says his biggest takeaway from the results is breadth and depth of the talent pool in the province’s craft beer industry: 33 of the 57 breweries that entered the contest won medals.
“Historically in Alberta, we couldn’t have had a competition like this. It validated not just our brewery, but the last few years of trying to get the industry going,” says Zeschuk, who served as executive director of the Alberta Small Brewers’ Association (ASBA) before leaving in 2016 to start Blind Enthusiasm.
For years, the number of Alberta craft breweries hovered in the low double digits, thanks to a provincial regulatory regime that made it next to impossible for a start-up brewery to enter the marketplace. When the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission (AGLC) abolished minimum production quotas in 2013 and cleared the way for people to open small breweries, it started a deluge that hasn’t stopped. At the time of the awards in March, there were 75 licensed breweries in Alberta.
The Alberta Beer Awards are the brainchild of two well-known figures in Edmonton beer circles: Beer writer Jason Foster and nationally-ranked beer judge Owen Kirkaldy. The pair were presiding over a regional competition last year when they both sensed Alberta’s craft beer scene had reached a pivotal point.
“We both said to each other, simultaneously, ‘You know, Alberta might be ready. There might be enough breweries and Alberta beers were holding their own,'” says Foster, who’s also a certified beer judge.
They pitched their idea to the ASBA, which signed on and feted the winners during an awards gala at its annual convention in Calgary. A jury that included certified judges, professional brewers, award-winning homebrewers, brewery sales reps, ingredient growers and restaurateurs blindly sampled more than 300 entries en route to choosing the winners.
Four mainstays of Alley Kat’s lineup won medals: Full Moon Pale Ale took silver in its category, Aprikat got a bronze among fruit beers, Scona Gold got a bronze in the patio beers category, and Argyll Dragon won gold in the Imperial IPA category.
“It was a hard slog with Full Moon and Aprikat in the early days,” Alley Kat’s co-owner Neil Herbst says. “Originally, we had ‘fruit beer’ on the Aprikat label and people would say, ‘What do you mean?'”
With three gold medals and a bronze, Blind Enthusiasm demonstrated it has the chops to appeal to educated palates. But the brewery is trying to win craft converts by giving people a beer experience unlike any other in the city with Biera, a restaurant that serves a bistro-inspired menu tailored to pair with beer made on site. Later this year, Blind Enthusiasm is scheduled to open a second brewery a few blocks away that will focus on making sour and European farmhouse-style ales using traditional techniques.
Some have wondered about the market for sours in Edmonton, but Zeschuk has said his ambition is to have Blind Enthusiasm’s creations sought after by beer enthusiasts beyond our borders. It’s heady stuff, but veteran Calgary beer writer Don Tse says the Alberta breweries that succeed and grow in the long term will be ones that do new and different things.
“If you use the auto industry as an example, Tesla took off because it didn’t make the same car as Ford or Chrysler. I would make the argument that being like Tesla is far less risky than trying to compete against Ford or Chrysler,” Tse says.
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This article appears in the June 2018 issue of Avenue Edmonton.