Not your average barley popThere are many uses for barley, but none is as popular as brewing beer. Brewers across the country are quick to tip their hats to barley growers on the Canadian Prairies, known for producing some of the highest quality two-row malt barley in the world.
Labatt, Molson and Sleeman continue to dominate the Canadian beer market, but over the last few years, microbreweries have been capturing the attention of discerning consumers and expanding their share of the market. In British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, microbreweries have flourished while the Alberta market has remained small.
Resilient, innovative, independent and community-minded, Alberta’s microbreweries have a lot in common with the farmers who grow one of their key ingredients.
Primary producers of the beer industry
“Microbrewers are the primary producers of our industry, and we are subject to a lot of the same considerations that farmers are,” said Neil Herbst, owner and brewmaster at Alley Kat Brewing Company in Edmonton. “We don’t have a lot of control over price, and have to be careful and efficient with our operations.”
Herbst farmed in southern Alberta in his early 20s, and sees a lot of parallels between the two industries. He points to the balance of manual labour, technology and business strategy, and the way that the public tends to oversimplify both industries. Then there’s the matter of regulations and marketing.
“I’ve seen both industries change,” he said. “When we started, it was just as the province started to deregulate liquor sales. It was pretty simple when we were selling to a single buyer, then suddenly I was out there by myself beating the pavement to try to sell beer. With the changes to the Canadian Wheat Board, barley growers are in a similar place.”
Alley Kat is one of the oldest microbreweries in Alberta, and their seasonal beer offerings are particularly popular. When it comes to Alberta malt barley, Herbst is a fan.
“The malt that’s produced here is unequalled,” said Herbst. “Part of that is the selection by the maltsters, but they have good inputs to work with, and that makes all the difference. That’s the reason there are two malting plants in Alberta, it’s because there’s a good quality supply.”
It’s the same story at Calgary’s Brew Brothers Brewery, a small company with a reputation for making great beer that’s hard to find.
“We use two-row Alberta malt barley. Each malt will add a different character to the beer and contributes to the flavour profile,” said brewer Keil Wilson. “We’re a little old fashioned; we only use malt barley, and everything we do is hand-crafted. We are really set apart by the flavour of our beer.”
Microbrewing goes mainstream
The craft beer segment is one the fastest growing segments of the beer industry, and the big brewers are starting to develop craft brands and move into the traditional market for microbreweries.
“They used to make fun of us, now they are the ones embracing it,” said Herbst. “It’s good for us. There’s more diversity and it brings more attention to our beers. A big chunk of the market is very cautious in their purchasing, but when they see the big guys making beers with different ingredients, it legitimizes what we do and makes people more willing to try our products.”
Edmonton’s Yellowhead Brewery can attest to the increasing demand. Over the period of one month this spring, the brewery saw such a dramatic increase that they had to double production.
“It’s an interesting business. It’s difficult when you are making a product like beer that has to be so consistent and have all the same qualities all the time,” said Travis Boa, operations manager for Yellowhead Brewing. “We started out with small batches, and now Edmontonians are really taking to it.”
Since Yellowhead Brewing opened their doors in May 2010, they have focused on making one beer really well, the all-natural Yellowhead Premium Lager. It has been a steep learning curve for the team headed by Edmonton entrepreneur and developer Gene Dub, who built the business from the bones of the now-defunct Maverick Brewing.
The beer industry can be highly competitive, and the big breweries can simply out-spend and out-promote the smaller players. Success requires finding a strong market niche while understanding the larger forces at play.
The team at Village Brewing in Calgary is confident that they have the expertise to make their microbrewery thrive. It has only been six months since the brewery opened its doors, but between the six founding partners, they have 140 years of experience in the beer industry.
“With such an experienced group of people, making decisions is quite easy. We know what we’re doing, and don’t have the trappings of a new microbrewery,” said co-owner Tom Button.
Button explained that many microbreweries start with people who love brewing, or have succeeded with other businesses, but don’t understand the beer industry. As a result, many of them struggle and ultimately fail.
“It is a really complex industry,” he said. “It’s heavily regulated and highly competitive. There are so many competitors in so many different layers, and there are another 250 breweries being built right now across Canada.”
Village Brewing is driven by a strong local vision for their product, from where they source their ingredients to how they market. Their beer is only available in Calgary, and they have no intention of expanding.
“We are in this 100 per cent to support Calgary’s vibrant community and arts groups,” said Button. “Beer has the ability to bring people together. We like to say it takes a village to raise a brewery, and a beer to raise a village.”