Oh, what a few years can do! The brewing scene in Alberta has certainly seen its share of change recently, and as the industry continues to grow, we are sure to experience even more of a transformation. But even with all that change, one factor has been consistent: the real sense of community and collaboration in the Alberta beer industry.

Enter: the Alberta Small Brewers Association, otherwise known as ASBA. It formed back in 2012 when 11 breweries joined to tackle the provincial government’s mark-ups on beer, and to establish an identity for beer and breweries in the province.

“With our original group of board members, we tried to have representation from throughout the province,” says Greg Zeschuk, owner of Edmonton’s Blind Enthusiasm. “The great irony, of course, was that our board accounted for 80% of the existing breweries as we had yet to see the explosion of growth that we’ve been experiencing in the last couple years,” he continues. “Also, among the board membership and executive, we had a split between new breweries (Village, Hog’s Head, and Ribstone), and long-established breweries (Big Rock, Alley Kat, Wild Rose, The Grizzly Paw) so we could represent the interest of both new and established companies.”

In true Alberta spirit, the beer industry has been very focused on collaboration. “Craft breweries around the world are collaborative by nature; what I want Albertans, and those visiting, to understand, is that our ecosystem of breweries and suppliers is more collaborative than any other jurisdiction in the world,” says Jim Button, co-founder of Village Brewery. “This is something to be celebrated and marketed as a true strength.”

The respect is mutual between companies of all sizes, and it’s not unheard of for some of the older, more developed breweries to help out the up-and-comers. “One huge call-out that is probably overlooked by many is that Big Rock, Alberta’s oldest and biggest brewery, did a tremendous amount of work volunteering their resources to set up and support ASBA in its first couple years,” says Zeschuk, “It may seem counterintuitive for big established players to participate in and support an association that would ultimately represent many new start-up[s], but that’s exactly what they did. If it wasn’t for Big Rock’s contribution and support, I don’t think ASBA would exist in the form it is today.”

Neil Herbst, owner of Alley Kat Brewing Company in Edmonton, agrees. His favourite part about the beer culture in our province is simply “the camaraderie and the sense that we are all on the same mission to promote Alberta craft beer.”

“Especially in Alberta, there is an immense amount of pride for our industry, our locally-grown barley, and how hard we fight to change policies and regulations,” says Erica O’Gorman, co-founder of Annex Ale Project in Calgary. “I think that really shines through [in] a lot of Albertan brewery owners. We have an immense amount of passion for our work and a pride of place.”

While ASBA has only been around for five years, it seems like a lifetime, as, again, so much has changed. The gamechanger, undoubtedly, was when the Alberta Gaming, Liquor, and Cannabis Commission (the AGLC) decided to remove the brewery minimum production limit in December of 2013. “This production limit required breweries opening in the province to have the production capacity to brew at least 500,000 litres of beer!” says Zeschuk. “This effectively priced-out any small start up brewery as they had to have the capital and equipment to function like a mid-sized operation versus a brand-new business.” Before this change, the only operating breweries in the province were essentially the ones who were part of ASBA. “Seeing that this was stifling entrepreneurship and limiting growth of the industry this rule was removed, and after a very short lag we saw the prodigious rise in growth of the Alberta brewing industry. Now, without this restriction, Albertans can start a tiny operation, brew quality beer without mortgaging their home, and see if they have a future in the business.”

“[The production limit change] allowed for smaller breweries to start up in the first place. It generated more jobs and created more choice in the market. It kept money in the local economy.” O’Gorman elaborates. Also, “introducing a brewmaster program to Central Alberta,” was another gamechanger. “Creating an institution that focuses on brewing techniques and theory has raised the bar for breweries and added a competent labour force to all the new microbreweries.”

Now that ASBA is several years in, what’s going to happen in the next five to ten years? Naturally, there will be a lot of change; plenty of new breweries, different beer styles, and companies going in different directions. “ASBA’s current membership has just passed 65 Alberta breweries with new membership applications being processed regularly,” says the organization’s Lauren Reid. “As of this year, we have also created an associate membership level which includes contract brewers, breweries in planning, suppliers, and distributors.” With over 75 breweries in the province right now, the growth is immense. “It’s difficult to determine exactly how many breweries are planning to open in the next year,” Reid continues, “but by our estimation, including already active contract breweries, there could be as many as 40 new breweries in the works.”

“We’re absolutely going to see more growth in the number of local breweries, and we’re also going to see more growth in the number of local beer fans,” Zeschuk says.

“The industry is going to see consolidation and growth at the same time,” continues Button, “There may be a few breweries that do not make it, which will be unfortunate, but there will certainly be a larger amount of new breweries starting up.” On the topic of beer drinkers, Button says that the consumers will mature as the industry does.

Herbst agrees, saying, “At some point the growth in the number of small breweries will plateau, but by then Albertans will have become more and more interested in purchasing locally produced beer. There will be more of a tap room culture,” he explains.

“In the next 10 years,” says O’Gorman, “we can see Alberta become a destination for craft beer as more and more breweries become located closer together and focus on quality.”

As the industry grows, there is bound to be change – both positive and negative for industry people and consumers, alike. At the end of the day, however, everyone’s goals are the same: make (or drink!) good beer, support the local economy, and thrive as a craft beer community.

Zeschuk says he’s seen the “strong emergence of a true beer scene in multiple locations across the province, with hundreds of people showing up for beer events versus the usual handful we saw a few years back.” Clearly, things are heading in the right direction.

Beer-wise, there are some interesting things coming our way. “I think we will see more niche breweries opening up in the next couple of years,” says O’Gorman. “Breweries will start focusing on barrel aging programs, using more fruit, different yeast strains, and innovative techniques to bring different techniques to the market.” She’s also on board with the tap room culture that Herbst predicts. “I would like to see the industry create unique ways to engage consumers; small beer bars with intimate seating and festivals with craft beer sponsors.”

Button foresees a trend toward “lower alcohol and zero alcohol cannabis infused/based products.” With the upcoming legalization of marijuana happening throughout the country, that’s a trend that is quite likely to happen.

IPAs have been all the rage for a few years now, and Herbst thinks that the hoppy beers aren’t going anywhere, but that there will be “a move toward more sessionable, malty beers.” So, still plenty of hops, but perhaps a little more balanced for the consumers who aren’t necessarily looking for the extra bitterness.

Now, we wait. Wait and see who does what, what beers are brewed, who thrives, survives, and makes changes. It’s an exciting time to be in Alberta, so let’s celebrate the culture that is our province’s beer, and support those who make it what it is.

Cheers to more years of beer and brewing in Alberta, friends.

By Stephanie Arsenault

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