Sep. 26, 2012 - Issue #884: Strangelove
Craft goes countryFor the last 20 years or so, the craft beer revolution has been slowly advancing across North America. Mind you, it has made most of its gains in large urban areas, like Vancouver, Denver, Toronto, New York, Montreal and so forth, where good beer is plentiful. Things have been a bit sparser in smaller areas.
We could stop now and proclaim craft beer to be a cosmopolitan phenomenon. But I think that would miss a remarkable new trend occurring across the country. As I watch developments in craft beer, one of the things I have been noticing recently is the new growth in small, rural breweries.
I don't mean craft breweries in small centres. I mean small breweries in very small centres. What I am talking about is breweries who have decided, first, to brew batches a small fraction the size of even the most moderately sized craft brewer in Canada. If Alley Kat brews 1 000 000 litres or so a year (which is quite small—the Edmonton Labatt's plant brews that in a day), these small brewers are doing much less than that, as small as 1/20.
These are brewers who have made a conscious decision to eschew the bright lights of the big city and set up shop in small towns and villages. The heart of their desire is to brew beer for the local community.
The bulk of sales for these small breweries goes within less than 100 kilometres of the brewery, which makes these breweries a classic example of local food. They are brewed in small batches designed for the local residents that make up their community. This is how beer started in the first place.
But who exactly am I talking about? There are, for the moment, only a handful of them, but I am convinced we are at the starting point of a new beer trend. Allow me to offer a couple of examples to explain what I mean.
Out on the east coast, we can find Sea Level Brewing. Sea Level is physically located in Port Williams, Nova Scotia (yes, I know you have never heard of it), nestled in the heart of the Annapolis Valley. Last year their total production was 50 000 litres—which means we aren't seeing it in Alberta any time soon, but that is okay. I have tried their beer, and can honestly report that it is reliable and satisfying.
Their anchor beers are strongly British-influenced, with Blue Heron ESB, Port in the Storm Porter and a Pale Ale. But what is most interesting about this small brewery is their one-time stuff, including a wet-hopped ale from locally-grown hops, a beer made with local apples and other creative experiments. One of the advantages of being so small is being able to play around with local ingredients and unusual recipes. Sea Level offers beer that is well worth seeking out if you are out east.
If we switch to the west coast, we find Plan B Brewing from Smithers, BC, a small town of 5500 set in the remote regions of northern BC. It is the most unusual location for a craft brewer, and, quite frankly, a traditional operation would fail. That is why it took local stalwart Mark Gillis to find a way to make a brewery work in the small town. His realization? Make it very small. Barely bigger than a homebrew setup, Mark brews in his spare time a couple of times a week (after finishing his shift at his day job). Beer is only sold out of the brewery tap room, which is open only four days a week, for a total of about 24 hours. There is no way you can find Plan B beer unless you have stumbled into Smithers (which likely means you are very lost). However, it might be just worth getting lost to find it.
I realize two breweries do not make a trend. But trust me when I say that there are a number of others already operating in Canada's small towns, and the trend has only begun. I fully suspect that in five years, we will be talking about the ambitious, quality beer coming out of Canada's far corners.
In fact, we may even be seeing it happening in Alberta right now. Just getting up and running is Ribstone Creek Brewery, located in the village of Edgerton (population: 317) near Wainwright. This new brewery has some big ambitions, but for the moment they are very, very small—serving mostly the bars and stores around Wainwright. They make one beer, a basic premium lager, with plans for seasonals and more. I will talk more about them later, after they catch their feet. But it is more evidence of a rural craft revolution. V
Jason Foster is the creator of onbeer.org, a website devoted to news and views on beer from the prairies and beyond.
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