YYSuds: Local beer-makers get head start on market with contract brewing

“Life isn’t all beer and skittles,” goes the proverb, meaning you can’t expect to drink beer and play pub games all the time. It’s a lesson some have learned the hard way, and a dream I still have trouble letting go of.

Still, you’d think opening a brewery — what with all the beer it promises — would be beer and skittles, amiright? Alas, it’s not. It takes a lot of hard work. And money: buying or leasing a space, purchasing equipment and properly installing is a big investment. So what’s someone with a dream of opening his or her own brewery to do?

The expense isn’t an insurmountable barrier, as the recent spate of brewery openings all over Alberta amply illustrates. But some Calgary-area brewers have chosen to go a different route: contract brewing, an arrangement that allows them to get their beer to market by making it at an existing brewery, for a fee.

While some companies exist solely as contract brewers, for many start-ups — and this is the case here with the group I’m talking about — contract brewing is a means to an end, a way to start earning money and building brand awareness that will help raise the cash to eventually build a brewery of their own.

In the last edition of YYSuds (which was also, uh, the first), I highlighted my favourite Calgary taprooms to visit. These contract brewers don’t have taprooms — yet — and tracking down their beer can take some doing. I’m saying it’s worth it. Go forward and find these beers!

Brauerei Fahr

Jochen Fahr started making beer at Tool Shed Brewing in the spring of 2016, to fill what he views is a void in the Alberta market: traditional beer styles from his homeland of Germany made locally — and more importantly, fresh to market.

It’s no secret craft beer has skewed toward assertive styles like IPAs and “big” beers with high alcohol content. Jochen believes there’s a niche for traditional German styles that are more approachable, while still offering more flavour than what the average Molson or Labatt drinker is accustomed to.

“I make beer, flavourful beer, and for a lot of people in the province, that’s a novel concept,” he says.

Jochen’s flagship beer is Fahr Away Hefeweizen, a traditional unfiltered German wheat beer. At their best, hefs are light and refreshing, popping with banana and clove flavour and aroma. You can find some of the world’s best hefs on Alberta’s store shelves — Weihenstephaner, for example — but after even a few weeks they can start to lose their oomph. Jochen’s locally-made hef keeps on shining, because it’s fresh.

Fahr recently put Old Fahrt Altbier into production. “Altbier” is German for “old beer,” and thankfully for Jochen, the only thing flatulent about his version is the name: it’s a darker beer with some plum flavour and a clean finish. He’s also working on a pilsner that he hopes to release in time for annual Oktoberfest celebrations this fall.

“I’m trying to fill a gap. Pilsner in Alberta is really under-represented,” he says.

Indeed. That stuff Saskatchewan Roughriders fans love so much is NOT a pilsner, despite what the label says. (Keith’s isn’t an IPA either, but I’ll save that rant for another day.)

Jochen is firming up a lease in Turner Valley and hopes to have a brewery and small taproom open later this year. He picked Turner Valley, in part, because the foothills and grain fields remind him of where he grew up in southern Germany.

Having its own plant will also allow Brauerei Fahr to begin bottling its beer. In the meantime, you can find Fahr Away Hefeweizen at most National Beer Hall locations, all Earls locations in Calgary and at Craft Beer Market. Old Fahrt Altbier is available at National on 8th. Check local liquor stores for availability at their growler bars, too.

Outcast Brewing

Patrick Schnarr is working toward his own brewery, but he didn’t arrive empty-handed when he set up shop at Cold Garden Beverage Company in Inglewood: he bought a 1,500-litre fermenter for maturing his beer after he’s done brewing it on Cold Garden’s system.

At the front end, brewhouses can keep churning out beer as long as there are ingredients to put into them and humans to run the process. But beer needs time to ferment and condition before it’s ready for consumption, which requires tank space at the back end of the process. By buying his own fermenter, Patrick is able to make his beer without straining Cold Garden’s capacity to get its own beer out the door.

Outcast’s flagship beer is Make That a Double (MTAD for short), a style-bending beer that Patrick calls an Imperial Pale Ale. The modifiers “imperial” or “double” are used to describe a style has been amped up with higher alcohol content and bolder characteristics, like Imperial IPAs. At 7.8% alcohol, MTAD earns the “imperial,” but Patrick steers away from calling it an Imperial IPA because it doesn’t have the high bitterness common for that style.

Beers get their bitterness from the conversion of acids in the hops during the boiling process. Adding hops late in the boil or while the beer is fermenting (a technique called “dry hopping”) adds aroma and flavour without a high level of bitterness.

Hoppy and bitter are not the same thing — and Patrick has used this distinction to great effect since starting up in the fall of 2016: MTAD is bursting with huge (yuge!) tropical and pine aromas, but the sensation on the palate is bright, not bitter.

Patrick plans to intersperse batches of MTAD with one-off creations. So far, that has meant variations on the same hoppy-but-drinkable theme — pale ales called Alex and Sawyer (Patrick’s wife and Outcast co-owner, Krysten, who is responsible for naming the beers in addition to running the business side, chose their two sons as inspiration).

“I think it’s something I do well, but I don’t want people to think that’s all I can do,” he says, adding he’ll be starting work soon on a dark, roasty breakfast stout made with coffee and maple.

Patrick says he’ll be watching the reception to his beers before taking the next step of moving to his own brewery and taproom. While many recent start-ups are choosing trendy inner-city neighbourhoods, Patrick believes beer fans in the vast southern suburbs will have a thirst for quality, locally-made stuff closer to home and is eying potential locations in that part of the city.

“I’m kind of keeping with the Outcast thing and doing it differently,” he says.

Right now, find MTAD on tap at Craft Beer Market and Outcast beers are available on a rotating basis at National Beer Hall locations and at local liquor store growler bars.

Six Corners Brew Works

Unlike Fahr and Outcast, Six Corners packages its beers, selling bottles of its current core line-up of four styles throughout Alberta.

It’s a diverse cast that includes a Belgian-style saison, an IPA and a “triple” IPA that clocks in at 10.3% ABV. If there’s a common theme to Six Corners’ repertoire, which is rounded out by an amber, is that it’s a pretty uncompromising list with nary a gateway beer among the offerings.

“To start out, we definitely wanted to make the beer I’m most interested in. Our whole line-up has some pretty aggressive flavours, which is how I like my beer,” says Luke Wooldridge, who started Six Corners in 2015.

The key words there are “to start out.” Luke has exploited the flexibility of contract brewing to great advantage, pumping out a variety of beers at Paddock Wood Brewing in Saskatoon. He recently inked another contract with Coulee Brew Co. in Lethbridge to expand his capacity.

But with the ultimate goal of opening a brewery and taproom in Okotoks, Luke is looking to broaden his appeal: an easy-drinking golden ale and a pale ale with a lower alcohol content are in the works.

“We have to get moving some more beer and get people converted away from commodity lagers and looking into something locally made,” he says.

It’s a move that often draws sneers from the snobbier craft beer element. More reasonable people — among them, other brewery owners — know it’s a sound, and necessary, business decision.

Six Corners has secured a site and hopes to break ground later this year and open sometime in 2018.

“We’ll have snacks, people can come in, have a pint and get a growler filled,” Luke says.

Six Corners’ future home is in a high-traffic area near the Costco store on Southbank Blvd. Between the desirable location and what Luke senses is a healthy appetite for locally-made beer, he’s optimistic.

“We’ve been hearing good things from people in the community,” says Luke.

Jason van Rassel has been writing about craft beer since 2006, when he started a beer blog at the Calgary Herald, where he covered crime and justice for 15 years. Jason left newspapers in 2016, but he continues to chronicle Alberta’s craft beer scene as a contributor to theYYScene, The Daily Beer and Drink With Me. He is a member of the North American Guild of Beer Writers. You can find Jason on Twitter and Untappd.