YYSuds: Calgary International Beerfest has grown along with Alberta’s craft brew boom

If you go to the Calgary International Beerfest at the BMO Centre next month, take a look at the coat check area before you get down to sampling some beer.

It may seem like an odd thing to stop and focus on when a cornucopia of sensory delights awaits just on the other side, but that humble cloakroom embodies just how far Alberta’s craft beer industry has come in recent years.

Consider this: the coat check for this year’s festival, happening May 5 and 6, is bigger than the entire exhibit space for the first rendition held in 2005.

“It’s a pretty phenomenal thing,” says Bill Robinson, president of Alberta Beer Festivals, which puts on the Calgary fest and a sister event in Edmonton that’s now in its fifth year.

“Things are happening so fast and people can’t keep up.”

We’ve all likely heard many of the same dizzying statistics, namely: more than 20 new Alberta breweries opened in 2016 and that number has already been surpassed during the first four months of 2017.

Exhibitors will be pouring selections from more than 200 breweries at this year’s festival — among them, there will be a local contingent unlike any in years past.

Pinning down the precise cause of Alberta’s craft beer boom can be a tricky business, but there are certainly a number of related events that combined to fuel the current trend.

At the end of 2013, the Alberta Liquor and Gaming Commission scrapped onerous minimum production quotas that effectively barred any small-scale brewers from entering the market.

With that major hurdle gone, newcomers started popping up all over a province where the number of local breweries had been stuck in single digits for years.

At about the same time, Olds College established a two-year brewmaster and brewery operations program. With craft beer expanding rapidly in Alberta and beyond, Olds College grads have proven a hot commodity.

“We’ve always had some good staples of local like Alley KatBig Rock and Brewsters, but the brewmaster program at Olds College had a huge impact, as did changing the law,” Robinson says.

But beyond beer, Robinson says people are generally more interested in where their food and drink come from. The same people who buy their meat and produce at their local farmer’s market are taking the same kind of interest in their beer.

And beer isn’t the only beneficiary of the growing desire to eat and drink locally: while it hasn’t picked up steam to quite the same degree, Alberta has a burgeoning craft distilling industry.

In a nod to the growing thirst for locally-made spirits, Beerfest organizers have, for the first time, set up a Distillery District, where nearly 20 exhibitors will show off their wares.

With such a wide variety of beer styles from so many breweries, festivals are an ideal opportunity for newbies to learn more. For anyone who wants to take a deeper dive, there’s ATB Financial’s Beer University onsite, where everyone from grain growers to the passionate beer enthusiasts from CAMRA Alberta will be on hand to answer questions about how beer is made and what goes into it.

“People get to see we have the best two-row barley in the world. They see how so many of the ingredients are local,” Robinson says.

Indeed, even before Alberta had as many local breweries as it does now, this province’s barley was a sought-after commodity for innovative U.S. brewers like Lagunitas, which has steadfastly supported a consortium of central Alberta growers with a multi-year contract.

“Alberta’s barley industry was a big part of the craft beer movement,” says Robinson.

That’s something to keep in mind these days, as some people take the push to drink locally to ever more zealous and judgmental heights.

Drinking local beer is indeed virtuous — on many different levels. But doing so to the exclusion of everything else is to deny yourself heavenly Trappist ales from Belgium, world-class standards from Germany and trend-setting breweries in the U.S. that are available here too.

Putting aside the rancorous debate about Alberta’s mark-up and taxation regime, beer lovers in this province have long enjoyed a better selection than people in other parts of Canada. Indeed, Robinson says the “International” in the beerfest’s name harkens back to a time when the festival line-up consisted mainly of imports.

“Alberta has one of the best selections in the world,” he says.

Between Alberta’s vibrant homegrown industry and having some of the world’s top beers at our fingertips, this has never been more true.

I’ll drink to that.

Calgary International Beerfest takes place May 5 and 6 at the BMO Centre.

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.