Calgary’s Cowtown Yeast Wranglers the beasts of the Canadian homebrewing community

We are currently enjoying a beer drinkers’ nirvana in Alberta with new breweries opening monthly, sometimes weekly. In Alberta and elsewhere, breweries frequently emerge from the dreams of homebrewers wishing to go pro. Feeding that hobby in most major cities in Canada is a homebrewing club.

Calgary has such a club, The Cowtown Yeast Wranglers. The club meets the first Wednesday of every month, listening to presentations, sharing information, and evaluating each other’s beer. And, laughing, lots of laughing.

Unbeknownst to most, excepting this small group of dedicated, local homebrewers, the Calgary club is an absolute beast in brewing competitions. Think ’50s or ’70s Montreal Canadiens, ’60s Toronto Maple Leafs, or late ’70s/early ’80s New York Islanders beastly (yeah, there is another hockey team analogy but, just, no). The Yeast Wranglers have emerged as the top club in Canada, based on competition results, in each of the last five years. Many of its individual members have earned almost literally truckloads of medals in competitions across the country, definitely literally truckloads of prize swag which, not surprisingly, tends to lean to apparel, brewing supplies, and serving supplies. In 2016, the Yeast Wranglers team score was nearly three times that of the next closest club. In that same year, both categories tracked by (most points and most “best of show” points) were topped by Yeast Wranglers, Chris Nowlan and Mike Foniok. We will come back to this in a minute.

Brewing has a great camaraderie about it, much like other hobbies. While the club exists mostly to help members brew beer, there must have been (ahem) something in the water to generate such amazing competition results.

Corey Clayton, an 11-year veteran (member No. 9, in fact, cue Beatles-flashback) and current club executive, remembers the early days. “Back then, there was more emphasis on food and beer appreciation. As the ranks filled with serious homebrewers, we switched into technical brewing.”

But surely there must have been a memorable turning point when the club’s competitive prowess blossomed.

“Pretty quickly, we were shipping to competitions,” Clayton recalls. “The thing that started it was the Canadian Brewer of the Year competition. When we started doing our competition, to support other clubs, we decided as a club we (would) pay for shipping to their competitions. Also, I think that the people that started the club were well-versed in the technical side of brewing. A lot of the core members of the club were scientific-oriented. And we laid down a really solid group of judges early on that allowed for good evaluations at meetings. That feedback is invaluable for improving your brews.”

Foniok, another club executive, recalls that, “competing was influenced by the club. I didn’t know it even existed. I was just homebrewing and being part of the meetings. Then, I became a BJCP judge. That was really the springboard for my passion as a homebrewer.”

Mike also points to assistance in shipping to other competitions, and the get-togethers to arrange shipping, as important influences, but notes some other things. “The privatization of stores. That was eye-opening in that you could get all these other beers and there was little local craft beer here due to the capacity laws. Me and my friends started brewing since you had access to those beers for creativity. You could try Belgian beers, but you wanted to try some new, fresh beers.

“In the club, there has always been a good base of experience. There is always someone to ask questions and learn something (from). That is the beauty of homebrewing, we are always sharing information.”

Clayton sums it up: “There was always a core group of really passionate homebrewers. When that happens, there is a cross-pollination of ideas and quality. That helps you bring it up to the next level. We try to be as open as possible, we try to make sure new faces are welcome and can ask questions — that benefits us all. The great interest in beer in Alberta, the changing of the regulations, the general access to really good beer — that’s massive.”

Until recently, few of the Yeast Wranglers that regularly win at national competitions have taken the next step and gone pro. However, over the next few months, that will change as three new breweries will attempt to translate exemplary homebrewing into thriving new craft breweries. Upcoming, theYYScene will profile each of these.

This fall, Inner City Brewing will take its place amongst Last Best and Brewsters on the strip of 11th Ave. S.W. between 4th St. and 8th St. Chris Nowlan is a director and will be helping to formulate the recipes.

Mike Foniok’s new company, The Establishment Brewing Company, will open later in 2018 in the “Barley Belt,” adjacent to Annex Ale Project. Joining Mike in this venture is David Ronneberg, himself no stranger to the national “charts.”

Cabin Brewing will also open later in 2018 in the “Barley Belt” as a partnership between Haydon Dewes, Jonas Hurtig and Darrin Sayers. Each of them, you guessed it, have won a lot of homebrewing medals. Additionally, Hurtig has been responsible for a number of recent Wild Rose seasonal releases while Dewes writes The Daily Beer and appears regularly on CBC Calgary’s EyeOpener.

Jay Nelson is a beer geek, not snob, who has written for a small number of mostly forgotten publications, in a wildly erratic manner, since being named the editorial editor of his high school newspaper. He is a non-award winning homebrewer and a non-BJCP certified judge, although he aspires to both.