(This article is Part 2 of a four-part series about the influence of Calgary’s homebrewing community on the booming local scene. Please read Part 1 here.)
The pinnacle of homebrewing is determined at competitions. Making drinkable beer is great. Having friends that like your beer is great. Who wouldn’t say they like free beer? But, it’s hard to make great beer without input on how great it actually is. Or, isn’t.
Winning in competitions is hard. Becoming the best homebrewer in Canada is ridiculously hard. It starts with the fact that there are many competitors and many competitions. Next, you have some truly excellent brewers entering nearly every competition. Finally, you have to brew a lot of beer and master a lot of categories.
In 2016, Chris Nowlan, a member of the local homebrewing club the Cowtown Yeast Wranglers, was the best homebrewer in Canada based on medals won in competitions. A visit to Chris’s house to brew is an exercise in humility (or, simply, humiliation). The depth to which he has studied brewing, tweaked approaches, and practiced is impressive.
“When I got back into brewing, I needed to make something better than what I could buy,” he says.
“Three or four years before 2016, I started competing and my first beer won a bronze medal and I was floored, ecstatic. Now, more than 200 medals later, every one of them matters. It’s feedback. It is addictive. The next year, I decided to send more beers to other competitions and I ended up finishing fourth or fifth in Canada. Then, it was third, then second, then in 2016, first. At the heart was always, ‘How do I make a better beer?’ ”
He continues. “I believe firmly in style. To me, to be a good brewer it is a parallel of being a good writer. In order to create literature, you need to be able to spell a word, form a sentence, a paragraph. In brewing, can you make a great Vienna Lager? Can you make an East Coast IPA? Then you start putting things together and then you can innovate. That is at the heart of how I brew. You can’t discount hundreds or thousands of years of brewing tradition.”
“The other one that is a little different, maybe even contentious in the home brewing community is wort clarity (the pre-fermentation liquid that becomes beer). In my experience, wort clarity and controlling the process and as many variables as possible in the wort is absolutely critical.”
Luckily for us, Chris is putting all of his knowledge and skill, together with his partners, into a soon-to-open brewery in the Beltline, Inner City Brewing. Inner City is practicing the “go big” part of the expression “go big or go home.” They have made a large investment in facilities and production equipment on 11th Ave S.W. (820 11 Ave S.W.) in the building that was once the Glenbow Annex, a storage facility for portions of the Glenbow collection.
“For us, two or two-and-a-half years ago, when the five founders got together, we talked about, ‘Who are we? Who do we want to be?’ We talked about how quickly the segment is growing. We knew we’d have great beer, but, ‘How do we differentiate ourselves? What is everybody else doing? Just about everyone else is going out to industrial parks. What is the other option? Let’s look inner city.’ That what our brewing is and where the name came from. That taproom, is the heart and soul of who we are.
“Beer and brewing history is massive, but it’s very urban-centric. You get these centres of brewing excellence. If we are going to do a style, a Vienna lager or a west coast IPA, we will identify the style and characteristics and it will be around those cities. Inner City is all of the inner cities that gave birth to the beer styles that we will present and expose people to.”
Initially, Inner City will have 11 beers on their 24 taps including a core lineup of two hop-forward styles, a lager and an English beer. Later in the year, expect a full complement of 24 choices.
“One big difference that I’m really proud of is our ‘Brewer’s Lab.’ We will have a three bbl system. So, we are going to have a separate nano-brewery onsite. The other thing is a draft infusion system. It’s primarily for our brew team to understand that, for example, if we push our pale ale through a new hop varietal, how do the characteristics play with the hop schedule we use today? What if we put cherries in our Hefeweizen? What would it taste like if we oaked our English mild? What if we pushed our kettle sour through Sour Patch Kids? More than that, it will allow our customers to experience it with us.”
And, the influence of the Cowtown Yeast Wranglers?
“The local homebrew club that was so influential for me, personally, those guys are going to be here with us. I’ve talked to people in the homebrewing community and said, ‘Expect to be here, and I want you to do your pale ale and it’s going to be on tap and you are going to be able to come down with your friends and pull a pint.’ ”
“In terms of logistical support, the club was huge. Also, we’d be packing boxes for shipment to competition and we’d bring out our beers. Mike Foniok (of The Establishment Brewing Company) makes some phenomenal light lagers to the point that I’d think, ‘I’m not going to enter mine.’ Or, I’d bring a bottle from the US and we’d talk about them. Or, at Darrin Sayers’ (from the Cabin Brewing Company) place, we’d spike beer for sensory testing. So, absolutely, we help each other. I expect it at this level, too. We’ve talked about it. We’re going to be over there collaborating.”
Inner City expects the taproom to be open in late October. In the meantime, watch their social media feeds for growler fill sales available from the alley outside of the brewery and for the public introduction of their first keg at the Blue Star Diner, starting Thursday, Sept. 27 where they will unveil one of their core beers, Bridgelandia Modern Hoppy Blonde.
(Editor’s note and full disclosure: One of Inner City Brewing’s partners is brother to one of the owners and operators of theYYSCENE. The story was neither assigned or solicited.)
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.