Calgary brewers hoping to become The Establishment for educating about approachable and out-there beers

If there were ever two people who least embodied the name of their company, it may be Mike Foniok and David Ronneberg. When deciding upon a title like “The Establishment Brewing Company,” thirty- and forty-ish, laidback, slacker types do not form the mental picture of management. Mike is fond of referring to his friends as “my dudes and dudettes” and both sport (usually, anyway) beards and long(ish) hair. Buttoned-down, they ain’t. They are, however, proponents of a pronounced proclivity towards some of the most extreme styles of craft beer. Great, world-class craft beer.

This, the last in our series on homebrewers succeeding at their hobby and then going pro (Part 1 can be found here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here), focuses on Mike and Dave and their quest to turn brilliant homebrew success into brilliant production beer.

In 2016, Chris Nowlan, now at Inner City Brewing, was recognized as the top homebrewer in Canada based on accumulating the most points across the national competitions. Mike Foniok was second. However, Mike also finished first in the race to assemble most 1st, 2nd, and 3rd placings in entire competitions in Canada. He won an amazing four best-in-shows out of 12 competitions. Using a baseball analogy, Chris would have scored more runs or hit for a slightly better average, but Mike knocked the ball out of the park an uncanny number of times, including more than a few grand salamis. 

As Foniok puts it, “In order to win accolades and get better, you have to brew a lot of beers. You have to push yourself to brew once or twice a week and you learn through all of those beers. It’s the passion for learning. It’s the passion for talking to other people, learning about the history.” 

In addition to being competitors (and Dave has also won and placed in a number of best-in-show duels), both brewers are BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) certified judges with Mike having earned “National” status. Ronneberg notes, “I think the biggest ability we have is having gone through palate training, sitting down and really consciously thinking about what you are tasting and discussing it with people. Tuning in that ability to talk about what you are tasting or smelling really aids the brewing process. Connecting the two (BJCP training and homebrewing) is eye-opening. Tasting, smelling something and identifying if that is a flavour from an ingredient or if it is process related, that really helps to elevate what you are making.” 

Nowlan has stated that he might have second-guessed entering a light lager into competition if he knew Foniok had entered one, but it is the crazier, mixed-fermentation, barrel-aged sours that really interest the Establishment team. 

“I have a passion for sour beers, barrel-aged mixed-fermentation beers. It’s a classic style that’s been around in Belgium for a long time. It’s seen a resurgence lately in the American market. I think they are great beers. They are maybe not as approachable as some other beers, but I think that when people understand them and understand they are balanced beers, that the sourness is actually a supportive character, not a dominant character, then it’s a great beer,” states Foniok. “Barrel-aged beers allow us to blend, add fruit at different times, it creates more a complex product and adds more of a challenge. Ultimately, the brewer can’t control all of those microbes. There are a lot of things at play, a lot of factors. I think it’s exciting.”

Who does Establishment look up to in terms of charting the path they wish to travel? Names like Cantillon, Jester King, Russian River, Rare Barrel, and Cascade Barrel House come up, but also Canadian favourites like Dageraad and Four Winds, and locals, Annex Ale Project, Blindman, and Brewsters.

Foniok notes, “Alberta is almost in this perfect storm that could become a craft beer mecca in Western Canada because we have great barley, we have great water, we have government support, and now is the perfect time for it to blossom. And I think that Alberta can become a force to be reckoned with as a place for great beer.” 

And, where will Establishment fit in? “A big part of our business model is trying to bring that beer education to the market and opening people’s eyes to different flavours and process, and how the beer process actually influences those flavours they are tasting. Education is a driving force. Some of our beers are going to be really approachable and some are going to be way out there.” 

Ronneberg sums it up: “We think we have a solid plan. We think we have a solid team. It’s like any venture, you have to have confidence and know that you are adaptable and have the ability to learn from your mistakes.” 

The Establishment Brewing Company will be opening soon. Watch their social newsfeed for more announcements. They are located at 4407 1 St. S.E. adjacent to the Annex Ale House in the Barley Belt district and the Manchester industrial area.

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.