Calgary’s Bourgeoning Brewing Barrel Belt: Learning to appreciate the well-aged Jackson Pollocks of pints from local brewers Establishment and Annex

While many of Calgary’s breweries have dabbled in wood-aged beers, only two have embraced wood in a big way. And while they are nearly next-door neighbours, forming Calgary’s Barrel Belt, these two breweries have very different approaches to beer in wood.

When beer lovers enter Establishment Brewing Company (4407 1st St. S.E.;, it is hard not to notice the oak barrels separating the taproom from the brewery. But those barrels, about 100 hundred of them, are not just decoration; the barrels are collectively nurturing over 22,000 litres, and contribute fundamentally to the flavours of the beer within.

“Our philosophy is inspired from a mix of traditional Belgian sour beer production and American wild ale techniques,” says Mike Foniok, head brewer and cofounder of Establishment. “Each barrel, via the diversity of the wild mixed (yeast and bacterial) cultures added, develops a different personality.” 

From there, Foniok and his team blend barrels together to achieve desired and complex flavour profiles.

About 50 metres away, Annex Ale Project (4323 1st St. S.E; takes a simpler approach to wood. Tucked in the corner of the taproom are two foudres, each holding almost 2,400 litres of beer. Blending is not the objective here. Instead, Andrew Bullied, founder and brewing operations, is purposefully developing separate ecosystems within the two large oak tuns. “I’ve got a lactobacillus and saison yeast blend in one, which gives off a very clean but super acidic sourness,” he says. “And the other has a saison yeast blend with a culture that … produces less acid, but way more funk.”

Where most beer can be made in two to four weeks, wood-fermented and wood-aged beers take a minimum of six months, with others taking several years. The same way food cooked at low temperatures for a long time tastes different from food that is cooked quickly at high temperature, so too does slow-aged beer taste different. And their production is highly unpredictable. “They don’t get packaged until they’re perfect,” says Bullied of the process he can only partially control. And for Foniok, “part of the fun is not being in control of what’s happening … Blending is a crucial part of the process.”

Wood-fermented and wood-aged beers are like a painting by Jackson Pollock. All the artist can do is make larger decisions, like the colour of paint and how quickly to move the brush. But at the end of the day, the paint splatters where it splatters. Forces of nature are fundamental to the art — and so it is with these beers.

While they’re difficult to make and often unpredictable, “these beers create truly unique flavours from uncontrolled sources (wild mixed cultures),” says Foniok. Bullied agrees. The foudres are “important for flavour development and add to the complexity,” he says.

To try these amazing beers, from Establishment look for: Resonant Frequencies, a blend of bruin-style (Belgian brown) mixed-culture sour barrels; Little Wing, a golden sour beer fermented on plums; and Erlton Street 2020 Blend, the latest of an annual blend of some specially identified barrels of golden beer. From Annex Ales, look for: Etceteras Brett Saison, created with a solera method made famous by wine; Fellow Human Pineapple Lacto Saison; and a black sour saison which will be released soon, “… if they’re ready,” cautions Bullied.

Don Tse has sampled over 23,000 different beers. He is the Official Beer Taster for Craft Beer Importers Canada Inc. and Far Out Exporters Inc. which work with many of Alberta’s breweries. It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it.