- Written by Maggie Murray Maggie Murray
- Published: 18 January 2017 18 January 2017
Socrates Korogonas thought he would pursue a career in politics.
After winning the lottery, he put aside his political ambitions to open a now flourishing brewpub business with his two best friends. But now, Korogonas worries about the future of craft brewing in Alberta.
Growing up, Korogonas always had a keen interest in politics that led him to study the subject at the University of Alberta.
“It has so much influence on our day-to-day,” Korogonas said. “So learning different aspects of it all the way to the national level or international level was super interesting to me.”
Korogonas didn’t finish his degree. But when his hometown, Jasper, held its first municipal election in 2001, he decided to run for municipal office.
“I was the youngest candidate by over 20 years,” he said. “I think I missed being elected by like 60 votes.”
The next year, the 22-year-old bought a ticket for the BC Cancer Foundation’s Lottery.
“There’s a lot of history of cancer in my family. Two of my grandparents died of cancer. I've had a few uncles pass away from cancer,” he said. “For some reason it was just relevant to me at the time so I bought a ticket.”
He ended up winning a house in Vancouver worth $2.5 million.
“It was a nice house in Vancouver and it was an amazing opportunity and a great life lesson because you know it wasn't cash ... I had to go and make all these arrangements and it wasn't easy.”
Having lost the election and won the lottery, the drama created an opportunity for Korogonas and his best friends, Alex Derkson and Brett Ireland, to open Jasper Brewing.
“Me and my buddies decided it would be cool to learn how to (brew) and then make products that really represent the town that we were from. That gave us something to rally around — gave us something unique.”
But their success didn’t happen overnight. Derkson admits there were some mistakes.
“In the first year we opened, we brewed an IPA (India Pale Ale - a hoppy style of beer) and to this day I can’t tell you exactly what went wrong, but the beer ended up being way stronger than it was supposed to,” Derkson said. “Soc and Brett were having a couple beers and they had three glasses of the IPA each and both were stumbling drunk.”
Korogonas attributes their ability to overcome these obstacles from the support they had from their hometown in Jasper.
“Thank God we were surrounded by friends and family that would give us honest feedback and still drink it if it wasn't delicious ... it takes a while to learn all the tricky intricacies of beer,” said Korogonas.
Korogonas said he was prepared for that learning, since he grew up in a hospitality focused town where his dad owned a pub.
“Jasper was like transitioning out of being a railroad town, into a tourism-centric hospitality town when I was coming of age,” said Korogonas who started working for his dad as soon as he was big enough to carry a bus pan full of dishes.
At 18, Korogonas began bartending at his dad’s pub.
“All my friends worked at the ski hill and I wanted to work at the ski hill and he was like ‘No, you're gonna bartend,’ and I was kinda sour about it until like the first week and I was like ‘okay I'm gonna do this for a while.’”
While in university, a beer representative Korogonas knew from the pub told him about a summer internship with Labatt Brewing Company. He applied and ended up being a Labatt field representative for the summer.
“Me and my buddies decided it would be cool to learn how to (brew) and then make products that really represent the town that we were from. That gave us something to rally around - gave us something unique.” - Socrates Korogonas
At the end of the season, Korogonas's curiosity around brewing beer wasn’t satisfied.
All they told him was ‘if you're drinking Budweiser it means you're a cowboy and if you drink Kokanee it means you're a snowboarder,’ but he wanted to know what was different about the production and quality of the two different beers.
“I remember my last day of work I told my boss ... thank you so much for the opportunity, I'm going to go open my own brewery and put Labatt's out of business and we had a good laugh,” said Korogonas.
A combination of Korogonas's time at his dad’s bar and the Labatt's internship, created a love for beer that eventually channeled into his brewpub.
Since the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission (AGLC) changed the minimum production laws that prevented micro-distilling, Korogonas has started making liquor at Last Best.
“The business modelling is really tricky compared to beer ... with whiskey you make it today and you hope it's going to be awesome five to 10 to 20 years from now.”
But the same AGLC changes have created an influx of new micro-breweries in Alberta. This makes Korogonas uneasy. He worries that since there are so many new breweries opening, there’s a risk for the market to become saturated.
"I think everyone's kind of excited about beer right now but is that sustainable with everyone and their dog opening a brewery? That's a little harsh because you know Alberta’s been underserved in the beer world for so long, but at what point does the consumer say, 'Okay enough is enough'?”
The business includes four brewpubs: Jasper Brewing, Buffalo Brewing Co., Banff Ave. Brewing Co. and Last Best Brewing and Distilling all under the parent company, Bearhill Brewing.
But Bearhill Brewing’s beers aren’t confined to its brewpubs. Various local restaurants serve them on tap too.
Cam Dobranski, the owner of the restaurant Brasserie serves the beer because he believes it’s something alternative for the community.
“We look at the stores like sisters. They’re not clones of each other. They'll all share DNA but they'll all have their own personality,” Korogonas said.