Meet the faces behind four of YYC’s seven brewing companies

Wild Rose Brewery’s Brian Smith, Director of Brewing Operations

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Recently married Brian Smith is making the two-hour and 56-minute commute from his home in Calgary to Edmonton where he works at Alley Kat Brewing Company. The year is 1998.

“… I would drive up Monday morning, crash on a buddy’s couch and drive back Friday,” said Smith, who at the time was paid $7 per hour.

Smith’s commute to work 20 years later is a much shorter journey. As Wild Rose Brewery’s director of brewing operations, Smith shares his time between the company’s Southwest location and its new brewery in the Foothills Industrial Park – this commute is only 17 minutes.  

Smith’s passion for beer did not just extend to spending hours in his car commuting to work – a trek which he completed approximately 40 times (around 120 hours) in the five months he worked at Alley Kat. Prior to deciding to pursue brewing beer as a career, Smith was brewing his own beer at home.

Additionally, in order to break into the industry, he voluntarily bottled beer at the Banff Ave. Brewing Co. from 1996 to 1997. Occasionally, helping out at the brewery would mean calling in sick to his day-job at a downtown oil company.

“At the time they would give you a six-pack,” said Smith with a chuckle. “It was a pretty good trade-off for a young guy.”

Smith, who has bachelor degrees in political science and law from the University of Calgary, said that after graduating from school he was at “a bit of a cross-roads” and an advisor suggested that he take some time to research potential careers. Smith said that each time he visited the library he kept drifting over to the beer section.

“It dawned on me that I should make a go of it and see if I could turn my passion into a lively-hood.”

Smith has worked at Wild Rose Brewery for a total of seven years.

“I have never worked with people so energetic, creative and passionate with what they do,” said Smith. “It sounds corny but I love working with these people.”

Smith added that he feels that the craft beer industry in Alberta is on the rise – partially due to a geographic shift in the popularity of craft beers and also Albertan’s appreciation for different food and flavour combinations.

“Craft beer traditionally has been really popular on the West Coast – California, Seattle and Portland were all hotbeds of craft beer culture in America that migrated up to B.C. Now Alberta is starting to see some of that,” said Smith.

Smith added that in Alberta “just about everybody is making great beer,” but what sets Wild Rose apart is that the brewery does not have a hierarchal approach to sharing ideas. The company’s entire brewing team shares their input.

“Having five different perspectives enables us to be more innovative than just having one person at the helm,” said Smith.

The team at Wild Rose has developed a variety of different brews, two of which Smith recommends for the fall and winter season.

“Our IPA is an outstanding, hoppy beer that is not crazily bitter compared to the ones that come from the West Coast,” said Smith, adding that the IPA – or Indian Pale Ale – is balanced with a nice malt backbone.

The other beer Smith recommends is a seasonal ale that the brewery released Sept. 29 called “Roggen’s Heroes,” which is brewed in the Oktoberfest tradition with the addition of a rye malt – rye meaning “roggen” in German.

Village Brewery’s Jim Button, Co-founder

It’s Dec. 21, 2011 and on a relatively warm winter’s day – an average high of only -5 C being practically balmy – two men jump into their cars and speedily depart Calgary’s brand new Village Brewery on a mission: to be the first man to supply a public establishment with a Village Brewery ale.

To this day, Jim Button, brewery co-founder, and his partner Tom Stuart still debate the winner of this race-in-the-name-of-beer.

“He argues that it was Blind Monk and I argue Fergus & Bix,” said Button, laughing good-naturedly. “That will last forever because there is no way of proving which of us is right.”

Three years ago, Village Brewery began as collection of friends and beer-enthusiasts – with over 150 years of industry-related experience between them – who wanted to create a brewery that focused on the artistry of making beer – developing small, hand-made batches with local ingredients that focus on taste.

Of that industry-related experience, Button contributes 16 years.

Button attended the University of Guelph in Ontario where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1986. Button’s first experience in the beer-making industry was in the late ‘80s when he worked for Molson Breweries buying television-advertising space.

From there, Button continued to work in the brewery industry as a marketing and events consultant for Big Rock and Sleeman Breweries from 1997 until 2007.

In 2007, Button became the vice president of corporate and community affairs for Big Rock Brewery where he left in March 2010 – co-founding Village Brewery nine months later.

While the mystery of who was the first establishment to receive a Village Brewery ale will never be solved, the first beer to become available on tap – “Village Blonde” – is a brew of particular importance to Button.

“My mom passed away from cancer while I was in the throws of building the brewery, three months before December,” said Button. His wife suggested putting people the Village Brewery team knew on the boxes.

A photo of Button’s mother is on each case of “Village Blonde.”

“Village Blonde” may be Button’s favourite brew for emotional reasons, but he also recommends “Village Blacksmith” for the fall and winter months.

Button added that Village Brewery is releasing a seasonal ale in mid-October called the “Village Brünette.” The brewing process for “Village Brünette” will stay as true as possible to a German Dunkelweizen – or dark wheat beer. The beer incorporates yeast imported from one of the oldest German breweries.

“Bringing in the yeast is the fun part of it because there is a specific flavor and taste,” said Button, who adds that yeast can create a “nervous situation” for brewers because it propagates so quickly.

“Village Brünette” – not to be confused with their “Village Brunette” ale which is available year round – will also incorporate two different malts from Vienna and Munich.

In terms of brews from other microbreweries, Button recommends Wild Rose’s “Barracks Brown” and Big Rock’s “McNally’s Reserve”.

Tool Shed Brewing Company’s Graham Sherman, Co-Founder and VP of Sales and Marketing

TS7 editedGraham Sherman, Tool Shed Brewing Company’s co-founder and VP of sales and marketing said he is very excited to open up a brewery in Calgary at the beginning of October.

Photo By Kassidy Christensen
Graham Sherman arrived in Kabul, Afghanistan to work in IT in 2007.

His randomly assigned roommateJeff Orr had also moved from Calgary – where, by chance, he lived two blocks away from Sherman in McKenzie Towne.

It only took one of the world’s danger zones for the two founders of Tool Shed Brewing Company to meet.

Sherman and Orr were employed by an IT company who worked with the United States Marine Corps. The friends worked on encrypted messages and a Welfare and Morale Communications program for the Canadian Military – including enabling soldiers to Skype and phone loved ones back home.

Sherman worked in and out of Afghanistan for three years.

“It was super exciting to help rebuild a country,” said Sherman. “But at the same time you can’t do that forever. No one wakes up and goes ‘that’s my dream, to be in a war zone.’”

Sherman describes himself and Orr as “IT geeks who always got way too involved in every hobby we have an interest in”. The two men held passions for coffee, barbecuing, home-improvement and finally: brewing beer.

After returning home, it wasn’t until 2012 that Sherman and Orr began brewing out of their homes – Orr was the first of the partners to quit his job to support the business full time. Sherman left his position at a downtown oil company not long after.

“We’re told growing up that we should make a living of going after what we love,” said Sherman. “But then we all get jobs.” Sherman added that he and Orr decided to go back to trying to make a career out of their passion.

“We thought that we would let nothing would stop us.”

The friends incorporated Tool Shed Brewing Company in Nov. 2012. In 2013, they initially had to outsource their brewing facilities to a British Columbian company called Dead Frog Brewery– because at the time Alberta’s manufacturing laws required brewing companies to produce over 500,000 liters to qualify for a business license.

“We are very grateful to them for allowing us to brew there so that we could get our beers to market,” said Sherman. Tool Shed Brewing Company is now in the process of opening their first Calgary-based brewery, located in the Franklin Industrial Park. Sherman says that the anticipated opening of the brewery at the beginning of October.

Tool Shed Brewing Company has three beers on the market in restaurants, beer halls and liquor stores like Earls, National Westhills and Vine Styles.

The first is a light, creamy ale called “People Skills” which pays homage to Joe Greenwood, a man that Sherman described as “the biggest jerk we’ve met in our lives,” due to his complete lack of people skills.

“We were a little worried at first he would sue us,” said Sherman laughing. “But he took it as a compliment.”

The second beer – “Red Rage” – is a dark ale and Sherman’s favorite. “It’s based on the freakish strength of red-heads, you know, what Chuck Norris fears most,” said Sherman.

And finally, Tool Shed’s most popular beer of the moment is its IPA called “Star Cheek,” which is named after an unexplainable occurrence that happens to Orr when he drinks beer.

“Everywhere on his cheeks turns red except this one spot on his face that is a perfect, white five-point star.”

For the fall and winter seasons, Sherman said that Tool Shed Brewing Company is working on a white stout.

“It has the deep, creamy sweetness of a stout but it is white. It’s considered a milk stout because we use lactose,” said Sherman, adding that they are also adding eggnog spices to the beer.

Last Best’s Socrates Korongonas, Co-Founder and Chief Marketing Officer

LB2 editedSocrates Korongonas, Last Best Brewing and Distilling’s co-founder and CMO, is pouring a sample of the brewery’s IPA. At this stage in the brewing process, the yeast within the beer has not finished fermenting.

Photo by Sarah Comber

Tucked in between Broken City and The Keg on 11th Avenue S.E., a red brick building with a small black door is the building site of Last Best Brewing and Distilling’s new brewpub.

The most recent addition to Calgary’s microbrewery scene, Last Best Brewing and Distilling is also the fourth brewery to join the Bear Hill Brewing Company umbrella. Scheduled to open in Jan. 2015, walking through those small black doors was like entering Narnia’s Closet.

The usual signs of construction – building materials and tools pushed to the sides of an empty room with the occasional laptop or office chair – did not take away from the impressive space.

Darkly lit, long open spaces framed by an old wooden bar lead into another, larger room that was built as an add-on to the building’s original exterior wall – as if the red brick facing had sprouted a roof and wood flooring.

However, the soon-to-be brewpub did not end there. Spiral staircases led to the lower levels containing the plan for a VIP room, a staff lounge, distillery and (of course) the storage for Last Best’s pride and joy – their beer. Upper levels will contain offices for Beer Hill’s employees, as their Calgary location will take over as head office.

Back on the main level, nestled between red brick, is also what one of Last Best’s co-founders Socrates Korongonas referred to as “one of Calgary’s best kept secrets”.

And a secret it shall remain until the opening in January.

Korongonas and his partners Brett Ireland and Alex Derksen met in high school. Korongonas, who is named after his grandfather, was the second Socrates to graduate from the Jasper Junior/Senior High School.

Ireland and Korongonas were also roommates while they both attended the University of Alberta. Ireland graduated with a bachelor in mechanical engineering and Korongonas chose to focus on his passion for making beer.

When the opportunity arose to open a brewpub in their hometown Jasper, Alberta, the friends could not say no. Korongonas was 23 at the time.

“The ability to make our own beers was really interesting to us,” said Korongonas.

“When we first opened we didn’t really know what we were doing at all. Looking back, if we knew how much work opening a brewpub was going to be we may not have done it,” said Korongonas with a laugh.

Although Beer Hill faced challenges starting their brewing business, the support of their family and friends enabled them to seize an opportunity to open a second brewpub in Banff five years later. LB9 editedAlthough Last Best Brewing and Distilling’s brewpub will not be open until January 2015; their ales have already entered the market and are available at select restaurants like Brasserie in Kensington.

Photo by Sarah Comber

After finding success with the Banff-ite beer community, the Beer Hill team was able to expand to Fort McMurray in 2013.

Korongonas said that Beer Hill has noticed that the different regions of Alberta have different beer pallets. Jasper prefers hoppy IPA’s, Banff has seen a shift towards complex malt beers and Fort McMurray is split between crisp brews and fusion beers.

As for Calgary, Last Best Brewing and Distilling is still experimenting with what beer personality YYC will lean towards.

“People are passionate about different styles and different beer. We are brewing beers to inspire Calgarians,” says Korongonas. Last Best Brewing and Distilling has three beers in circulation in Calgary at the moment, including a porter, black lager and an IPA.

While Korongonas said he does not believe in telling people what they should drink, for fall he does recommend beers with hints of plum and spices like Last Best’s “There Will Be Porter.”

 “I lean towards porters and winter style beers, they kind of have those peachy characters and I’ve had a lot of spiced beers that remind me of the season.”

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