The craft beer industry is booming in Calgary, but among the many micro-breweries, the city is also home to Canada’s largest craft brewery, Big Rock Brewery, which has been in operation for 35 years.
The definition of craft beer is highly contested, some saying it has to do with size, while others suggest the beer simply needs to be crafted as opposed to manufactured. It is most often associated with a hand-made process and premium ingredients.
When Big Rock opened in 1985, as Alberta’s first craft brewery, Canada’s beer market was dominated by mass-produced lagers.
According to Brad Goddard, the director of business development and government relations at Big Rock, these beers were “famous for not having a malt profile, they’re famously inoffensive, famously light-bodied.”
Goddard felt that standard lagers were heavily influenced by maltose as well as rice and corn syrups that overpowered the personality of the barley.
Ed McNally, Big Rock’s founder, who was both a lawyer and a barley farmer, was frustrated by this because barley is historically the main flavor of beer and Alberta is home to high-quality barley.
“Ed had traveled the world, he had tried the world’s most famous beer styles,” says Goddard. “He couldn’t understand why we couldn’t still make great international styles, the most popular styles of beer… [and] why we didn’t still make them in Canada, and more importantly in Alberta, where we grow a ton of barley.”
Fast-forward a few decades and Big Rock now has 10 beers as part of their signature series, capturing various styles from around the globe.
“What Big Rock does well is the world’s best styles,” Goddard says. “We tend to draft a lot on English and German styles. Which are some of the most heavily consumed beers in the world.”
Their Traditional Ale, often referred to simply as “Trad,” is an English-style brown ale. It was one of their first-ever brews and is still the number one selling craft beer in Alberta.
Dave “The Beer Guy” Gingrich is a local beer expert who works as the beer room manager at Willow Park Wines and Spirits. Photo courtesy of Ingrid Keunzel, culturemagazine.ca
For Willow Park Wine and Spirits’ Dave Gingrich (otherwise known as Dave the Beer Guy), the Traditional Ale is something that set Big Rock apart from other breweries early on.
“I’ve heard it from a great friend of mine that Trad always makes you feel like you’re home, and I think the key was that it depicted fall in Calgary,” Gingrich said. “Big Rock came and launched Trad as something that was darker, stickier, more full of flavour, and you have to try and introduce that to people who are already stuck on the ‘I like my light beer, this is real good.’ It was something out of left field.”
But despite premium beers like Traditional, Grasshopper, and their Czech-style Pilsner being the company’s claim to fame, Big Rock lives by the motto of “craft for all.” As a result, they also produce more affordable offerings, most notably Alberta Genuine Draft, or AGD for short.
“Craft beer should be something that everybody is entitled to. Big Rock makes beers across every price point,” says Goddard.
Because of the company’s size, they are able to take a smaller margin on certain brews in order to ensure that their product is accessible to a wider audience.
“Just ‘cause you’ve got 12 bucks in your pocket, or 10 bucks in your pocket, does that mean that you don’t deserve a well-made beer, made by your neighbors, made in your community? Our position is absolutely you do,” says Goddard.
Ian Baker is the SAMRU Food and Beverage Manager, which means his primary job duty is as the manager of West Gate Social. Photo courtesy of Sam Phelps
Mount Royal University’s own West Gate Social serves up a variety of craft beer to its student patrons. Their house beer West Gate Social Lager is actually just Big Rock’s AGD.
Ian Baker, the food and beverage manager at the students’ association at Mount Royal, agrees with the sentiment of “craft beer for all” spoken by Goddard.
“We have the West Gate Social Lager here, and it’s on tap, and it costs us less than a whole lot of discount drafts or major discount draft brands. I think it’s a great combination of quality and price point.”
Baker said that students were focused on a combination of low prices and a social space at West Gate, and through their craft products, they are able to provide that.
Gingrich also agrees with that sentiment, saying “for a lot of people, it was super exciting because now there is a beer that you can buy from [Big Rock] that is affordable and easy. It brought a lot of people who couldn’t afford craft beer into that game, and really I think opened people’s eyes that you could have craft beer lager as well.”
The future of craft beer
The craft beer industry is becoming increasingly competitive both locally and nationally, as shown by the variety of taps found at local bars or the wide selection at liquor stores.
According to ATB Financial’s The Owl, the total consumption of beer in Canada in 2015 was 2.3 billion litres, with 276 million coming from Alberta.
Goddard says, “We went from, in 2013, there being 17 licensed alcohol manufacturers in Alberta to today there are 123 breweries.”
According to Goddard, there were roughly 40 craft breweries nationally in the 2000s, and that number has since risen to 995.
Despite the competition, Big Rock hopes to continue its growth and reach an even larger consumer base. Over the years, they’ve built commercial breweries in Calgary, Vancouver and Toronto, all accompanied by either a restaurant or brewpub.
- By Sam Phelps and Nicholas Montpetit-Skuba