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Calgary’s Barley Belt: Tapping into the city’s growing craft beer crowd

When you think of a Barley Belt, you’re probably thinking of a rich, fertile black-earthed stretch of Alberta farmland.

It doesn’t really conjure up images of Calgary’s light industrial areas. Yet that’s exactly where you’ll find this Barley Belt.

Six Calgary craft breweries are currently in an area between 34 and 46 Avenues and 1 and 11 Streets in the city’s southeast. Several more, including Alberta’s first cidery and a distillery, are also expected to take up residence shortly.

It’s not on 17 Ave SW. It’s not Inglewood or Kensington. It’s the Manchester Industrial, Highfield and Alyth-Bonnybrook-Manchester areas of Calgary. You wouldn’t consider this to be one of Calgary’s trendy areas… yet.

Eric Daponte, Village Brewery’s marketing and taproom coordinator, said the collaborative nature of this city’s craft brewers led to the Barley Belt being conceived, the seed of an idea planted during a Jane’s Walk.

Daponte said with the new breweries popping up within a pint glass throw of Village, he saw an occasion to bring people down to an area largely untapped by Calgarians.

“I kind of saw an opportunity to show how close these breweries were to each other, and how this area that was previously unexplored was gaining this kind of new life,” Daponte said.

The initial Jane’s Walk partnered Village Brewery and Banded Peak Brewery – and then Annex Ale Project was added in as the walk landed on that brewery’s opening weekend. More than 80 people showed up for that initial tour.

“That was kind of the pinnacle event where us three sat down and said this could definitely become a thing,” Daponte said.

“(We thought) We’d really like to work together on bringing people down to the area for the beer and other businesses. Why go solo when we could get people together to come to check out all of them?”

(Note: The first iteration of the Barley Belt walk did involve Inglewood breweries Cold Garden Beverage Company and High Line Brewing, Daponte said.)

A number of factors led to Manchester and Highfield popping up as Calgary’s newest hotbed for brewers, going back nearly five years. The history of provincial government changes is well documented in boosting the craft brewing industry from 19 listed breweries in 2013 to an expected 80 by the end of 2018.

Production-capacity changes and brewer subsidies were the catalyst for the provincial boom, but a slumping economy and vacant space with low rents were the spark needed to yield a new crop of brewers in these southeast Calgary industrial areas.

YYC Beer Week starts today and runs until June 10. Visit www.yycbeerweek.com for more info

One of the most attractive aspects of the industrial location for Annex Ale Project co-owners Erica O’Gorman and Andrew Bullied was the physical space. It was ready made for their operation’s scale and left room for expansion.

“We’re able to expand our volume without expanding our square footage,” said Bullied.

And although you wouldn’t see it on the surface, this area epitomizes the adage: Location, location, location.

“We’re close to Stanley Park, which has one of the biggest bike path networks in North America, we have the (39 Ave) train station right here, we’re within Car2Go, those were all huge considerations for us,” he said.

“The accessibility of this location was huge. We had to turn down a lot of locations because they were inaccessible.”

O’Gorman said Banded Peaks owner Colin McLean, who had seen how brewers during East Vancouver’s Hop Circuit brought the bike community in for tours, suggested with Calgary’s burgeoning cycling scene they should do the same.

“We were like, ‘why not just host a party once a year, open our doors, have cheap beers, some of (the money) goes to charity, people can come listen to music, eat some food and create more of a neighbourhood feeling to the area,’” O’Gorman said.

The Barley Belt was born.

Later this week: Brewers, commuters advocate for improved transportation infrastructure in “dead zone”

But it doesn’t stop there.

McLean, who has a background in urban planning, said his unique experience has made it fun to be a part of changing the face of a neighbourhood.

“It’s an area that’s typically been industrial, but not heavy industrial – auto mechanics, parts stores – so not exactly the sexiest kind of shops or boutique stores,” he said.

“The breweries have come in and changed the texture of the neighbourhood. It’s unpolished compared to other neighbourhoods in Calgary. It offers something different that your average Calgarian hasn’t seen if they haven’t been to Vancouver or Portland.”

At first glance this doesn’t look like your typical brewery district along 1 Street SE. But there’s one craft brewer and another on the way.

McLean said he sees the breweries as an addition to the neighbourhood, and that perhaps they can bring a different clientele to the area for existing businesses to thrive.

There are changes to the neighbourhood. More are to come. Specialty brewers are entering the Barley Belt, giving more reason for suds fans to come down to the southeast.

All three of these Calgary craft brewers expect the change to go beyond the beverage industry, too. They expect small shops, boutique restaurants and a whole new economy to penetrate the Manchester and Highfield areas, drawing even more traffic to the area.

They also credit the collaborative-but-competitive environment they have created for the area’s continued success.

“One of the biggest things about this industry is how friendly it is and how collaborative it is, even though we are competitors,” Daponte said.

“People really responded to how friendly we were and how we were changing this dynamic of how we were so cutthroat to other businesses.”

The neighbourhoods of Manchester and Highfield are undergoing change. The dynamic of the beer business has changed.

One thing hasn’t changed: There’s beer. And lots of it.