Every March, Calgary’s Tool Shed Beer co-founder, Jeff Orr, travels down to Billings, Montana and stays at a hotel that has 13 breweries within walking distance.
“I enjoy going to a place like that where you can hit a bunch of places all at once,” he said.
“One of the things I lamented about our old system in Alberta, and what it created, is that this didn’t exist at all.”
Now it does.
Growing alongside Alberta’s craft beer craze is a burgeoning tourism industry; something most say has untapped potential, and it’s only just scratched the surface.
Orr said from early on in Tool Shed’s history (five years ago), they envisioned a craft beer scene that evolved into a major attraction for Calgary. He said that while it seems to the outsider that breweries popped up specifically with one another in certain areas – the Brewmuda Triangle in the northeast, where his shop is, Brewery Flats in the Inglewood / Ramsay area and the Barley Belt in the Manchester Industrial area – it’s actually more a result of relaxed zoning rules allowing breweries.
The result of that, however, is it’s inadvertently created these different brewery districts, he said.
“It’s massively changed for us in the short time we’ve been here. When we first opened we weren’t even allowed to have a taproom,” Orr said.
Now most, if not all, craft brewery openings come with a taproom. Those that don’t are looking into opening them. With the close proximity of brewers in these mini-districts, it’s created a niche opportunity that some are cashing in on.
Matt Gosse, co-owner of Edmonton-based Urban Pedal Tours, said a trip down to Portland, Oregon – the Mecca of craft beer – twigged his idea of bike tours for these growing brewery districts.
When he and his wife sat down one day for a pint, up pulled a massive bike filled with beer-swilling patrons, making the rounds at area breweries.
“We couldn’t get it out of our heads, we thought it was such a great idea.”
They first started in Edmonton two years ago, when that city’s craft beer scene was first blossoming. This year they added Calgary. For $38 a seat people can hop aboard a guided 15-seater and pedal power their way on a 150-minute brewery tour.
During the summer they run between 12 to 14 tours in Calgary and 12 to 17 in Edmonton.
“That’s the great thing about this – we’re both mutual beneficiaries of each other’s business. Our job is to basically introduce people, especially Calgarians, to breweries in Calgary,” Gosse said.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on the bike and people have said ‘we’ve never been down here before.’”
Tourism Calgary’s Jeff Hessel said the critical mass of brewers in the Calgary beer scene and the collaborative nature of the breweries has helped them sell the city’s suds scene abroad.
“When we started to see a number of these pop up, that’s when we started realizing there’s something we could really start talking about here,” Hessel said.
Tourism Calgary launched the Calgary Beer Map two years ago. In the first year they had 18 brewers sign up. This year they had 30 and a bigger print run. Hessel said the uptake was massive.
“Even as the map was going out, other breweries were coming online,” he said.
The tourism side of the beer business has also opened up opportunities for creative small businesses, like Calgary’s Reworks.
Owner Solita Work created her own self-guided beer map that’s specifically geared towards the cycling crowd that’s in Calgary or those who travel to the city. For $5, people have a guide to the city’s brewers and the safest way to get there on foot or by bike.
“For me it helps with the bike rentals and the maps are helpful because we don’t really have a lot of bike infrastructure going to these places so I help them get there safely with alternate routes,” Work said.
She thinks the potential to create an industry around Calgary’s craft beer scene is enormous, but she thinks more collaboration is needed for it to be realized.
Many of the breweries refer to Portland or East Vancouver when they talk about the craft brewing scene. A report from the Oregon Brewers Guild on the 2017 Oregon Brewers Festival showed a $23.9 million economic impact, just from that event.
Half of the festival attendees are from out of town. Those visitors attending the festival spent an average of $532 and it generated $1.3 million in business taxes.
Overall, Oregon’s craft beer industry contributes roughly $4.5 billion to the state economy and employs directly or indirectly 31,000 people, according to the Oregon Brewers Guild. More than 12 million people visit their more than 129 breweries across the state.
There’s significant economic benefits to pushing Alberta’s craft brew scene, not only at home, but abroad.
While it’s headed in the right direction, some say an already collaborative industry needs to put its collective heads together with larger organizations to figure out how to be a bigger draw.
Work says the Tourism Calgary beer map is good, but most of the organization’s resources appear to be directed towards drawing people to the big-ticket events like the Calgary Stampede.
“When tourists come to town, they want unique stuff. We’re not supporting that at all,” Work said.
Orr said there does need to be a little bit more collaboration as an entire scene. Each of the districts works together – he called it hyper-compartmentalization – but he’d like to see everyone’s efforts consolidated.
He said a passport system like in Oregon, where people purchase the pass and can redeem it for a pint at breweries statewide, or the Northwest Ales map in Washington that asks users to get stamps at all the breweries, are new ways to drive more people to Alberta breweries.
“The reality is we’re all good a making beer and some are better than others at marketing, but an organization like Tourism Calgary and Travel Alberta, they’re the ones that are good at doing that stuff,” Orr said.
Tourism Calgary’s Hessel said the breweries are taking the right steps. He said it starts with the brewers providing the experiences.
“The experience has to be created for us to sell it,” he said.
“The sky’s the limit and we’re really just learning that.”
Yes, the sky is the limit. Not just in Calgary, but in all of Alberta. Gosse said brewers have even sought his bikes for brewery tours in smaller places like Sylvan Lake. He points at breweries popping up across the province and the potential for out of town visitors to reach them and help boost local economies.
“It’s only going to grow,” he said.
“It’s right on the cusp.”