OLDS, Alta. — Few pleasures match that of sipping a fresh and lively ale made with malt from your own barley, says an Alberta grain grower.
Wade McAllister, fifth-generation producer on a farm established east of Olds, Alta., in 1915, says the dramatic growth in craft breweries over the last two years has stimulated new markets for malt barley.
Growing barley for malt is more work, it costs more to produce and weather conditions loom large in determining the quality of the crop that will come off, says McAllister.
The venture continues to pay off and other dividends, including a pint of draught, make it all worthwhile, he says.
Figures posted in February by ATB Financial and the Alberta Culinary Tourism Alliance state that Alberta farmers, on average, grow enough malt barley to make 12 billion bottles of beer per year.
Tannis Baker, ACTA executive director, says there are now more than 50 craft breweries operating in the province and new ones are set to come on stream. She anticipates that there will be 70 up and running by the end of this year.
Until recently, Alberta’s entire crop of malting barley went into the Canadian Wheat Board’s pool and ended up in the vats of the continent’s major beer producers.
Changes in the regulatory climate have diverted that crop into a niche industry that is now nibbling into the market share traditionally held by the big corporations.
Those changes include dismantling of the CWB’s monopoly on barley, which allowed aggressive young farmers like McAllister to seek other deals. He now trades directly with Rahr Malting at Alix , Alta., and the smaller malting companies who sell customized product directly to craft breweries.
In 2013, the province opened the door for small breweries and distilleries by removing restrictions based on their minimum annual production. Last summer, the province announced that craft breweries operating within Alberta would receive a rebate on a beer levy the previous government had set in 2015.
“They’re growing rapidly — the breweries, the meaderies, the distilleries . . . there seems to be an appetite for that sort of thing,” says Calgary distiller Mike Stanfield, who has built a business out of what used to be a hobby.
He says changes to alcohol-related regulations have sparked innovation, creativity and investment.
As changes in regulations took hold, Olds College established a brewmaster program and set up its own commercial brewery where students can learn the craft and test new recipes.
Olds College brewery manager David Claveau says he and his team make it their business to stimulate and support an industry that is collaborative rather than competitive.
Members of its first class of graduates have now established breweries of their own, starting with recipes they developed during their studies. Those recipes include various types and proportions of malt and hops, along with other ingredients, says Claveau.
Among the breweries set up by the first class of graduates is Troubled Monk in Red Deer, where Eva Wright started as a server and has now graduated into marketing and customer service as the taproom specialist.
Wright concurs with Claveau’s assessment of the industry as a collaborative, including breweries, maltsters and farmers.
Across the industry, ingredients are delivered fresh from the maltsters and hop farms.
“On a daily basis, we have people (whose) brand is Kokanee or Budweiser and they come in and they try one of our beers and, even our lightest beer, (they find) it so intense with the flavour, it takes them a little bit to process those flavours,” says Wright.
“We have the products at our fingertips and we’re able to work hand in hand with the people that are producing those products. It’s only going to expand how many breweries are being (built) and how much product is being put out,” she says.
Alberta’s craft breweries will showcase their products during the first Alberta Craft Brewing Convention in Red Deer March 28-29.
For more information, visit albertabrewers.ca.