Category Archives: beer

Perfect Pre-Concert Drink-and-Dine Spot in Downtown Calgary


Lamb burger and lentil soup at Sandstone Lounge in Calgary’s Hyatt Regency Hotel

It’s a familiar conundrum. You’ve got tickets for a downtown concert or play and want to meet for a drink and a bite before the show. But where to go that’s not too expensive, formal, busy, slow or loud?

Well, in downtown Calgary, my go-to place is the Sandstone Lounge in the Hyatt Regency Hotel, a hop and a skip from the cultural hub Arts Common. It ticks all the boxes of what I’m looking for in a pre-show drink-and-dine spot.

First, it’s casual and comfy. Seating is at small tables, by the fireplace, at the vintage long bar (especially if you’re flying solo) or, in summer, on the outdoor patio amongst historic sandstone buildings along Stephen Avenue Mall.

Second, you don’t have to shout to be heard, with quiet jazz on the sound system. Third, the service is always understatedly professional. On a recent visit, the waitress subtly unwrapped just the soupspoon from the napkin-wrapped utensils.

The critical fourth, Sandstone’s food and drink, is consistently good. There’s a whack of cocktails and wine selections, and it passes my craft-beer test with a nice list of local pints, including a fine, not-to-hoppy White Raven IPA from Edson’s Bench Creek Brewing.

The varied lounge menu ranges from house-spiced nuts to charcuterie to haddock bites. I go for a great lamb burger—featuring all-natural meat from Lambtastic Farms in Vulcan, Alberta—topped with balsamic onion relish, cumin gouda and tomato garlic aioli. This time, my side is a piping hot lentil soup, though the rice-flour-coated fries are darn good, too.

For downtown dinner-time Calgary, it’s reasonable value: $25 for burger/soup and a pint. All in all, an efficient yet relaxed prelude to a fantastic concert, featuring Blackie and the Rodeo Kings and special guest icon Ian Tyson.

Sandstone Lounge: Hyatt Regency Hotel
700 Centre Street SE, Calgary
Daily 10:30 am-midnight

Pol-ease, Pour Me a Pint


The long arm of the lager. Dragon's Gate Brewery's Adam.

The long arm of the lager. Dragon’s Gate Brewery’s Adam.

During an intensive wine-tasting tour or beer crawl, I generally try to avoid any roaming police, just in case. So when an actual sheriff is pouring the beer samples at a wee brewery in rural Oregon, I’m not sure how many I should pound back before hopping into the car. Especially when he tells me one ale I’m sipping packs a 10%-alcohol wallop. Continue reading

Taking an Affordable U.S. Road Trip With the Battered Canadian Loonie

Am I loony to be considering a U.S. road trip?

Am I loony to be considering a U.S. road trip?

It’s a great time to be an American, especially if you’re travelling to Canada. The soaring greenback is a big reason why Whistler, B.C. is enjoying a stellar ski season and Canmore’s vacation condo market is hopping in an otherwise bleak Alberta economy.

By contrast, it’s a terrible time to be a Canadian considering a U.S. vacation. The realization that it’s going to cost you $1.45 Canadian to buy one measly American dollar is enough to make most northerners curl up in the fetal position till the snow starts melting in, say, May.

But it’s still possible to have a reasonably affordable trip stateside, particularly if you make it a road trip rather than a flight to a destination resort. Mind you, the approach I suggest leans much more to the dirtbag than the five star. You have been warned.

Fill er up

The biggest advantage for a U.S. road-tripping adventure is the cost of gasoline. It’s traditionally been a bargain, given the much lower gas taxes south of the border. But even with the badly wounded loonie, you might still save some money.

It depends on where you live and where you’re traveling. In Alberta, for example, you can fill up right now for under 80 cents (Cndn) a litre, compared with more than $1 in B.C. Western U.S. prices range from about $1.76 (US) a gallon in Denver to $2.60 in Los Angeles. Obviously, there’s a price to pay for living on or visiting the west coast of either country. I call it a smug tax.

Figuring out your fill-up cost involves converting litres to American gallons and then converting Canadian dollars to those $1.45 American ones. For a fill-up of 50 litres (13.2 U.S. gallons), it will cost an Albertan $40 and a British Columbian more than $50, at home in Cndn. dollars. That same amount of gas will cost you $33.68 in Denver and $49.76 in L.A., in converted Cndn dollars.

You can't fill your own tank in Oregon but filling up likely won't cost any more than in Canada

You can’t fill your own tank in Oregon but filling up likely won’t cost any more than in Canada

The bottom line is the cost of gasoline isn’t going to be a deal breaker for deciding whether to hit the U.S. road or plan a staycation. And if you’re in Oregon, where you’re not allowed by law to fill your own gas tank, the attendant will usually clean your windows.

Skip the hotels and motels

I once did a month-long road trip where my total cost of accommodation was $50. How did I pull off this magic trick? Other than two nights of camping and a couple parked on urban side streets, I mostly stayed in 24-hour Walmart parking lots for free.

I’d much rather sleep in the great outdoors, preferably in a magnificent state or national park campground along the crashing ocean or beneath a lofty canopy. While it’s going to cost you about $30 US a night to camp in the redwood forests of northern California, you can find more spartan digs for maybe $10 elsewhere. Do a bit of sleuthing and you can discover national forest or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) spots for free. Running water and toilets, however, may be optional.

Still, it’s a much more pastoral experience than parking in the distant corner of an asphalt Walmart parking lot, with blinding street lights and roaring vehicles and motorized street sweepers at all hours of the night. A camper of some sort, with curtains, is the best way to keep the glare and din at bay. In a pinch, though, good ear plugs and an eye shade will suffice if you’re curled up in the back of your car.

Welcome to the Walmart Motel. Cost $0

Welcome to the Walmart Motel. Cost $0

While you’re tossing and turning, just think of the $50 to $100 a night you’re saving by not booking a motel bed, TV and rattling air-conditioning unit. And who needs a shower? If you’re desperate, you can always make do with the sink in a Walmart washroom, open around the clock.

Affordable dining

Until fairly recently, I figured eating out at American restaurants was 10 to 20 per cent cheaper than in Canada, even with the exchange rate (portions are generally bigger, too). But when you’re paying upwards of 40 per cent to exchange loonies into greenbacks, that advantage has more than disappeared.

Of course, the cheapest feeding solution is to buy groceries and cook them wherever you’re staying. But since this is a road-trip dining blog, let’s look at a few ways you can still eat out somewhat affordably.

A succulent burger and fries at Mountain Sun in Boulder, Colorado will set you back about $13 (US)

A succulent burger and fries at Mountain Sun in Boulder, Colorado will set you back about $13 (US)

  1. Beer and burger – At Moab Brewery, on the doorstep of Arches National Park in Utah, a burger and fries is $9 (US) and a 16-ounce pint of their ale $4.25. By comparison, a burger and fries in the Alberta resort towns of Canmore and Banff will set you back about $16 (Cndn), washed down with a $7.50, 19-ounce pint. So even with the steep conversion rate, the equivalent total cost in Canadian dollars is $19.20 Moab and $23.50 Banff. Obviously, prices will vary in different places, but clearly not a deal breaker.
  2. Better breakfasts – Breakfast is generally the best value, both in cost (often under $10 in the U.S.) and volume; you might not need to eat lunch. Omelettes don’t seem much cheaper stateside, but you can often find a stack of pancakes for $5 or $6.
  3. Stock up on sandwiches – You can find some monstrous, made-to-order, delicious sandwiches in many U.S. delis and cafes. At the Sandwich Spot in Palm Springs, the humongous Grand Slam—featuring turkey, ham and roast beef—was $8. I gave half to a street person, but it would have fed me for two days. A half sandwich at Grove Market deli, in Salt Lake City, was $7 and still weighed nearly two pounds. It was $8 for a similar behemoth at Compagno’s Delicatessen, in Monterey, California.
This delicious half sandwich was only $8 at Campagno's Delicatessen in Monterey, California

This delicious half sandwich was only $8 at Campagno’s Delicatessen in Monterey, California

I could go on, but I have to wipe the drool off my face… and grab a road map.

Artisan Beer and Cheese Worthy of an Okanagan, B.C. Road Trip

Crannog Ales makes delightful Irish-style beer at its organic microbrewery in Sorrento, B.C.

Crannog Ales makes delightful Irish-style beer at its organic microbrewery in Sorrento, B.C.

How can I resist a beer with the name Back Hand of God? Though, technically speaking, this stout from Crannóg Ales is far more pleasure than punishment. It certainly is the nectar of the gods—a smooth, dry beer with lingering coffee and chocolate notes.

Located near the little community of Sorrento, on the south shore of Shuswap Lake in B.C.’s interior, Crannog is Canada’s first organic farmhouse microbrewery. Its 10-acre farm provides organic hops and spring-fed water to help co-owner Brian MacIsaac brew small batches of unfiltered, unpasteurized Irish-style beers including a potato ale and a seasonal cherry ale.

Crannóg is a draught-only brewery, which keeps the product ultra fresh. But it also means it’s a bit tricky to purchase, i.e. you won’t find bottles at your local beer outlet. You can pick up growlers and 8.5-litre “party pigs” at the brewery, where you can also sample the ales during booked, summer weekend tours.

The good news is you can order pints of Crannog ales at a growing list of B.C. pubs, extending all the way west to Vancouver Island (I sipped a Back Hand of God at Riverfront Pub & Grill in the north Okanagan hamlet of Grindrod.) The pigs are also available at a few regional liquor stores.

Back hand or not, these organic Irish ales are well worth seeking out.

Crannog Ales
706 Elson bella Road, Sorrento, B.C.
Beer pickups Thursday to Saturday 8:30 am-4:30 pm spring to fall (Friday and Saturday in winter), summer tours/tastings Friday and Saturday 1 pm-3:30 pm, by appointment only

Speaking of niche organic products in the region, Bella Stella Cheese crafts some wonderful, organic cheeses in Lumby, a small town in the northeast Okanagan, near Vernon. Here, Igor and Irma Ruffa use their Swiss-Italian background to produce Alps’ cheeses like a brie-style Formaggella with a rich, complex flavour.

Bella Stella Cheese please, in Lumby, B.C.

Bella Stella Cheese, please, in Lumby, B.C.

Bella Stella cheeses are currently only available in regional stores and farmers’ markets, which is where I stumbled upon them. Guess I’ll have to plan another Okanagan road trip.

Pizza and Beer Joint a Fine End to Yellowstone Adventure

Backpacking through the sulphurous mists of Yellowstone National Park

Backpacking through the sulphurous mists of Yellowstone National Park

When you’re located on the doorstep of the world’s oldest national park, it kind of makes sense that you’ve been making pizza here since the primordial days of 1953.

Such is the case with K-Bar Pizza, an unvarnished bar and restaurant on a dusty street in equally unpretentious Gardiner, Montana, at the northern entrance of Yellowstone National Park.

After a full day of hiking or geyser touring, it’s nice to appease your appetite and slake your thirst with a pie and pint. K-Bar offers some nice salads and an impressive selection of beers on tap from Montana microbrewers such as Bozeman Brewing, Bitter Root Brewery and Neptune’s Brewery (I go for the latter’s charged-up latte stout).

Pretty much everyone orders the thin-crust pizza; sorry, no burgers. This keeps the cook at the back busy tossing dough high in the air, loading it with typical toppings and then firing it into the oven. Our medium Crazy Woman—featuring alfredo sauce, sausage, garlic black pepper and red pepper flakes—is a generous amount for two.

The Crazy Woman—The PIZZA, not the eater!

The Crazy Woman—The PIZZA, not the eater!

Nothing fancy, but at the end of a week-long Yellowstone backpack fuelled by dehydrated fare, it hits the spot. It’s certainly better than any of the cafeteria offerings in the “villages” scattered through the park.

K-Bar Pizza
202 Main Street, Gardiner, Montana
Monday to Thursday 4 pm-9:30 pm, Friday 4 pm-10 pm, Saturday-Sunday 11 am-10 pm

Stella’s Inn: Open When You’re Hungry

Old-world charm and hospitality at Stella's Inn in Beaver Mines, Alberta

Old-world charm and hospitality at Stella’s Inn in Beaver Mines, Alberta

Now this is what exceptional service looks like.

We’ve just finished a six-day, often scorching backpack along the spectacular Great Divide Trail, going north from Waterton Lakes National Park. Our tongues are practically scraping the trail as we reach our car at the Castle Mountain Ski Resort, in deep southwest Alberta.

So we’re sure looking forward to a celebratory beer and burger at Stella’s Inn, a little pub and café (recommended by a friend) in the charming hamlet of nearby Beaver Mines, just south of Crowsnest Pass. But as we pull up to the old wood building just before noon, the parking lot is suspiciously empty, and a little “closed” sign seems to seal the deal. Nonetheless, one passenger hops out to make sure and returns a minute later, waving us to come in. “She doesn’t officially open till 4 pm, but she’ll make us lunch.”

When you've been skiing at Castle Mountain for half a century, they name a poster after you

When you’ve been skiing at Castle Mountain for half a century, they name a poster after you

In we go through a darkened pub framed with historical posters from the ski resort, where Stella has skied since the hill opened in the mid-1960s. The inside dining area opens onto one of the nicest decks you’ll find anywhere—shaded by tall, deciduous trees, festooned with flowers, patrolled by a lithe but deaf 21-year-old cat and flanked with views across ranchland to the Front Ranges of the Rocky Mountains.

Can you beat this patio—and all to ourselves?

Can you beat this patio—and all to ourselves?

Best of all, we’ve got this lovely “middle of nowhere” place to ourselves, a private engagement if you will. Well, it’s hard to beat the first sips of beer served in frosted mugs. Then Stella (officially Susan White and self described as “innkeeper, chef, bottle washer”) disappears into the kitchen to prepare our burgers. My friends go with beef, and I consider haddock, but how can I ignore a crab cake burger?

Now here's the way to end a six-day backpack

Now here’s the way to end a six-day backpack

Not long after, three beautiful plates arrive, artfully decorated with oven-roasted fries, a little watermelon salad  and burgers nestled inside ciabatta buns. My goodness! I know everything tastes better after a few days on the trail, but this would be a knockout even after an hour of driving.

It doesn't get any better than a crab cake burger with oven-roasted fries

It doesn’t get any better than a crab cake burger with oven-roasted fries

“I don’t like to boast, but I am a good cook,” allows Stella as I peruse an ever-changing dinner menu that, the night before, included lamb shank and featured an offering with truffle oil.

“What are your hours?”
“Oh, just phone ahead, and I’ll make sure I’m open.”
“Who are your customers”?
“A lot of tourists as well as fishermen and duck hunters,” who also stay at the inn.

I guess if you make food this good and keep an open-door policy, they will find you.

Stella’s Inn
Beaver Mines, Alberta
Hours vary. Phone 403-627-9798