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Craft Beer Booming in Calgary: Too Much of a Good Thing?

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The colourful Cold Garden Beverage Company is one of some 50 craft breweries in Calgary

At last count, there are more than 50 craft breweries in Calgary, compared with a relative handful five years ago. Admittedly, not every brewery on this list seems to actually be making beer yet.

But still, it’s a heck of a lot. By comparison, the apparently less thirsty folks of Edmonton only have about 15 local craft breweries to choose from. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard of a bunch of Calgary operations—Goat Locker Brewing, New Level Brewing, Born Colorado Brewing, O.T. Brewing Company, etc.—despite making a reasonable effort to keep track of what’s brewing in Calgary.

It’s great to see this beer boom in Calgary. But the question is this: How do you stand out sufficiently from the crowd to create a viable business and start paying off all that expensive beer-making equipment? (One entrepreneur I talked to recently said his partnership was spending $1.3 million to build a brewery outside of Vancouver.) Given this increasingly crowded Calgary beer market, it would seem not everyone is going to survive. This interview with Steve Carlton, co-owner of the recently closed Red Bison Brewery, illustrates the challenges facing local craft brewers.

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You often need lots of space to make beer, like Caravel Craft Brewery, near Calgary’s airport

There are a few essential ingredients to success. Good beer, obviously. Some standards in one’s beer lineup: an India pale ale (IPA), a pale ale, maybe a stout or porter and, increasingly, a sour. Maybe a unique brew—exotic ingredients include marshmallows, bacon, Chile peppers, doughnuts, you name it.

You also need a comfortable, convivial taproom. It certainly helps to have good food options such as a local chuck burger, fried chicken, barbecue, house-made snacks or hand-crafted pizza.

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Citizen Brewing does some killer fried chicken

Location is also important, to some extent. There are emerging collections of craft breweries in Calgary, such as five in Inglewood and half a dozen in the Manchester area, which encourage things like beer “hops”. And if you can establish a neighbourhood brewery/pub that attracts nearby residents, so much the better.

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Annex Ale Project is nicely located for a beer bike hop in southeast Calgary

But no doubt because of the cost and amount of real estate needed to make beer and build an attached taproom, many Calgary craft breweries are popping up in industrial areas around the city. Which means convincing patrons to a) find you and b) make the trek to your premises (here’s a map showing the locations of most Calgary craft breweries). You also might need hooks to get people in the door: arcade games, military history theme, board games, live music nights, no-tip policies.

Marketing plays a huge part in creating a successful craft brewery. This includes getting your beer into pubs and restaurants and onto liquor-store shelves. Let’s face it, even beer-dedicated places like National and Craft Beer Market aren’t going to put offerings from 50 Calgary breweries on tap.

There’s a myriad other things to consider, like whether to primarily sell your product in kegs, bottles (12-ounce or 22-ounce “bombers”), cans (tall or regular) or growlers. Keeping abreast of provincial regulations and taxes governing Alberta craft breweries is another factor.

So, best of luck to all the brewers trying to make a go of it in Calgary.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be highlighting some of Calgary’s craft breweries, focusing on what makes them stand out. I’ll randomly start with Ol’ Beautiful.

Location: In the heart of Inglewood’s craft beer scene. Indeed, it’s a 20-second stroll across Ol Beautiful’s patio to the colourful Cold Garden. The only intermingling they don’t encourage is carrying drink/food from one location to the other.

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Ol’ Beautiful’s patio is just a few steps away from Cold Garden in Inglewood’s Barley District

Ambience: Comfortable, relaxed

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A cozy, relaxed taproom

Signature beer: Okami Kasu, a Japanese-style, easy-drinking ale that includes rice, plus the leftover rice from sake production, giving the beer “a subtle hint of boozy, creamy funk in the finish.”

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Food: Mostly packaged snacks

Beer availability: Tall bottles and growler fills at select drinking establishments and liquor outlets

Ol’ Beautiful
1103 12 Street SE, Calgary
Tuesday to Thursday noon-10 pm, Friday-Saturday noon to midnight, Sunday noon to 8 pm. Closed Monday

Hey, use the “leave a reply” link in the upper left to promote your favourite local craft brewery and what makes it special; it doesn’t have to be in Calgary.

Happy Hour Every Day in Calgary

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Happy Hour at the National at Calgary Westhills

When it comes to cheap eats, it’s hard to beat happy hour.

It’s a win-win situation. The customer gets food and drinks at discount prices, and the restaurant gets customers during an otherwise slow part of the day, usually late afternoon and sometimes late at night.

In Calgary’s beleaguered economy, consumers are increasingly looking for bargains and restaurants for customers. So it’s great to discover, just five minutes from my house, two quality establishments offering lots of happy-hour specials every day of the week.

National and Earls are practically next door to each other in WestHills Town Centre, a typical sprawling suburban mall. And in late afternoon, both are hopping busy, thanks to their happy hours.

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Earls has the most happy hour offerings I’ve seen

National is a thriving Calgary operation, with four locations, specializing in lots of craft beers and good bar food—think burgers, chicken wings, fish and chips and smoked brisket sandwiches. The majority of seating is at long, communal tables, so you’re cheek to jowl with your neighbours, many of them families. It’s a festive, noisy atmosphere, especially at happy hour, so don’t expect an intimate dinner.

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West Hills is one of several National locations in Calgary

On to the happy-hour deals, available 3-6 pm daily. There’s a smattering of cocktails and house wines but, really, you’re here for the craft beer. National lists some 60 brews, mostly local and from B.C. And they’re mostly available at happy-hour prices of $5 for 16 ounces (normally $8.50). Just make sure you’ve ordered your second pint before six, assuming you’re not driving.

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The National’s happy-hour menu

My go-to happy hour foods are the substantial Clive burger ($13 instead of $17.50), featuring two Alberta grass-fed patties and a heaping cone of fries; seniors or kids could easily split this. Another shareable is a lovely mesquite bacon and mushroom pizza ($9.50 instead of $18), an eight-slice steal of a deal. A friend recommends the crispy chicken sliders (local Sunrise Farms)—three for $11 instead of $14.50.

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The substantial mesquite bacon and mushroom pizza is only $9.50 during happy hour

Earls is a much bigger operation, with nearly 70 locations in Canada (eight in Calgary alone) and the U.S. It started in 1982 as a spinoff of the Edmonton-based Fullers. In my experience, it has always produced good, innovative meals at reasonable prices, straddling the boundary between fine dining and a relaxed, family atmosphere.

Happy Hour

These chicken tacos are $6 during Earls happy hour

Unlike the paltry happy-hour offerings at many restaurants, Earls has gone all out on such specials, available, with some variations, at all its outlets. At my Westhills location, happy hour goes from 3 to 5 pm and 9 pm to close, with a list of 18 discounted food items, ranging from $4 garlic fries to $19 Cajun chicken. The dozen drinks includes their proprietary Rhino draught ($5.50 instead of $8.25 for 18 ounces).

Some of the standout deals are the street chicken tacos (reduced from $13.25 to $6), the eight-inch margherita pizza (down from $6.50 to $4) and the crispy ribs ($8 instead of $13).

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And the margherita pizza is only $4

I’ve never had a local dine-and-drink hangout, preferring to experience the vast diversity of choices available in western North American. But with deals like these, you might spot me tipping a pint at these two joints.

National Westhills
180 Stewart Green SW, Calgary
Daily happy hour 3 pm-6 pm

Earls Westhills
140 Stewart Green SW, Calgary
Daily happy hour 3-5 pm and 9 pm to close

Cumberland, B.C. a Road-Food Hotspot

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Housed in an old trailer, Love’s Ice Cream is part of the exciting food and drink scene in little Cumberland, B.C.

Move over, Canmore, Alberta. You’re being supplanted by Cumberland, B.C.

The “village” of 3,750 residents near the east coast of central Vancouver Island is being discovered. By mountain bikers, attracted to more than 80 kilometres of single track in the surrounding Cumberland forest. By people looking to boat and fish in the nearby Strait of Georgia or ski the deep snow at also nearby Mount Washington.


Cumberland Brewing attracts bikers and sun lovers to its patio

By folks looking to move to an attractive, small community, with affordable housing. Oops… used to be affordable. Prices for newer houses have jumped, in many cases, to more than $500,000; still cheap by Victoria or Vancouver prices.

Like the mountain community of Canmore, Cumberland’s economy used to be based on coal mining. When the mines closed, people in both places wondered about their future. Turns out tourism isn’t a bad replacement.

Cumberland isn’t nearly as crowded as Canmore, but locals note that it’s a lot busier than it used to be, especially on weekends when outsiders pour into town from Courtenay, Comox and further afield. As is the case in many such “service” communities, there aren’t a lot of good-paying jobs.

As a road-food warrior, I was stunned by the number and quality of good, independent, affordable places to eat and drink in downtown Cumberland. Within two blocks on main street (Dunsmuir Avenue) are at least half a dozen excellent places I’ve tried (or hope to get to on my next trip west). For cheap eats, that beats Canmore, in my books.

As a quick overview, here’s a pictorial guide to what’s cooking in Cumberland.

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Riders Pizza is well connected to the Cumberland biking scene

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The cooks at Biblio Taco are concocting innovative fare like chicken mole and seared tuna tacos

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Village Ice makes Hawaiian-style shaved ice with real fruit and house-made syrups

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They’re also in a cute little parking lot building

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A flight of beer at Cumberland Brewing

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Who doesn’t like fresh-ground chuck and brisket burgers?

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At Love’s, the ice cream (from local, grass-fed milk) and cones are made from scratch.

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Cumberland Village Bakery is a fixture on Dunsmuir Avenue


After all that food, you might need a coffee


This Fresh-Roasted Calgary Coffee is a Real Pick Me Up


Calgary’s Mount Pleasant Roastery sells its fresh coffee beans via a picket-fence box

Many of you have no doubt encountered those little wooden boxes, on country roads, where you can purchase local fruits and vegetables, on the honour system.

Well, this concept has migrated to the big city, with fresh-roasted coffee sold out of little red boxes on a white-picket fence in a northwest Calgary neighbourhood. Hallelujah!


There’s usually a couple of bean types available, on the honour system

Rick Eden and Larissa Riemann, through their Mount Pleasant Roastery, are roasting high-quality beans in small batches in their garage and selling them to neighbours and passersby through a couple of fence-line boxes, as well as online. Here’s a nice story about their little business.

As someone who often roasts his own beans in a wee Behmor roaster, I’m delighted to find a local roaster producing small quantities of Guatemalan, Honduran and Brazilian beans, with the roasting date hand printed on the bag. True freshness is hard to find in coffee beans and makes a huge difference in taste.


The hand-printed roasting data is a sign of freshness

To date, I’ve only sampled the Guatemalan Carrizal, advertised as a medium-dark roast, though closer to a dark roast, which I like in a world misguidedly devoted to the lighter end.

Because the fence-box beans are sold on the honour system, you can pay whatever you want. Online sales mention a bargain $10-per-pound price, but given the quality, I’d suggest a healthy tip.

Mount Pleasant Roastery
515 18 Avenue NW and 601 19 Avenue NW (5 Street fence), Calgary, Alberta
Around the clock, as long as coffee’s available

Working up an Appetite on Vancouver Island’s Remote Coasts

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The Crab Shack is at a water-taxi crossing on the fabled West Coast Trail

In less than a week this spring, I visited two of the most remote restaurants in all my road-food journeys.

Actually, for one eatery, there was no road leading to it, just a nearly 50-kilometre, rugged hiking “trail”. Talk about working up an appetite.

Both destinations were the result of back-to-back backpacks along Vancouver Island’s spectacular coast: the iconic West Coast Trail and the not so famous North Coast Trail.

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Ordering plates of seafood at the Crab Shack

The road-less spot, the Crab Shack, was reached in the middle of our West Coast Trail traverse, after three nights of dehydrated meals cooked on a backcountry stove. So to see live crab being lifted in a pot from deep water was more than enough to get the saliva glands going. In fact, we hardly needed the shell crackers to tear the poor creatures apart.

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Our well-dressed cook lifting a pot of live crabs from the depths

If wrestling with a crab isn’t your thing, there’s the option of fresh-from-the-water halibut or ling cod. And no one was passing up the carbo-loading option of massive baked potatoes, loaded with toppings.

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A whole crab, ready to devour

The Crab Shack is a family business of the Ditidaht, one of three First Nations that partner with Parks Canada to operate and maintain the West Coast Trail. The little, almost-floating restaurant is located at the end of Nitinaht Narrows, where a short boat ride is needed to continue on the trail. The feast propelled us for the finishing seven kilometres of that day’s hike.

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The Crab Shack is ably run by Shelley.

Our second, remote eatery—the Scarlet Ibis Pub—was reached shortly after finishing more than 80 kilometres of hiking on the North Coast Trail. The pub is midway along a two-hour shuttle bus ride back to Port Hardy on a dusty gravel road in the middle-of-nowhere northern Vancouver Island. It’s located in Holberg, population 35, whose claim to fame was once having the world’s largest floating logging camp.

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The Scarlet Ibis Pub is in the middle-of-nowhere northern Vancouver Island

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After 80 km of hiking, this loaded plate of fish and chips went down in about five minutes

The Scarlet Ibis has been run for decades by its colourful owner, though she has the place up for sale, if you’re interested. But we’re here for the food and drink and, if anything, are even more famished than at the Crab Shack.

The overflowing platters of fish and chips disappear as quickly as two rounds of Lucky beer. Lucky us.

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Our host, cook and raconteur Linda

Scenes From a Vancouver Island Road Trip

A few pictures from a Vancouver Island road trip in which we did the North Coast Trail and West Coast Trail as back-to-back, seven-day backpacks. In the process, we covered the island from its northern tip to its southern shores.


Fabulous, hole-in-the-wall bakery near Tin Town in Courteney


Sumptuous home-made ice cream and waffle cone at Love’s in Cumberland B.C. (more about the town’s burgeoning food scene in an upcoming post)


At a pub in Port Hardy, our launching point for the North Coast Trail

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Wonderful sand beach at Irony Creek on the North Coast Trail


Wolves on the same beach, chasing a deer

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We did manage to survive


After a week-long backpack, this disappeared in a few minutes at Bin 4 Burger Lounge in Langford

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Bumper service at Gardenside Acres “Tent and Breakfast” Campground, near Brentwood Bay

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One of the many infamous ladders on the West Coast Trail

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Sea anemones in tidal pool

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Enough of this hiking!


We’re stoked for post-backpack pizza near Sooke, but they’re closed Wednesdays. Aaargh!


Early June snowstorm at Rogers Pass on the way home