Be Beer-wise: Craft Beer, Local Economy, and Community Agriculture

There’s one simple change you can make this season while enjoying a regular summer activity that will help support local agriculture and economy and aid your health: make craft beer your drink of choice while camping, out for dinner or drinks on a patio, or dining at home.

There are a lot of stereotypes surrounding beer, like that it’s flavourless and only good as a cheap drink to consume in large quantities to get drunk. Likewise, there’s the stereotype that it’s a “man’s drink,” that women are more suited to drinking wine and cocktails, it leads to weight gain, and is part of an unhealthy lifestyle. False! These negative connotations are typically associated with reference to macrobrewed beer, which is what people are most familiar with. Molson, Labatt, and Sleeman are the three big brewery corporations with distribution in Canada, and produce beers like Coors and Budweiser. Their beers are unlike anything produced by small, independent microbreweries across the country — making the switch to craft beer is a whole new beer experience, and supports local breweries across the country.

Independent microbreweries create what is known as “craft beer” made using traditional brewing processes and techniques, and what determines whether a brewery is “micro” or not is the quantity of beer it produces annually. Craft beers are made with only four natural ingredients: malt barley, water, yeast, and hops — all which are GMO free. Sometimes, extra ingredients like fruit or spices are added for flavour, but must be natural ingredients. Most ingredients are regionally or nationally sourced, excepted for hops because some varieties do not grow in Canada. Macrobreweries like Molson and Coors use preservatives and fillers in their beers; instead of barley, they use a combination of barley, rice, and corn. These large multi-national breweries also tend to use ingredients that contain high-fructose corn syrup, MSG, BPAs, and GMOs in their beers. I highly recommend reading “The Shocking Ingredients Found in Beer” on the Food Babe Blog, to learn more about the questionable ingredients used in macrobrew beer that you won’t have to worry about finding in microbrew craft beer. Food Canada allows 100 different ingredients to be used in beer, so you can’t be sure with macrobrewed varieties exactly how natural or fresh the ingredients are.

Consider this: “[i]n the same way that a good grape harvest makes for better wine, a good barley harvest makes for better beer. Add to that hops – the spice of beer in the form of a clover-like bud which imparts much of the flowery aroma and bitterness to beer – and the imaginations of Canadian brew masters who are adding everything from pumpkin to pomegranate to their beers, and you’ll find an incredible offering of beers for any palate” — the beer-wise folks at indie brewery Steam Whistle point out. Drinking microbrewed beer is an exciting taste experience as you discover new varieties and flavours that you like —a bold, flavourful pint of craft beer is meant to be sipped and savoured, not chugged quickly in rapid succession like you would while “shot gunning” watery beers at a party.

Matt Sawyer, a barley farmer in Alberta, explains: “we do provide barley for microbreweries. Barley farmers sell directly to malt houses, of which there are two in Alberta (Canada Malt in Calgary, and Rahr Malting in Alix). In turn, breweries get their malt barley from these malt houses. I’ve been able to tour the maltsters around the barley farms, and it’s enjoyable getting to know the end user so they can see where their ingredients are coming from. Of course, it’s all about supply and demand and the consumption of craft beer would encourage more producers to grow barley, as more would need to be exported to the maltsters. Only 20% of barley grown in Alberta is usually malt-quality, so increased consumption of barley would definitely be encouraging for farmers to increase the size of their fields.”

Steam Whistle is an advocate of supporting local — whether it be food, beer, or anything else. As part of an industry that aligns itself with independent business, Steam Whistle likewise aligns itself with cultural, charitable and community-based organizations and events. They are open to sponsoring arts, community, music, and theatre events that are small-scale and work to bring community together. Likewise, they want their craft beer to be found in places that sell and support craft beer and regional foods.

While microbreweries have been established in Ontario and British Columbia for quite a few years, it has had a slower start in Alberta due to strict liquor laws that complicate out-of-province distribution, high liquor taxes, and high operating costs, among other things. In Edmonton, Yellowhead, Alley Kat, Amber’s and Hog’s Head (editor’s note: Amber’s and Hog’s Head are now closed) are the local breweries creating some excellent craft beers. Support local business by requesting these beers at your favourite restaurant, bar, or pub, or drinking at venues which already stock these beers (locally-owned restaurants and pubs tend to stock locally-owned beers!)

Adam Smith, the representative for Steam Whistle in Edmonton, embraces the local food and drink scene in the city — he shared with me his 5 favourite local spots to grab a pint. Take his advice and head to one of them next time you’re up for a pint — in addition to great atmosphere and food, they all serve up craft beer:

1. Next Act Pub: Great food, locally sourced ingredients. You won’t find any macrobrews on tap, and if you order from the bottle they have a great selection of domestic craft beers.  

2. Roast: This coffee shop is great any time of day, and has a drink menu comprised alsmost exclusively of Canadian craft beer. Plus, they roast their own coffee beans. [Editor’s Note: Roast is no longer open.]

3. Wunderbar: Local music. Local art. Local comedy. Great selection of craft beers to enjoy during a show.

4. Mill Creek Culina: Locally sourced ingredients, amazing food, fresh craft beer.

5. Hardware Grill: Classic fine dining using regional ingredients and influences, plus great craft beer selection.

So, when you’re out grabbing a pint this summer, consider drinking craft beer. Right now microbreweries only occupy 3-5% of the total beer market in Canada, and demand for craft beer will encourage restaurants to start carrying more varieties of microbreweries. In turn, if microbreweries are able to increase their distribution and thrive, there will be more demand from farmers for barley since microbreweries use much more barley than macrobreweries do in their products. What seems to be a common belief among microbreweries is that the competition isn’t between individual breweries but rather between micro and macrobreweries.  Just changing up the beer you drink, one pint at a time, can have a huge effect on independent businesses and agriculture. Cheers!

Special thanks to Matt Sawyer, Rob McCaig, Adam Smith, and Marina Arnaout for research assistance with this post.