One of Calgary’s newest breweries located in the Barley Belt in the Manchester industrial area is founded by homebrewers, and it shows. With beer styles like British Best Bitter, Robust Porter and California Common pouring in their tap room, one might even go further and say that the folks who opened The Establishment Brewing Co. might even be BJCP beer judges.
For Mike Foniok, one of the founders of The Establishment Brewing Co., opening a brewery was a dream the minute he started homebrewing. “I always had the dream. It seems like the moment I touched homebrew equipment, I was like, ‘Hey man, that’ll be cool.’ I was self-consciously positioning myself in my life in order to be able to do that longterm. So it’s always been in the back of my head and I think after doing really well in competitions, and at one point of time, I was like, ‘Now is the time. And if we don’t do it now, we’ll probably miss that opportunity.’ “
Foniok was first introduced to great beer while studying abroad in Switzterland in his third year of university. ” I actually met Brandon [Hart] …one of the founding members [there]. It was kind of the first time my eyes were opened to good beer. So when I came back, I started seeking out good beer. That made me jump into homebrewing to try to produce these styles. I quickly joined the [Cowtown] Yeast Wranglers.” And it just snowballed from there.
He started competing. “That really pushed me to just to brew more and to learn more. I enjoyed the competitive edge. It was a friendly competitive edge with the local Calgary homebrewers. ‘Oh see how many medals [you can get]. Oh see if you beat Paul Heslap’s best bitter.’ It was just fun and jovial, but it pushes you to learn a lot more about the styles. Because in order to brew a style, you really need to understand the history behind the ingredients and the reasons behind those choices. I think personally, in order to replicate it stylistically, so I think you can spend a lifetime in brewing and you’ll still be learning a whole lifetime later. There’s so much information out there. I think that’s what keeps me brewing. I think that’s really what homebrewing [is about]. Making something and sharing with people that you love.”
He became a BJCP National ranking judge. “I think joining the BJCP, getting certified as [a judge] really got me introduced to a lot more information and meeting people through that. That kind of took a turn for the worst. And now we own a brewery,” laughs Foniok. And he credits it all to homebrewing. “I think the homebrewing, it’s a huge driver for where we are right now, and the community that was built through the Yeast Wranglers. I can’t say enough about it. It’s great.”
Dave Ronneberg, one of the other founders, has a different origin story when it comes to homebrewing. “A friend thought I needed something to do. He was brewing at home, and said ‘I think you might like this.’ So I started asking him about it, reading about it. He showed me the basics. and the I kind of of realised that I really enjoyed it. You read a lot about it, and it sounds complicated, but in practice you can make it as complicated or as simple as you want.” One of the things that really caught his interest was the DIY nature of homebrewing. “I’ve always been drawn to hobbies that involved making something. It’s quite gratifying. I liked that brewing is like cooking and baking, and tinkering with machines, being able to build all your own equipment.”
Ronneberg was also involved in the Cowtown Yeast Wranglers. “I was just kind of going and enjoying beer in the beginning. I wasn’t really really into the brewing. But I did start getting involved with the competition quite early. I just stewarded for a while. That’s a pretty fun job. And then [I] got interested enough in the technical parts of brewing and studying the styles, [and then] I wanted to do the BJCP beer exam.”
While Foniok is more on the operation and production side of things and Ronneberg’s on the tap room and sales side of things, they do collaborate on all the beer recipes in the brewery. “We have a pretty mixed bag of recipes from a decade of brewing. From homebrewing, we’ve amassed some good recipes. Some good, maybe some not so good. We threw those. Most of them are pretty tasty, and then [it’s] figuring how to scale them up,” explains Foniok.
Training and studying for the BJCP certification, alongside brewing at the same time, is what Ronneberg credits his success in coming up with new recipes. “It helps you to conceptualise a beer and successful execute it. Just like reading about it, really thinking about, ‘What are the flavours that we want? What are the aromas that we want? What’s the balance we want?’ And actually turning that into a recipe that is what you intended. When you start homebrewing, you don’t really have that foresight. You just kind of start brewing, and you throw stuff together, and you decide this is too much this or too much that. I haven’t brewed as much as Mike, but at a point where you get to jknow the ingeredeitns a bit, how intense should the falvours be, what does this malt contributing, why are we using it. i think that has helped us a lot in developing the recipes.
Their main approach to coming up with recipes is striking a balance in the flavours. “You don’t necessarily need to make a beer complex. You don’t necessarily need to put crazy ingredients into a beer to make it interesting or cool,” Foniok emphasizes. “Because I think that, at least in my experience, the beers that usually that don’t quite taste right, it’s because there’s something that’s overpowering another flavour, and the balance is just a little bit off. If you look at the classic styles. The best ones that have survived the longest in brewing history, They’re always just a well balanced beer. It has to have balance in order to be drinkable.”
And it’s paying off. “I think that we’ve achieved the goal of making really balanced beer because we’re getting a lot of comments from people, ‘ I don’t typically like this style of beer, but I really like this one.’ or ‘Sometimes I go to a place and they have five beers and I only like three of them, but I really enjoyed all of these.’ So we do have a spectrum of styles,” shares Ronneberg.
Besides brewing beer styles that are as close to style as possible and not generally available in the Calgary market, they also have a barrel program with 50 barrels for souring. “We have our own mixed culture that we’ve developed over a number of years at home, from bottle dregs or outside culture even, that has had successful fermentations, and we’ve grown those up. Now we do a primary fermentation in stainless, and then transfer into red wine barrels and do a souring process in [the] barrels.”
With 10 beers on tap and a promising collection of sour beers in the horizon, the response has been overwhelmingly positive from both customers and the industry. Ronneberg says, “The most satisfying part about this [is] working behind the bar and talking to people about the beer, and hearing many positive things from customers and…customers saying, “I was just at this place, and they said I have to come here’. Really good feedback from the brewing community.”
About the recipe for their Hibiscus Brett Saison, Foniok shares, “Hibiscus is also a very cool ingredient to use in beer. It adds a huge amount of berry fruit notes, a touch of acidity, and a deep red hue. The selection of a funky strain of Brett helps contrast the berry forward, jammy character of the hibiscus flowers, and it’s also super fun to experience how the Brett chews up all the Saison esters and transforms them into something completely different over time. As the beer ages in secondary with Brett, you’ll notice a drop in the classic Saison pepper phenolics and pome/orange esters and an increase of Brett funk, and new fruit aromas. The bitterness is low, since the Brett does a good job drying the beer out, and the hibiscus provides a light tartness for balance. A beer that keeps evolving with time, but best served when the hibiscus character is at it’s peak.”
The Establishment Brewing Co.’s Hisbiscus Brett Saison recipe.
Cover photo: Dave and Mike performing sensory analysis their 35 barrel wild beer program. Photo courtesy of Mike Foniok.
The Establishment Brewing Co.
4407 1 Street SE
The Canadian Homebrewers Association is a non-profit dedicated to promoting and advancing the hobby of homebrewing in Canada. Established in 2018, it currently has more than 330 members across most of Canada's provinces and territories.