Homebrew History: Alberta from the ’90s to present

There was a time in this country when you could get any kind of beer you wanted as long as it was a pale lager. By the time I was of age in the mid-1990s, things were a bit different in Alberta. We had Big Rock. Unibrou had just entered the market. There were about two dozen imports too, all of which had taken months to arrive from Europe without the benefit of refrigeration. Privatization had expanded our access to overseas producers, but it was still not a diverse scene. If you wanted anything more exotic than Guinness, you had better be able to make it yourself.

Relax, I told myself. Don’t worry. We’re going to homebrew.

At the time, there were a bare handful of books on brewing, and really, there was only one for the rank beginner. Want to brew? Do what Charlie says. If you go and read “The New Complete Joy of Home Brewing” today, you will notice that the first section of the introduction is entitled “Is it legal?” That is where we were starting from. I must have read it cover to cover two dozen times. The spine was well broken at the most important parts, and the covers were torn and dog-eared. The internet was in its infancy. New and interesting knowledge was occasionally passed around on photocopied sheets of paper on dusty racks at the local home brew supply store. Homebrewing meant either hitting the grocery store for elderly cans of hopped malt extract and Cooper’s Ale yeast, or seeking out the one or two specialty shops in the city that might have the more esoteric materials you were after. 

And just what was available, assuming, of course, that you were willing to go a little out of your way? 

There was barley —6-row, 2-row, Crystal 40, Crystal 80, roasted, chocolate malt, Carapils, black patent malt and wheat malt, all sold in one-pound bags at six dollars a pound. You might find Munich if you drove across town to the “good” homebrew shop. There was Light DME in pound bags and LME by the kilo in what appeared to be sour cream tubs. For sanitation, you could choose between household chlorine bleach or pink chlorinated stuff. Some people used the Metabisulfite they had left over from making wine, despite the best advice available. Dextrose was sold by the five-pound bag, of course.

For hops? Pellet only, and those were generally unrefrigerated two-ounce bags. Variety? I remember well what was available in my local store: Eroica, Cascade, Centennial, Willamette, Northern Brewer, Mt. Hood and Saaz. Tettnanger you might find if you were lucky, but hey, who was making a lager anyway? You couldn’t get lager yeast, so why make lager beer? I worked in home brew supply stores in the ’90s, and I knew that these bags might go from year’s end to year’s end without being sold or replaced.

As far as methodology, our lauter tuns were 5-gallon pails nested inside one another and holes drilled in the bottom. Our grain mills were Coronas. Our cappers seemed designed to break the necks off of bottles as often as attaching a bottle cap. Our boil kettles were grandma’s enameled canner or a thin stainless stock pot if we were lucky enough to find one big enough. Mostly the biggest you could find was 20 litres, and you would do a partial boil and cool your wort to fermentation temperature by dunking the pot in a sink of cold water. Better equipment might be available by mail order if you had a freight forwarder or lived close to the border, but I made do, mended and built my own because the US companies with poorly laid out advertisements in the back of Zymurgy Magazine didn’t ship outside the lower 48.

Yeast? Coopers. A few years into my adventure, you could start getting Nottingham or Windsor. For anything over 8% ABV, you would need to finish with Lalvin EC-1118. Naturally, all of these were stored at room temperature, as well. I didn’t even see a pack of Wyeast until the mid 2000s.

I didn’t even hear about a homebrew club in my city until I had been brewing almost ten years and moved to Edmonton. There was a crowd of old originals—true insurgent brewers—met monthly in the off-sales of Alley Kat Brewing. These were people, overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male, who had been brewing long enough to make my decade of extract and grains seem quaint. They had an odd swagger. They talked about enzymes and water chemistry and soldering and Unix. You might have expected someone to pull out a slide rule at any moment. They seemed impossibly old and improbably bearded to my young self, although I am morally certain that I now exceed the average age of that crew. Enthusiasts, self made experts, nerds of the best kind. They probably averaged a graduate degree and a half, and tended towards the STEM fields. They were my heroes, and they took me in and taught me how to really brew beer.

At the same time, the Internet was flooding the world with new information on brewing. Online shopping made it easier to find virtually any tool or ingredient. In Alberta, brave retailers brought in hundreds of beers (now the same ones might stock thousands), braver brewers opened new breweries (many are now closed), and then in 2013, the beginning of the end arrived for my full-bore homebrewing career. The repeal of the mandatory minimum production requirement by the AGCL created a flood of new breweries, increasing their numbers ten-fold in the seven years since.  I hung up my hydrometer, for the most part. I love to brew, but I have far too many friends who have risked it all for their dream to drink my own beer instead of theirs. 

In 2007, I judged my first competition, the Aurora Brewing Challenge, a relatively small competition by today’s standards, and one of (I seem to recall) four or five in the country. I passed my BJCP exam in 2008, with the help of some of our local judges who put on a heavy-duty prep course, and got pretty into that. I kept on competing, though, and later I won best of show in the first Vanbrewer’s competition with a sour beer that today would never have turned heads. How things have changed. At the time it seemed ground-breaking. Then, in 2007-2008, the hops went away. You couldn’t get certain varieties, and the rest were rationed at the local shops. When the 2009 crop arrived in its lavish abundance, I bought leaf hops by the pound and went crazy. The first beer I brewed with that haul was the kind of psychotic triple IPA that soon became fashionable, with a full pound of hops in 20 litres. Needless to say, that beer was hazy before hazy was cool.

Around that time, the Edmonton Homebrewer’s Guild went on a competitive rampage, using data to determine which styles had low entry numbers, so that we could try to flood them and boost the Guild’s medal count in the earliest Canada-wide competitions. That was how we all got into brewing lagers and sours. By that time I had also realized that Wyeast California Lager could turn out a passable American Premium Lager in the warm closet in the back of my apartment, and we went hunting for medals. It just got better when I figured out that most judges couldn’t tell the difference between an infusion mash with 2% Melaniodin Malt and a decoction mash. 

My competitive brewing was all dirty tricks, rules of thumb and a numbers game of entering weak categories, but it worked. It helped that I was on a quest to brew every style on the 2008 guidelines. In 2010, the first year of nation-wide competition, I shipped more beer than I drank and wound up in fifth place, behind some pretty good brewers, One spot ahead of me was Mark Heise, and a lot of people think he is a pretty good brewer, but I beat Graham With, who most people think is pretty good too. The people who were home-brewing at the time went on to pretty big things, sometimes.

When I meet new homebrewers, I barely recognize the techniques, the lingo. I am shocked at the vast knowledge that they seem to have acquired. My old rules of thumb and fingers being crossed for good results have been replaced with temperature controlled stainless conical fermenters and real science. I do recognize something, though. I see the same beaming pride as always when someone brings their very first beer to a club meeting and asks, with some trepidation, “What do you think?”

Owen Kirkaldy

Owen Kirkaldy is a Master Ranked BJCP judge, and 25 year homebrewer who never lived up to his brewing potential. He lives in Alberta where his rectangular cooler and paint straining bags sit patiently next to a cheap turkey fryer and a couple of carboys… all that remains of a once mighty armada of fermentation vessels.

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