It’s a warm evening in the summer of 1985. A group of loud people in their late 20s sits around a bonfire. Their laughter ripples into the surrounding quiet forest. Steps away from the fire is a small, bath-warm lake.
A modest, wood cottage rests atop a gentle slope. “Go fetch me a beer Pete,” says one gregarious adult to my shy brother who is about eight years old at the time. In the kitchen stands an old coca cola machine. Behind the glass, dozens of bottles of Labatt and Molson Canadian are displayed.
The freckle-faced, little boy tosses some coins into the machine and a beer bottle tumbles out. Spending time as a child at our grandmother’s lakefront cottage in Ontario with our fun-loving aunts and uncles was my first real experience with Canadian beer culture.
Although Canadians everywhere still enjoy sitting around a camp fire drinking beer, a lot has changed in the Canadian beer scene since the mid 1980s. Labatt and Molson are still top-selling brands, however a growing number of beer fans these days prefer microbreweries as opposed to mass-produced beer.
Canada is one of the biggest beer drinking countries in the world. Based on annual per capita consumption, Canada swills and guzzles more beer than almost every other nation on the planet. With their daily commitment to liquid carbohydrates, only the esteemed beer-drinking people in the Czech Republic, Germany, Austria and Ireland out drink Canadians. According to Wikipedia, 46 percent of the money Canadians spent on alcohol in 2009 was dedicated to buying beer, while only 29 percent went towards wine.
Up until recently, the Canadian beer scene was drab and predictable. By the 1970s, three heavyweight corporations dominated the beer industry in Canada: Molson; Labatt; and Carling-O’Keefe. Molson eventually became Molson Coors, which also bought Carling-O’Keefe. Labatt was acquired by a giant European multinational brewer. Today, our country’s heftiest beer companies are Molson Coors, Labatt and Sleeman. Not unlike the fate of the Hudson Bay Company, none of these remain fully Canadian owned. Moosehead is currently the largest Canadian-owned beer company, capturing about five and a half percent of the market.
Fortunately for beer drinkers in our country, hundreds of microbreweries and brewpubs have sprung up on Canadian soil since the 1980s. With these small, local breweries producing high-caliber beer with tremendous flavour, Canadians are discovering that good beer has more personality and oomph, than the bland and weak dishwater that we drank for a long time. I guess you could say that we’ve become more cultured since the Bob and Doug McKenzie days, eh?
According to Jason Foster (beer columnist for CBC Radio and beer blogger), Canada has about 275 craft brewers. Foster claims that on average we have a brewery for every 124,648 citizens, which means that we have more craft brewers per capita than the United States. Although microbreweries in Canada currently claim a modest five percent of the market, our thirst for craft beer is intensifying. A change in Canadian tax legislation has supported the growth of microbreweries as well. Since the 1990s, Canadian breweries are taxed based on how many hectolitres of beer they produce. Prior to this time, all breweries (from gigantic to pint-sized) were taxed the same.
Drinking local craft beer is not only good for your region’s economy, but it is also healthier for you. Microbrewed beer is made with natural ingredients, including malt barley, water, yeast and hops. For extra pizzazz, fruit or spices are added. On the contrary, mass-manufactured beer often contains preservatives and fillers. It’s like eating at McDonald’s or Kentucky Fried Chicken versus dining at a restaurant that uses fresh ingredients sourced from local farmers. Both will fill your belly, but natural, fresh food tastes superior and is healthier for you. (If you care to debate this, you might want to watch the movie Super Size Me.)
For an expert opinion, I tracked down a staunch craft beer devotee. I didn’t have to look far. Jules Tough, financial wizard and office director at LeaveTown.com, has lived in Canmore, Alberta for 10 years. Tough and her husband, both in their 40s, recently returned from a 10-day microbrewery tour in Oregon, USA. At home in the Rockies, they savor handcrafted beer at a popular brewpub in Canmore — the Grizzly Paw Brewing Company. “Despite visiting 15 award-winning microbreweries in Oregon where India Pale Ale (IPA) is king, my husband thinks that Michele (the brew master at the Grizzly Paw Brewing Company) produces an outstanding, nicely-balanced IPA”, says Tough.
With a ‘go big or go home‘ mentality, Niall Fraser opened in 1996 what would become a landmark in Canmore. Boasting a 70-seat brewpub, a 100-seat dining room and a 50-seat patio with stellar views of the Three Sisters mountain range, the Grizzly Paw is a social hub for locals and tourists. The first brewpub in Canada to can its own beer (second in North America), Niall Fraser and the Grizzly Paw Brewing Company are pioneers in the microbrewery industry.
Brewed with natural ingredients and glacier-fed mountain water, the Grizzly Paw crafts satisfying, flavour-rich beer, including Powder Hound Pilsner, Grumpy Bear Honey Wheat, Rutting Elk Red, Beaver Tail Raspberry Ale and Big Head Nut Brown. “The Grizzly Paw isn’t afraid to be creative and try new brews,” comments Tough, who considers herself a big-time fan. “This summer, I’ve really enjoyed their ginger brew, which is refreshing and a bit spicy,” she notes. “The Grizzly Paw’s summer hefeweizen, with its blend of bananas and citrus flavours, is also currently one of my favourites,” Tough adds. For kids and other non-beer consuming folks, the Grizzly Paw also brews their own caffeine-free, low-sugar sodas in various flavours, such as root beer, black cherry cola, orange cream soda, grapefruit, among others.
Not unlike the craft beer he brews, Niall Fraser is rich with character. Born in Edinburgh, Scotland and raised in Edmonton, Alberta, this Rocky Mountain beer mogul is a hard-working businessman who also knows how to have a rip-roaring good time. “I first met Niall almost 10 years ago at the brewpub, which is a social central point on Friday evenings for locals,” says Mike Liverton, owner of LeaveTown.com. Often spotted rolling around town on his black cruiser bike wearing a loud, blue helmet, Fraser isn’t someone who goes unnoticed. “Niall’s an entertaining guy. He’s the biggest character in town,” comments Liverton, laughing. Locals also tell me that he’s no stranger to sporting a Scottish kilt, if the occasion calls for it.
To support his microbrewery’s unrelenting growth, Fraser opened an enormous, new brewery in April 2013. This state-of-the-art facility boasts 20,000 square feet of space and is capable of efficiently brewing and packaging a significant quantity of Grizzly Paw beer. Featuring beautiful architecture with exposed timber, this modern and stunning brewery is quickly becoming an attraction. For information about brewery tours and beer tastings, please see details below.
I recently spoke with Fraser about what brought him to Canmore, his new brewery and his passion for skiing.
Rachel: How did you end up in Canmore?
Niall: After studying hotel management in Switzerland, I worked in the hotel industry all over the world. I finally figured that if I was going to be working as hard as I was, then I should be working for myself. My parents had a four-unit rental property in Canmore so I came to stay here for a bit. I completely fell in love with Canmore and the Rockies. I decided this is where I wanted to open a business.
Rachel: You first opened Grizzly Paw in 1996. You’ve now expanded and opened a larger brewery in 2013.
Niall: Our old system was a 10-hectolitre system. It came to a point in my business where it was ‘piss or get off the pot’, like the old adage goes. At our new brewery, we have a 3,500-litre capacity system. What used to take us 32 hours to brew, now takes us six hours. The new facility also houses the Paw Shop, which sells draft and bottled beer, as well as our seven different flavours of low-sugar sodas. We host brewery tours and beer tastings. Kids are permitted too.
Rachel: Where can Canadians buy Grizzly Paw beer outside of Canmore?
Niall: Soon you’ll see Grizzly Paw beer as offerings in Ontario because the liquor board bought an Alberta microbrewery pack. We currently ship to Saskatchewan. In September, we’ll also start shipping draft beer to Northern Alberta.
Rachel: What’s your best selling beer?
Niall: We actually don’t have a distinctive best selling beer. It depends on the season. Sometimes our Rutting Elk Red, which is a Scottish-style amber ale, is a top seller. Then other times, our Powder Hound Pilsner is our most popular beer.
Rachel: I’ve heard great things about your brewmaster. Where was she trained?
Niall: Michele Lowney is our brewmaster. She trained in New York. Michele then moved to Colorado during the time that the area exploded with microbreweries. Colorado is where she gained most of her experience. Michele also trained to brew cask-conditioned beer (cask ales) in Scotland.
Rachel: Your pilsner is called ‘Powder Hound’. Do you ski or board?
Niall: I definitely ski. None of that boarding crap. We are lucky to have so many great ski resorts near Canmore. I also really want to visit Nelson, BC this year and ski Whitewater Ski Resort.
Rachel: You look young. How old are you?
Niall: Thanks for the compliment. I guess it’s all that micro-brewed beer that has pickled me! I am 45, but I have a mental age of someone in their late 20s!
For tours and tastings at the new Grizzly Paw brewery, please call 1-403-678-2487 or visit 310 Old Canmore Road.
To visit the Grizzly Paw pub or restaurant, call 1-403-678-9983 or visit 622 8th Street (a.k.a. Main Street) downtown Canmore.