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Alberta’s craft beer market growing despite trade challenges

Alberta’s craft beer market growing despite trade challenges
WATCH: Alberta's Small Brewers Association is banding together with other organizations across the country to fight back against trade barriers. Adam MacVicar reports.

It’s no secret many Albertans love their beer.

It can be seen this weekend as thousands of Calgarians make their way down to the BMO convention centre for the Calgary International Beerfest.

The festival features beer from over 200 breweries from around the world, including many brewing right here in Alberta.

But, Alberta’s love for a cold one can also be seen in the growth the province’s craft beer industry has experienced over the last number of years.

According to Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis (AGLC), there are 115 licensed breweries in Alberta, with another 13 breweries in the application process.

That’s a large increase from 2013 when there were only 10 breweries operating in the province. Since then, the ALGC removed minimum production requirements and the industry has been booming

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Blindman Brewing out of Lacombe is entering its fourth year of operation and was the 20th craft brewery to open in the province.

“It’s been phenomenal,” said Trevor Jay, a sales representative with the brewery.

“I think people were ready for a change. We’ve been drinking the same beer in this province for 100 years, so when the law changed, the whole conversation changed.”

READ MORE: Alberta craft brewers celebrate fast-growing industry

A provincial government grant aimed at offsetting a $1.25 tax on beer in Alberta announced in 2016 opened the playing field for more craft breweries to enter the market.

The grant only applied to Alberta brewers, raising concerns with out-of-province competitors, who fought it on the grounds that it was unconstitutional.

Last year, Alberta was ordered to repeal the grant program, which the province appealed.

Early last month, a three-member judicial panel reserved its decision whether to overturn the ruling that the grant program was unconstitutional.

But many new breweries and beer lovers continue to watch the case closely.

Dave Gingerich is known as Calgary’s expert on everything beer. He’s been working in the industry for 15 years and currently works with Willow Park Wine and Spirits. He said he’s seen the growth of the industry in Alberta first-hand.

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“I’ve seen guys that were in oil and engineering, doing all these huge jobs where they were getting paid big bucks, quit that and literally start brewing,” Gingerich said. “It’s to the point where we used to have so many beers in our market, but it made it easy because you could just balance where they’re all from, now I’m finding I’m very Alberta heavy.”

Gingerich said despite a cordial relationship and close community between the province’s craft brewers, the competition between the breweries is evident at the tap rooms and in restaurants.

At his store, he consistently has to make tough decisions to which local brews get a spot on the shelf.

“That’s the only frustrating part is that I can’t carry everybody,” Gingerich said. “I would if I could.”

But getting Alberta beer into other provinces has proved to be the biggest challenge for local manufacturers.

Alberta has launched a trade challenge against Ontario over policies that the government and brewers say discriminate against Alberta’s craft beer industry.

READ MORE: Beer battle brewing: Alberta launches trade challenge against Ontario over access to liquor stores

Ontario, among many other provinces, operate government-run liquor sales, while Alberta has a private market.

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“Alberta brewers are competing with products from other provinces because it’s quite easy in a private liquor model for outside brewers to sell their products here in Alberta, so competition is even more increased,” Alberta Small Brewers Association executive director Mike McNeil said. “But Ontario, they can very much restrict who is coming into the market.”

Now, the Alberta Small Brewers Association is banding together with its provincial counterparts to form a national body to fight back against inter-provincial trade barriers.

“We can hopefully make some progress on these inter-provincial trade barriers and collectively put our heads together and see how we can work with government to take some real action on this,” McNeil said.

But until then, Alberta craft brewers are hoping for another big year, and with 43,000 Albertans expected to attend the Calgary Beerfest this weekend, it seems there’s still a growing appetite for their product in the province.

“Beer and oil in Alberta,” Gingerich said. “It’s a good thing.”