How Hog's Head Brewing and Stu Chell once harkened a new era for Alberta beer
[Note (fall 2017): Hog's Head Brewing has since closed; this story precedes government legislation in December 2013 that paved the way for a massive expansion of the province's brewing industry.]
At about 9 o’clock on a December Monday morning, Stu Chell switches from coffee to beer.
He’s dressed a little like it’s still Saturday night, when he was playing a gig, drumming, with his band, Bonspiel: black jeans, skate shoes, ball cap covering shaggy dark hair, black T that exposes the portrait of the Clash’s Joe Strummer tattooed on his forearm.
He gives his beer – two or three ounces in a Mason jar – a sniff. Then he sips, slowly and thoughtfully.
It’s not just any beer. Chell (Culinary Arts ’06) doesn’t drink just any beer – especially in the work week’s earliest hours. This is a dark, fragrant brew called Death by Pumpkin.
Nor does he drink alone. With Chell, assistant brewer at Hog’s Head Brewing Company, is Bruce Sample, the head brewer who finds the cinnamon in their creation a tad strong.
“Which is good, because we’re trying to mask the nutmeg,” says Chell, who joined the company in fall 2012. “I’m getting a lot more of the ginger – it’s hiding but it’s there.”
This routine exercise in quality control might seem a perk.
For beer geeks everywhere, this routine exercise in quality control might seem a perk of being part of Alberta’s craft or microbrew industry, which lured Chell – a long-time lover of small-batch beers – away from cooking full time in Edmonton eateries, including Packrat Louie’s and Niche.
But, in this business, advantages tend to stop there.
Started in a St. Albert industrial park in March 2012, Hog’s Head is one of Alberta’s youngest microbreweries, making Amber’s and Roughneck varieties in addition to its own.
Workspace is tight: a narrow swath of floor winds around towering pallets of canned beer, bottling equipment, and silo-sized tanks that transform water, grain and yeast into a product that can draw nearly a billion dollars a year from Albertans’ pockets.
Relatively little of that, however, has been directed toward homegrown operations. The market is dominated by large multinational brewers Molson Coors and Labatt and awash in imports, representing another tight squeeze for Hog’s Head and brewers like it, and making brewing the easy part.
The real challenge is convincing bars, liquor stores and, most importantly, drinkers that there’s nothing to fear about fancy beer.
Yet Chell is soberly optimistic. For the 27-year-old, what matters most is that he’s found his place in an Alberta industry he sees as having plenty of room to grow, and that, outfitted with an unconventional set of skills for a brewer, he’s in a unique position to help bring it along.
That his future threatens to play out as an uncertain David-versus-Goliath scenario doesn’t worry him.
“There seems to be a ‘macro’ mentality [in Alberta]. It’s changing. A younger generation’s coming in,” he says. “They don’t want the Pilsner their dad drank.”
But can he make them want what’s in that Mason jar?
The challenge of craft brewing in Alberta
Chell doesn’t spend all day drinking, of course. A surprising amount of work goes into a product designed to enhance lounging about.
On this particular day, he’s started a batch of Amber’s Australian Mountain Pepper Berry lager, stirring 400 litres of malted barley and warm water with a plastic oar. It makes the room smell homey, like sweetened oatmeal.
“Really, right now all we’re making is a grain stock,” he says, quite comfortable in what he considers a large-scale kitchen – or bakery, with all that yeast floating around.
The pace stays steady all day. He’ll filter sediment from a batch that’s further along, maybe help “can” something to get it out the door, perhaps write tasting notes for a few varieties. (OK, so a few more sips will be involved.)
“We think of what characteristics we want in a beer and then try to get there,” says Chell, who took similar creative licence in brewing beers featuring vanilla and chai, and lemongrass and ginger, when he started in summer 2011 at the now-shuttered Amber’s facility in south Edmonton.
“I think having a trained cook’s palette is one of the reasons why I got hired in the first place,” he says. “Also, I was exposed to ingredients that maybe other brewers wouldn’t think of.”
At Hog’s Head, those ingredients tend to be coupled with specially sourced hops, giving many of their beers a “hop-forward” pungency, pleasant but bitter – like much of what comes from celebrated microbreweries of the Pacific Northwest, one of Chell’s favourite beer regions.
Chell knows that carefully refined recipes are only a part of what will make Hog’s Head successful. The rest will depend on its ability to beat the odds that come with the province’s hands-off approach to regulating the liquor industry.
“Alberta’s a big free-for-all,” he says. As a local startup, “You’re competing with every other brewery in the world.”
With the privatization of liquor retailing, warehousing and distributing in 1993, the Alberta government effectively exited the booze business. Entrepreneurs have filled the void by adding more than 1,000 stores and increasing selection from 2,200 to more than 18,000 products.
And yet, for local microbreweries, increased market capacity hardly guarantees sales.
Chell’s boss, Brian Molloy, started Hog’s Head as a domestic supplier of product for Spider Beverage, the liquor importer of which he’s president. Before then, he’d rely largely on stock shipped from overseas– transport that cost him two months each time and roughly $250,000 a year.
Now, he balances that with product brewed by Chell and Sample just across town, and his sales force adds it to wares they already peddle across the province.
Molloy believes the relationship between the two companies tackles the main obstacle that keeps microbreweries from flourishing in Alberta. There’s talk of government tax structures that benefit out-of-province brewers, and even reports of the multinationals unfairly influencing retailers and restaurateurs to carry their beer.
But for Molloy, it comes down to cost – beyond the millions of dollars it can take for a company just to start brewing.
“The biggest frustration in Alberta is distribution,” he says. “It’s not like people will just walk into your brewery and say, ‘Thank God you’re here.’”
Getting into Alberta’s 1,300 liquor stores requires a sales force that few microbrewers have. In terms of expense, “sales forces alone can run as much as a brewery,” says Molloy, simply because of the miles it can take to shake a hand and seal a deal.
Besides pavement-pounding – unnecessary back when the government stocked retail shelves – a microbrew’s success requires one more key ingredient, Chell adds. “You have to get a lot of people asking for it.”
A changing Alberta beer scene
Luckily, drinkers have begun to get demanding. “It’s an exciting time to be a part of beer in Alberta,” says Tara Smith, once a manager at Edmonton’s Sherbrooke Liquor, a store that made its reputation on a beer selection of roughly 1,400 brands.
Across North America, craft brewers are sopping up market share, growing “at or close to double digits” says an August 2012 report by BMO Capital Markets. In comparison, the majors’ sales have plummeted.
Craft beer marketing
Distribution can make or break a microbrewery in Alberta. So can its ability to gain “access to hearts and minds,” says Surjit Rai, associate chair of the JR Shaw School of Business Bachelor of Business Administration program.
To make a connection, says Rai, whose focus includes marketing management and consumer behaviour, the little guys need to capitalize on the very thing that keeps them little: their uniqueness.
“Because they’re microbreweries, you automatically think it’s going to be something different, something quirky. And usually things that are quirky have a cult following. They have to start to build up that following and build emotional connections with customers.”
Awareness and appreciation of craft brewing meccas including Quebec, Ontario and Portland might be one reason. But the wide availability of craft choices in wine and spirits has raised expectations with beer, says Smith, as have taste-making bloggers.
“People are being exposed to a lot of different things.”
Products from Alberta’s roughly half-a-dozen standalone breweries sell steadily at Sherbrooke. Also, Smith points out, local bars are beginning to specialize in craft beer, with a few of them installing dozens of taps devoted to it. The province’s biggest retail liquor chain is now ordering to meet demand, too.
To be part of it, Alberta microbrewers “have to continue to be creative, have fun, and consistently produce good quality.” Price may not be an issue. As with the wine market, “People will spend money on quality.”
Surjit Rai agrees, even with the current economy.
In tough times, notes the associate chair of the Bachelor of Business Administration program in NAIT’s JR Shaw School of Business, sales of small luxury items– specialty coffee, for example – generally increase. Craft beer should be no different, says Rai, whose focus includes marketing management and consumer behaviour.
“People are looking for a distraction.”
The future of Alberta craft beer
In a way, retired NAIT biological sciences instructor Lynn Clark proved this point in his role as brewmaster at the Taproom Bar and Brewery in the small city of Camrose, 90 kilometres southeast of Edmonton.
Since the brew pub began making its own lager and seasonal batches in January 2011, “drinkers were consuming beer faster than we could make it,” says Clark. Where it once sold 600 litres of macro-brew per month, it now sells 2,500 of its own creation.
“I think beer drinkers are more discerning now,” says Clark, who recently stepped back to a consultant role to allow time for travelling. “So, if it’s easily available, they’re going to make the choice to have a craft beer.”
As one of a handful of pub-based brewers in the province that are improving access to the niche market, Clark was part of a movement that may be paving the way for Chell to realize his ambitions.
In the meantime, his legacy is practically assured through Hog’s Head, which has just begun to deliver bottles for retail, adding to established draught sales.
“One thing that Stu brings to us that you could almost never find in a brewer is that NAIT diploma in Culinary Arts,” says Molloy. “It brings authenticity to our brand.”
Not to mention unique and imaginative beers, including Death by Pumpkin, another flavoured with coriander and rosehip, a nut brown containing real vanilla bean, or Hop Slayer, Hog’s Head’s hoppy flagship brew.
Combined with the experience of Sample, an industry veteran, “We think Stu is the future of the company,” says Molloy.
Perhaps, so too goes the future of craft beer in Alberta.
After all, if Hog’s Head can contribute to the microbrewery’s battle for territory in the beer market, it might encourage more would-be brewers to join in. On their side is the fact that tastes are changing with the times.
Chell himself is proof. Thinking back on his first sip of craft beer eight years ago – a California India pale ale released in honour of Frank Zappa – he remembers not being wholly convinced. Bitter, bold and complicated, “it was the first IPA I ever had – my first real brush with hops.”
But the flavour intrigued him; it convinced him to be patient with it. Sure enough, “By the end of the bottle I got it,” says Chell. “Your palette warms up to it.”