How New Laws & Local Flavor Turned Calgary Into A Microbrewery Hotspot

Even a few hours in, it’s immediately clear who the heart and soul of beer in Calgary, Canada is. Long before I set foot in his Toolshed Brewing Company compound — and it really is a compound — Graham Sherman’s name had already come up a handful of times. Usually with a grin. The man himself is more of the same, all smiles and mischievously glinting eyes as he strides out of the back of his warehouse and up to the building’s cozy front room bar.

Sherman is something of a local legend, a legacy he relishes and actively cultivates — regaling our group of visiting journalists with stories from the days leading up to the legislative change in Calgary that allowed microbreweries to exist, paired with as many tales as he’s legally allowed to divulge from his special opps military past. Most importantly, he offers copious tasting notes on all his brews, and those of every other joint in town.

I didn’t intend to become an expert on Canadian beer when I left sunny California for a week in late June, but as I traveled through Calgary, it became clear that something unique was happening in the brewing culture. The whole ecosystem was just four years old and growing quickly. I loved the funky sour and wildly innovative beer at the nano-brewery, The Dandy Brewing Company; I felt at home in the relaxed vibe of our first stop, Village Brewery; and the stunning, salty cheese that accompanied our brews at the Annex Ale Project blew my mind. Still, it was Toolshed that left the biggest impression when it comes to just what beer in Calgary stands for. Each sip was crisp and well-executed, with interesting surprises to uncover.

Isn’t that what you want on a beer odyssey: To be surprised?

Let me back up a little. Really, I should start with Ernie Tsu and his brewpub, Trolley 5.

“For us it’s about the craft beer culture, it’s all about the love,” Tsu says, while leading the way down a winding cellar hallway on the bottom floor of his massive three-story restaurant and brewery in Calgary’s busy Beltline neighborhood. “It’s kind of like bands… Most bands get along, if they’re in the same genre, right? That’s how we feel about craft beer.”

Since the whole purpose of my first-time visit to Calgary back in June was for music, namely the Sled Island music festival, which is a great way to hone in on live music discovery, by the way, the band metaphor stuck. And as Tsu guided us through the tour of his facility, and through his personal history as a chef and brewer, I quickly discovered that a thriving live music community wasn’t the only thing this city is becoming renowned for. We had visited Trolley 5 on one of the first days of our trip for a lunch, but as he began to name other breweries and friends in town, the itch to explore become overwhelming.

Our tour guide obliged my desire. She knew the backstory of every brewery in town, and which beer was the best, too. Seeing this part of the city’s culture through the eyes of someone who loves it — and loves sharing it with people — was one of the best parts of the ensuing tour. Pro Tip: If you go to Calgary, make sure to ask a local for recommendations, this city supports one another. They will not lead you astray.

The gist of the swelling microbrew scene in Calgary is this, in 2013 the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission changed an archaic minimum capacity law that only allowed breweries who made at least 500,000 liters or more to function in the region. As The Calgary Herald further notes, they followed that up with a change in bylaws last year that changed land-use definitions to allow any “brewery, winery and distillery” to open and operate as a discretionary use in most commercial and industrial zones. It’s this distinction that allows a tiny brewery like Dandy to open within a business park smack dab in the middle of Vista Heights.

Annex Ales is in a similar situation, located in a commercial district on the other end of town, and unlike all the other breweries we visited, this one was co-run by a woman; Andrew Bullied, formerly the head brewer at the aforementioned Village Brewery, and his partner Erica O’Gorman opened Annex Ales — which also brews craft soda — in early 2017. Annex, whose ales are quite delicious and hew close to flavors I developed an appreciation for early, in the Pacific Northwest, also had the best food to accompany their beer of any place I visited. That magical cheese I mentioned up top is a Middle Eastern variety called jibneh mshallaleh, which comes from Quebec and is studded with tiny black nigella seeds.

As we sat at Annex, it began to feel like the cheese was getting me drunk as much as anything else. Intoxicating is the perfect word for the experience.

It became clear by the fourth of fifth brewery, that Calgary’s beer itself is only half the story. It was Ernie Tsu at Trolley 5 whose passion inspired our whole brewery tour, and everyone else we met along the way made abundantly clear that the personalities and aesthetic choices behind the beer are just as much a part of their quickly-growing scene as the alcohol content.

“For us, beer is about memories and music,” Tsu told us that first day. “We can beer geek it up with anybody, we can talk about yeast strains and hop content… that’s not the way beer was made for. Beer was made to be with friends and should trigger a memory or a mood.”

Fittingly, that was exactly the context that the rest of our visit took on; music was shared, beer was drunk, and I left the city in a kind of daydreamy mood, promising I’d be back to anyone who’d listen. And I know, whenever I do return, Graham Sherman will be waiting with a stein in hand, ready to regale me with his latest story about beer, secret opps, and the city he loves. Calgary has a hell of a music scene, and, it has a hell of beer scene, yes, but, like all the best places in life, it’s the people who make it extraordinary.