Brew-Curious: Edmonton’s Brewing History Tour

Back in the spring, I came across a new tour being offered in Edmonton called Brew-Curious. It was a bus tour focusing on the history of brewing beer in Edmonton. It sounded like the kind of tour that Mark and I always love to explore when we’re on holidays in other countries. But this time it was right in our own backyard! Unfortunately the timing didn’t work out for us that particular weekend, and the bus tour was only offered once, so we missed out on the opportunity.

Luckily, it was recently offered again, this time as part of Alberta Beer Week. The week was filled with events, festivals, tours and tastings all across Alberta to celebrate our diverse and ever-expanding beer culture.

Alberta Beer Week posterI acted a bit more quickly this time and got tickets for Brew-Curious as soon as they became available.

The day started around 10am on Saturday at the Prince of Wales Armouries, just one of our many local historical buildings. We had three tour guides for about 22 of us, including Jason Foster, a local beer writer and columnist who has a real passion and appreciation for beer.

They started us off with a hot breakfast of eggs, bacon, pastries and coffee to get us ready for the 5-hour tour ahead. And also to prepare us for our first beer tasting, around 10:15am. Hey, it’s 5 O’Clock somewhere, right?

A brand-spanking new brewery in Fort Saskatchewan called Two Sergeants Brewing provided us with our first drink of the day. Kevin, one of the owners, brought a keg of beer that they specially brewed only for the Brew-Curious tour. It was a steam beer, which is typically brewed with lager yeast at warmer fermentation temperatures. Unfortunately, since the Anchor Brewing Company in California trademarked the term “steam beer” in 1981, no other company is allowed to use that phrase without sparking a lawsuit. So to get around the issues of trademarks, some companies brew a “dampfbier” instead. (Which is German for steam beer. Pretty clever. Hey, whatever works!)

Two Sergeants Dampfbier tastingWe had never tried a dampfbier before. It was a nice combination of floral and citrus on the first sip, but mellowed to dry wheat and slight hops with the aftertaste. It was a great way to start the bus portion of our tour. We hopped on the city bus awaiting us and headed out on the town.

We hit numerous locations, some of which we just did drive-bys of, such as the old Molson brewing site, which was built in 1913 and is currently undergoing restoration for a new mixed-use facility. Our next full stop was at Alley Kat brewery, probably our favourite local brewery. We have a handful of breweries in Edmonton, and there are more coming, but Alley Kat just recently celebrated its 20-year anniversary. In the competitive world of brewing, they’re still going strong and make some really great beers. Favourites include Aprikat, an apricot beer, Main Squeeze, a grapefruit beer, and Scona Gold, a kolsch-style beer.

Alley Kat Brewery tourOur group got split into two, with one group getting the brewery tour first and the other group getting the beer tasting first. I was one of the lucky ones to get the tasting first. We got to try four samples, including their Oktoberfest marzen beer. I think that one was my new favourite.

Alley Kat Oktoberfest beerWe got a crash course in beer-making ingredients, which include malt, hops, yeast, and of course, water. Apparently, Edmonton water is some of the best water for beermaking. (Though I have to argue that Munich water is some of the best I’ve ever had, and they, too, claim their water is the best for beermaking.) We also learned about different types of malt and got to try some to compare flavours. Just look at the colour variations you get from each one too!

Comparing malts at Alley KatAfter our tasting we switched places with the second group and got the brewery tour. Mark and I have been to a few Alley Kat events in the past so we’ve had the tour before, but I always enjoy getting that behind-the-scenes view and I never get bored of the process. Alley Kat brews about 3.9 million bottles of beer annually, so while they’re definitely considered a micro-brewery, they have a pretty strong foothold in Alberta which is great to see.

Alley Kat brewery tourThe next stop was the Edmonton Artifact Centre, which started its life as the Northwest Brewing Company back in 1924. The building itself isn’t much to look at, but the cool thing is that it was built on an underground spring which still runs to this day. The perfect location for beermaking!

Edmonton Artifact CentreThe brewery’s most popular beer was called Bohemian Maid, and in 1958 they changed their company name to Bohemian Maid. We were actually given permission to explore the interior of the Artifact Centre (it normally isn’t open to the public) where we got to see some artifacts from the old brewery:

Bohemian Maid Brewery signEventually Bohemian Maid was bought out by Carling O-Keefe, and they also had a bottle of Carling’s “Black Label” beer as part of their display.

Beer bottles from Edmonton Artifact CentreTheir brewery flow chart was pretty cool to see as well.

Brewery Flow ChartThe Artifact Centre holds about 60,000 artifacts, which they usually lend to Edmonton museums such as the John Walter Museum and Fort Edmonton Park. This was probably the highlight of the tour for me, to be able to explore a resource that most people don’t get access to.

Along the bus route we learned some important facts and dates. The first commercially available beer in Edmonton was Yellowhead Lager in 1894. In 1916 prohibition was declared in Alberta, and about half of the breweries shut down. Some managed to stay afloat by switching to sodas or “near beer,” very-low alcohol beers. Others smuggled beer across to the U.S. in order to continue running. Prohibition was lifted in 1923 and there was much rejoicing across the land (I assume). Men and women couldn’t rejoice in the same room, however – all the bars had separate entrances for men and “ladies and escorts.” My, how things have changed.

We did a quick drive by past the old Edmonton Brewing and Malting building in Rossdale, built in 1905. It’s now currently a private residence.

Edmonton Brewing and Malting CompanyWe then hit up Brewsters for lunch, a local gastro-pub, which brews some of its beers on site. We even got a quick tour (quick, mostly because it’s quite a small area. But efficient for its needs.)

Brewsters tourAfter lunch we headed back to our starting point, at which time we could either take the bus all the way to Oktoberfest, or head back home. We had so much swag by the end (I had won a flavour-notes-description contest with the first beer, which included beer glasses, a beer guide, beer-brittle, and many other goodies) that we decided to drop everything off in the truck and make our own way to the Oktoberfest celebrations, which is a two-day festival focusing mostly on local micro-brews.

I really hope that the Brew-Curious tours become a regular offering in Edmonton, especially as more mico-breweries pop up and have their own “tales and ales” to share!

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