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The Bar Towel on the road: CALGARY, ALBERTA

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Special thanks go to Screw2000 for writing this Calgary report.

Being from Calgary, I have many fond memories of the pubs and bars here while growing up. Things have definitely changed in the years past: Electric Avenue is now a ghost town, and liquor privatization, among many other things have drastically altered the face of Calgary. I decided to take a little pubcrawl around Calgary to see how it measured up, from a beer perspective, of course.

(There are a gazillion locations in Calgary - the one I went to is on Macleod Trail at Willowpark)

Earl's is a ubiquitous resturant chain out West. Serves the same market as, say, Milestone's out here, but the decor is more upscale.

They have a few exclusive beers contract brewed for them (Big Rock I think, but unconfirmed):

  • Albino Rhino - a nice pale ale, not as hoppy as most U.S. pales, but close
  • Spring pilsner (forgot the name)
  • Seasonal beer (forgot what it was)

Wildwood Brewing Co.
(4th Street SW just north of 25th Avenue)

Very trendy restaurant that serves "upscale mountain cuisine". Downstairs there is the brewpub section, with the tanks visible behind glass and décor reminiscent of a ski lodge.

They had six beers on tap (with happy hour pricing being $3.25 a pint!):

  • Wheat
  • Altitude Amber
  • Elusive Trout Stout
  • Bugaboo Bitter
  • Long Iron Pilsner
  • Lake Louise Lager

Plus a seasonal (forgot what it was)

One thing that the province allows is off-sales. Wildwood does off-sales, priced at $4.95 a bottle, $2.95 a refill, $64.20 for 1/3 keg, $165.85 a keg. This kind of thing would be definitely welcome in Ontario.

Anyhow, I had the Elusive Trout Stout, which was kind of light-bodied, with a muted nuttiness and barely a hint of chocolate. Nice, but not a destination beer.

The Bugaboo Bitter was the most gassy and carbonated beer I've had - I could only drink one pint before feeling bloated. This was unfortunate, because it was otherwise a quite tasty session beer. My theory is that someone cranked up the CO2 by mistake.

Brewsters Brewing Co.
(3 locations in Calgary: 11th Avenue SW, Eau Claire, and Lake Bonavista; other locations in Edmonton, Lethbridge, Regina and Moose Jaw)

I went to the 11th Avenue location, which was recently renovated. I don't know if they do off-sales here (many years ago, I think the Lake Bonavista location did). However, they no longer brew on-premises due to the size of this brewpub chain.

They had tons of beers on tap (it's exploded from the 6-8 they used to carry):

  • Hammerhead Red
  • Wild West Wheat
  • Bow Valley Brown (5 malts and 3 hops claimed)
  • Bighorn Bitter
  • Palliser Pale Ale
  • Lanigans (sp? Can't read my drunken beer notes) Irish Ale (amber)
  • River City Raspberry (wheat)
  • Wildhead (1/2 of the Wheat mixed with 1/2 of the Red -- oog)
  • Original Lager
  • Flying Frog (a medium body/lightly hopped beer)
  • TGIL (light)
  • Lethbridge Pils
  • Shaughnessy Stout (medium body)
  • Black and Tan (1/2 Bitter and 1/2 Stout)
  • Seasonal: Blue Monk Barley Wine (Oct - March)

They also have sampler trays (four 5-oz glasses).

I had a pint of the pale ale - it had a nice hoppy start (though not as hoppy as the Albino Rhino from Earl's), and a malty finish (vaguely reminiscent of Ontario's St. Andre Vienna Lager) which caught me off-guard. A nice change from what I've been drinking lately in the pale arena.

After that, I chanced a half-pint of the barley wine. At 9.5%, it packs a wallop. It started out very sweet and caramelish, and progressed to a very spicy finish. I haven't had a barley wine in a while, so I can't compare it directly, but from memory, it tasted good, maybe a bit like the KLB Alien Ale.

Moxie's Classic Grill
(Another chain with a gazillion locations, but one I went to is in Shawville, a big-box mall)

Another restaurant chain, sort of like Kelsey's. Nothing of note here, except they market a brand of draught called "Big Life", which is curiously contract brewed by Sleeman.

I believe they had an amber and a 'standard international lager' (S.I.L.). The amber was ok, but not much better than you would expect from Sleeman. Still, it's encouraging to see generic restaurant chains offer something other than the usual Canadian/Blue/Bud conglomeration.

Other pubs that I couldn't make it to, but been to before:

I didn't get the chance to go this year, but the Rose and Crown on 4th Street SW just north of 17th Avenue is a two-story pub-in-a-box that sort of reminds me of the Bow and Arrow in Toronto. The decor is probably a bit cozier - the second floor is great, like someone's cottage. Anyhow, there's 20-30 taps here, with most Alberta micros and the other stuff you would expect to find in a pub (bad British imports, generic Canadian S.I.L's).

There's also Bottlescrew Bill's on 10th Avenue SW, which has tons of bottled selection (they have that cliched 'Around the World in 80 Beers' promo), most of it what you would expect (i.e.: Smokeless Joe under the prior ownership). Not bad, but worth a try, especially if you come near Stampede in July for the "Testicle Festival" (yes, prairie oysters).

The Liquor store experience

OK, anyone who badmouths the LCBO should take a trip to Alberta to see what privatization is really like. Yes, there is a liquor store on almost every corner. No, you can't buy beer in the grocery store yet (although there a is Loblaws-ish grocery store chain, Real Canadian Superstore, that runs a chain of stores appropriately called the Real Canadian Liquorstore).

Anyhow, since none of my friends in Calgary could tell me if any specialty beer stores existed, I went to two medium-size liquor stores to see what was available.

The first one I visited was the Lake Bonavista Liquor store, in the same mall as Brewster's and Olympia Liquor, on Fairmont/Centre St. S across from the French Maid Speakeasy.

Here is a typical selection in the cold beer fridge:

  • Kokanee and Kokanee Gold (I think the latter is more malt-liquorish)
  • Pilsner (no, it's not pilsner, but that beer from Lethbridge with the faux-Alps themed label that was unsuccessfully marketed in Ontario a few years ago. It's huge out here, mainly because the founding brewery is in Lethbridge, Alberta)
  • Big Rock. The brands I saw most often were: Grasshopper Wheat, Warthog, Black Amber, Kold and Chinook Pale Ale (No, it's not Chinook hops, and the "Dry Hopped" on the label I'm skeptical of. An easy drinking beer, but not nearly hoppy enough for my taste)
  • Other Alberta micros: Peak Brewing
    • Cutthroat Pale Lager (had this one before, it's not your average S.I.L., and the 'pale' is more like a robust pilsner. Not my favorite style, but it was still enjoyable)
    • Mile 68 Lager
  • Ontario "import": Sleeman (generally the Cream Ale, sometimes the Lager or Honey Brown)
  • Nova Scotia "import": Keith's (a fairly new arrival here)

Not much to show for in terms of good beer. Even though everyone talks about privatization in Ontario, the fact is that it hasn't helped Alberta much. At least where beer selection is concerned.

Please see here for a 2002 update on the Calgary beer scene.