“That’s clean,” Landon Shepherd says, analyzing his first sip of a freshly poured beer. Learning it’s been dubbed Sacrifice Red Ale, a tribute to those who serve their country, Shepherd likes what he’s tasting.
“That’s really nice. My wife is going to love this!”
Shepherd, having driven 120 km west from his home in Jasper to visit his parents in the sleepy village across the border, is leaning on a massive piece of Lodgepole pine-turned table top. The gorgeous blonde counter, the stool he sits on, as well as two of the other tables in the barn wood-paneled room have all been fashioned from the same piece of timber. The effect is elegant yet rustic, modern while timeless.
Which is not so far off from how one might describe the beer at 1160, 5th Avenue, Valemount, B.C.
“You’ve got something here,” he tells the man at the tap.
That man is Michael Lewis, head brewer and owner of Three Ranges Brewery, one of the newest breweries on Western Canada’s bustling craft beer scene. A year ago Lewis and his wife, former Parks Canada employee and former Jasperite, Rundi Anderson, uprooted their lives in Victoria, B.C. to plunk down close to where Anderson grew up. As their beer labels tell it, they went against the current and headed for the hills.
“Sometimes life throws you into a whirlpool and you don’t know which way is up,” they like to joke.
Joking aside, with a lot of start up capital involved, an increasingly crowded craft beer market, an isolated headquarters and a snowmobile-riding, Bud-drinking local clientele to win over, by starting a brewery in Valemount, Lewis and Anderson’s whirlpool had a lot swirling against them. Now, six months since they launched their founding fleet, there’s still a lot of work to do, but the stress of establishing is mostly behind them.
“It’s been exciting,” Lewis said. “We’ve had great local support and there’s been fairly good traffic from Jasper coming through.”
That success with their Albertan neighbours is—like Lewis’ Up Swift Creek northwest style pilsner—somewhat bittersweet. While he’s delighted that his beer is getting good feedback from folks like Shepherd, Lewis knows that if he could get his brew directly to Jasper’s thirsty market, his operation could take a big step forward. The problem is, the border.
“I have this town one hour away with a big demand,” he said. “The difference in provincial rules means I can’t distribute.”
In B.C., the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch is responsible for the distribution of liquor, including beer, from breweries to retail outlets. In Alberta, although the Alberta Liquor and Gaming Commission took another step toward full privatization in December, removing the province from the sale of beer, wine and spirits, the changes have made it more difficult for small breweries like Three Ranges to make a dent in the flush portfolios of liquor agents and suppliers. For Lewis, his small production capacity means he can’t promise a liquor agent the volume that they need to make sure a retailer doesn’t run out of product. It’s a catch 22: he can’t make his product in large enough quantities for distributors to get it to market, even though what that market enjoys most about his beer is its boutiquey nature.
Jasper’s Marc Leblanc, for one, is a big Three Ranges fan. The owner of the Liquor Lodge wants to support locally-initiated projects, but he’s not surprised Lewis’ Swamp Donkey Brown Ale hasn’t found its way to his beer fridge yet.
“A lot of barriers exist for start-ups,” Leblanc said. “Not the least of which is the bureaucracy and expense of listing the product [with the AGLC].”
Still, even though he sees a new microbrew hit the market every few weeks, Leblanc thinks Three Ranges will stand the test of time.
“I think they’ve come up with some core products that hit the mark as far as style and quality are concerned...I think they’ll get it here eventually,” he said.
In Revelstoke, B.C., it took almost 10 years before Mt. Begbie Brewing made the leap east into Alberta markets. While the demand for craft beer has increased exponentially since Bart and Tracy Larson moved out of Vancouver to follow their hoppy passion (sound familiar?), it was important the makers of Begbie Cream Ale and High Country Kolsh learned how to walk before they ran, said Tracy Larson.
“I’d tell brewers just starting out to make sure your product is good, that you’ve got a reputation for service and quality and not to lose touch with your customer,” she said, noting that Mt. Begbie is currently looking to expand their operations for the second time since they first started brewing in 1996.
Lewis is all ears. He’s well aware that the craft beer market is crowded—he’s even had to respond to a cease and desist order on his Mile 49 Pale Ale from another B.C. brewery who objects to its name—and he understands how discerning the modern beer snob has become. He’s one of them, after all. But he’s also a businessman who pays to ship his product, not to mention a person who cares about his company’s ecological footprint. As such, he’s irked by the fact that even if he did break into Alberta, he’d have to send his beer on a 840 km loop just to get it 120 kms as the crow flies. The AGLC’s central warehousing system is based in St. Albert; Lewis wishes there was a better way.
“If you live in Banff you’re three hours from Revy. But if you want to buy a bottle of Mt. Begbie, that beer has to travel three hours west, four hours north and back to you,” he laughed.
Alberta’s system isn’t perfect, but it’s the most fair, according to the AGLC’s Tatjana Laskovic. “One central location allows it to run smoothly,” she said. “You have to think of the marketplace as a whole. It allows for an efficient distribution system.”
Moreover, Laskovic said, there are 2,000 licensees vying for 19,000 liquor products in Alberta.
“The model provides an equal opportunity for all liquor manufacturers to sell their product in Alberta.”
Lewis isn’t so sure about that. But for now, he’s concentrating on his own distribution system—small scale as it might be. When he’s not pouring tasters and filling growlers off his six taps, he’s busy canning, brewing and figuring out new ways to meet his local demand. He’s got signs being made, labels being designed and seasonal beers to create. This summer, he’s hoping to be able to pour pints on a newly-developed patio, if the paperwork and permits check out.
Through it all, Lewis and Anderson are focusing on the reason they headed to the hills in the first place: their family. Anderson’s parents live outside of Valemount and her brother Travis spends lots of time helping with odd-jobs—it was he who fashioned the elegant tasting bar and accompanying table tops and stools which greet Three Ranges patrons.
As Shepherd gets his growler filled with the Red Ale and a line-up of curious visitors just off the highway poke their heads in the door, Lewis invites them to try a sample of fresh beer. When they’re gone, six-packs of mixed cans tucked under their arms, he and Anderson takes stock of their day. That morning, together with his sole employee and a handful of friends who get paid in beer, Three Ranges sealed another 1,000 cans of craft beer. While it might be years before they can ship such a batch to Alberta liquor stores, Lewis and Anderson are satisfied with a job-well-done. After all, they’re learning to walk before they can run.
“It’s thirsty work,” Anderson says with a wink. “Cheers, hon.”