My Canadian beer knowledge has always been pretty sketchy. I used to drink Molson because they had those cheeky sayings on the label, like “Guess Where My Tattoo Is” above a little picture of a donkey. …get it? And when I traveled with the USC Band up to Washington, we’d only drink Kokanee beer. One time, I tried to smuggle a case of it onto the equipment truck back from a football game. It made it back to L.A. with half as many bottles.
Other than that, though, the Canadian beer scene – especially craft beer – was a mystery. So, traveling up to Alberta recently with my girlfriend Monique to sample the snow of Banff, I also took time to try some of the local craft beer while soaking in the ultra-niceness of everyone in Canada.
Our first day in Alberta was spent in Calgary, which I’m sure would be a very nice city if it weren’t so deserted. The highlight of that day – besides buying bootleg DVD’s in Chinatown – was the bar back at the airport Courtyard Marriott. While it snowed outside I enjoyed some of the local craft beer on tap. First up was the Granville Island Brewing Lions Winter Ale. It was a sweet, light version of the winter ale, not weighed-down like some other examples of this variety. It also seemed like the brewer resisted the urge to throw every Christmas spice into the kettle, which was nice.
Based out of Vancouver (about 650 miles southwest of Calgary), Granville Island Brewing bills itself as Canada’s first microbrewery, established in 1984. Even though the craft beer renaissance started in the US and Canada at roughly the same time, our northern neighbors’ movement has progressed more slowly. Theories why range from consumer apathy to cumbersome regulations. (Yes, worse than ours.)
The second beer I tried was the Traditional Ale from Big Rock Brewery, which was based right there in Calgary. Big Rock isn’t a newbie on the scene, brewing since 1985. The ‘Trad,” a brown ale, was one of their first beers produced but I thought it a little tasteless and watery.
That night, we took the two-hour shuttle ride to Banff. This tongue-twisting mountain town with the superfluous consonant is kinda like Canada’s Park City, without the glamorous film festival. We stayed at the imposing Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, which was first built in 1888. I’d seen stunning pictures of “The Castle” – as it’s called – in countless ski magazines, so I had to stay there. Also, it’s haunted. We snooped around the supposed hot spots at night but didn’t see the ghostly bellboy or bride who died on her wedding day.
Our first day in Banff, we overslept and missed our shuttle to the slopes so we went into town. First stop, of course, was the Banff Brewing Company. I’d like to say that the brewpub was totally different than in America and that Mounties ride by on moose while you dine on polar bear but it was like any place down south: football on the TV, a bald guy with a bushy beard brewing in back and funky décor. This place had really cool chandeliers that substituted growlers for lamps over the lights.
I tried their seasonal, which was a slightly hoppy, spicier version of the Granville Island winter ale. Its recipe called for coriander, cloves and orange peel. I also sampled the Lower Bankhead Black Pilsner, a smoky Swartz beer that began with roasted malts typically used for stouts; enjoyable and different.
We moved up the street to the Elk & Oarsman, a more traditional Canadian pub. Our waitress told us the beer specials then mentioned that “Caesars were only $4.” No, it wasn’t a deal on salads, “Caesars” are the Canadian Bloody Mary. I had to try one, of course, and the taste is similar with the only differences being they use Clamato (gross) and put celery salt on the rim (nice touch). I also ordered the other Canadian specialty: poutine. This health-conscious dish is basically gravy and cheese curds slopped on fries. The Elk & Oarsman prepared it with elk, which tasted like gamey beef. It’s the perfect gut-filling meal for a cold day. I washed it down with a Sleeman Original Draught, a light, sugary lager from Ontario.
The next day, we finally got out to the slopes. The Canadian Rockies provide real outdoor adventure: sideways snow and temperatures hovering at -13° C (8° F). Completely frozen after only an hour, we stopped into the lodge for warmth. The lodge offered steaming pho – not something you’d likely see in the American Rockies – and a variety of mass-market beers. I tried the Old Style Pilsner, produced by Molson, mostly because I was intrigued by the weird tableau on the can. Everything’s there: a jalopy, a biplane, a stagecoach, a locomotive. You know, things you wouldn’t want to operate after having Old Style. It tasted like PBR.
Our last day in Banff, we went back to downtown to get some gifts for friends. Ok, we went to the liquor store. Here we found the biggest surprise of the trip. Up until then, the beer prices at bars seemed reasonable and, in fact, you usually paid the same as in the US but you got your beer in a bigger glass. But here the prices were insane. You know how a 30 pack of Bud cans is a little over $20? Try $50 for a 24 pack of Kokanee. That’s ridiculous even accounting for the exchange rate. I bought a 12 pack and got out of there.
It was hard to stay mad at Canada, though. Everyone was so (with a long o) nice and welcoming the whole time. And I know their beer scene will only continue to grow. Maybe if more of us Yanks head north to hang out, drink some of their craft beer and spread the gospel, our collective ignorance of Canadian craft beer won’t last. Until then, I’ll enjoy this Kokanee I smuggled home.