Just past new subdivisions in Morinville, a town of 10,500 a half-hour’s drive north of Edmonton in central Alberta, there’s a large pond ringed by a paved path and a smattering of aspen and white spruce. It’s stocked with trout each spring for casual anglers. It’s also ideal for birdwatching, home to waterfowl like mallards and canvasbacks and, come fall, Canada geese preparing to head south.
All of this, it so happens, can be enjoyed with a relaxing beverage in hand — the Morinville Fish and Game Pond is licensed. Which means you can grab a pint to go (served in a convenient lidded Mason jar) from the nearby Sturgeon Brewing Company and savour both the sights and sounds of an Alberta hidden gem. (Consider a Dark Mild: low alcohol, but rich with the taste of toasted grain, toffee and espresso.)
Tourism is changing in Alberta, with the pandemic keeping many of us close to home. Happily, home is a province bigger than any country in Europe, and every state but Alaska and Texas. That we can’t all cram into the Rocky Mountain parks isn’t a problem; there are plenty of other things to see and places to be off those well-beaten tracks to Banff and Jasper. Craft breweries and distilleries, which continue to proliferate across the province, now add to the allure of elsewhere in Alberta, setting the stage for the type of tourism that generated some $600 million in British Columbia from wine seekers in 2015, and injects more than $420 million annually into the rural communities surrounding Scotland’s whisky sector.
As one of Alberta’s roughly 130 craft breweries, Sturgeon is emblematic of how this industry, and craft distilling with it (now numbering nearly 50 businesses), has quickly grown to be one Canada’s largest. In late 2013, when there were roughly a dozen independent breweries in Alberta, the provincial government removed prohibitively high annual production volumes that alcohol manufacturers needed to satisfy to be licensed. Grant programs, favourable changes in taxes on alcohol sales, onsite taprooms and new access to farmers’ markets followed. Entrepreneurs embraced this more welcoming business environment and the chance to transform the world’s best grains into some of the world’s best beer and spirits. Consumers have eagerly supported them.
“The day we opened was crazy,” says Josh Watson, who launched Sturgeon with two friends in April 2020. It’s one of Alberta’s smallest breweries by volume, squeezed into 1,350 square feet in a strip mall near Morinville’s main intersection. “There was a huge lineup a couple blocks long. We sold out all the beer we had in one day.”
That was around 800 litres, all made onsite, mostly with grain from a malthouse in Westlock, a 30-minute drive away. Within four months, Sturgeon had to add tank capacity to keep up. Today, nearly every pint is sold at the brewery; nothing is canned, and it has kegs in only one local restaurant. It’s been profitable every month, says Watson. In 2021, the brewery was named New Business of the Year by the Morinville and District Chamber of Commerce.
“I think any town, even something as small as 2,000-3,000 people, could have a brewery the size of ours,” says Watson.
Dustin Kiziak also saw the opportunity for growth soon after he set up shop in 2016 making spirits in a former salon in Cold Lake in northern Alberta, home to just under 15,000 people. This spring, he and his wife Danika opened the purpose-built, 5,000-square-foot Cold Lake Brewing and Distilling Company on the lake shore. It has a restaurant, a rooftop patio and a brewhouse 15 times bigger than Sturgeon’s. “We built it to grow into,” says Kiziak.
The success of Kiziak’s business and his city are intertwined. “There’s not a lot of people who pass through,” he says of the area. “The highway [Hwy. 28] ends at the lake.” Kiziak hopes his facility catalyzes development that would turn a largely industrial zone into an entertainment district with restaurants and boutique shopping.
“I feel the lake and the lakeshore should be a tourist destination,” says Kiziak. “We have one of the nicest inland marinas in Western Canada.” What’s more, he adds, the rugged region offers fishing, hunting, hiking and more. “It’s an outdoor paradise, really.” Now it’s served up with craft beer or cocktails.
What Blair Berdusco says of craft breweries also applies to the province’s small distilleries. They “are becoming places to stop on the road throughout the province,” says the Alberta Small Brewers Association executive director. She points to smaller centres specifically. “[Travellers] have a place to stop that caters to their interests specifically, and they explore and discover new places they otherwise may not have thought to take in.”
In Morinville, for instance, Watson suggests visitors add a picnic to their pints, grabbing a burger from Sal’s Famous or a slice from Amanda’s Pizza, both nearby. He sees the potential for his business to be part of what makes Morinville a destination. That kind of thinking is what excited David McKenzie, Mayor of Barrhead, about the opening of West of the 5th Distillery in February 2018 in Barrhead, a town of roughly 4,500 people, located an hour and 20 minutes northwest of Edmonton.
“We want a community that is going to be interesting for anyone who is travelling through, anybody that’s looking for a day [out], anybody that’s looking to relocate here,” says McKenzie. “I see the distillery and their contribution to the community as a huge asset.”
West of the Fifth, owned by two local brothers who transformed it from an old garage, has a pub-style restaurant and a large patio that they look forward to reopening once COVID restrictions are relaxed. It’s near Barrhead’s main street, home to a long strip of independent businesses selling clothing, hardware, gifts, jewelry and baked treats.
It may not be the lush vineyards of the Okanagan, nor the misty coasts of Scotland, but it doesn’t need to be. Made-in-Alberta places and experiences aren’t found anywhere else in the world, and they’re ready for the spotlight that the craft beverage industry can shine on them. Sure, you might be enticed to hit the road by the prospect of locally made strawberry-rhubarb shine, but the long johns at the nearby Barrhead Bakery, with its thick slabs of chocolate mousse icing, are also worth every kilometre.