It may be because I am blessed with a moderately prominent proboscis, but the first thing to hit me about Wild Rose Brewery was the smell.
They've made a living off of consistently great beer, but the smell. The smell was rich, earthy, grainy and clean, much like--to my delight--the beers produced in the microbrewery.
"We're a brewery that's made a living off filling in the gaps," says WR owner/operator and wily sales guy Michael Tymchuk (he quickly becomes Mike) as he fills the first sampler glass (it quickly becomes a pint) with WR's Wred Wheat ale.
Wred Wheat is a honey-smooth, glossy chestnut ale that slides down with a hint of sweetness and finishes with a warm woody glow, politely inviting you to just take another swallow (Take that, Stephen Beaumont). It's the everyman's answer to Rickard's Red-all the flavour without the grimace.
"We make the beers that others don't," nods Mike with the quiet pride of a proprietor who knows he's got a good product behind him. "It really is important that we understand the competition. Big Rock and Wild Rose both make wheat beers, but you're not about to mix them up at a bar, they're very different products."
We shiver a bit in the cool confines of the narrow hallway between gleaming stainless steel tanks and a vast white wall that houses the cooler. We quickly warm up as we down Wraspberry ale-a crisp blond ale with just a poke in the ribs of raspberry flavour at the end-and Velvet Fog, an unfiltered wheat beer that's disconcertingly yellow and cloudy but refreshing and full of kick. These are supplemented by what Mike lovingly calls the "workhorse" of the Wild Rose lineup, the comfortable Brown Ale.
"It's patience, persistence and education," he says, explaining How To Sell A Craft Beer In Calgary. "With the Velvet Fog, that takes just a willingness to wait and hold on. Beers like the Wraspberry, you just watch them grow, you try to help them but every year it's a little bit better. The Brown ale's always been our bestseller, it pays the bills, it's a great beer and fit into the market comfortably."
It's a small brewery, one that Mike says could probably fit into two of Molson's tanks in their Edmonton brewery, but growing quickly. Wild Rose opened in 1996 when Mike's then-partner in crime started searching for ways to take homebrewing to the next level. Enter Mike, former B.C. sous-chef, then-brewer at Mission Bridge and a microbrewery was born. Though WR thrives now, Mike wryly reminisces, it wasn't an easy road.
"We came in just as Bow Valley and Banff microbreweries had been open for about a year," he says. "And not trying to slag anybody, but they'd left a bit of a sour taste in the market's mouth in terms of the product. So it was tough to convince people that microbreweries beyond Big Rock could make good beer. We've found it a challenge to do business in the shadow of such an incredible company as Big Rock, but having said that, we're still here."
In the little brewery that could, Mike walks us down to "point A" of the whole process, where shiny bags of grain are piled in bulging stacks. Now decidedly tipsy, I have a bit of fun poking my finger at one and feeling the contents scrrrrunch under my finger. Over my shoulder, Mike distributes different kinds of hops to each of us so we can observe the difference in colour and appearance. Midway through his explanation of what hop goes with what beer, he makes the mistake of telling eight swaying student journalists that you can taste the difference between the hops and two seconds later, we're all crunching away with idiotically satisfied looks on our faces. Whaddya know--they do taste different.
"It's either rocket science or it's not," says Mike as he shepherds us down the production line from "point A" to "point B." "There are volumes of literature that are way over my head about what is happening back there, but I know that if I do this, that and this, beer comes out the other end and a variety of good beers. I think the best brewers are able to apply a mix of art and technology, craft and science."
We come down to the big white fermentation tanks and I do a bit of math trying to estimate how many people could fit into one (answer: lotsh). Then it's time for the treasure trove: we enter the cooler where more gleaming vats hold the ambrosia itself before it's kegged and sent off to pubs around Calgary interested in carrying a quality local product. Soon, Mike explains liquor stores could also get a part of the action.
"I think it's important we expand the base to bottling," he muses. "In all environments where we run into fans, the first question, the FAQ, is when are you going to bottle? There's a market demand for it and I think that would be a good way to treat expansion within Calgary."
Both Wild Rose Wraspberry Ale and Brown Ale are available on tap at the Den. For information on Wild Rose products and carriers, visit www.wildrosebrewery.com.