Even non-beer drinkers know that over the course of the last decade Alberta has been in the midst of a golden age of craft breweries. Countless breweries have developed in bigger cities like Calgary and Edmonton, with even smaller centres like Medicine Hat and Turner Valley punching well above their weight when it comes to thoughtfully crafted high-quality beer. With so many solid breweries in the province, by 2019 it seemed like Alberta was reaching a beer saturation point and there couldn’t possibly be any kind of beer not available on local liquor store shelves.
But then Calgary’s The Establishment came along and proved to Albertans that the world of beer is much wider than many of us thought. Having just celebrated its third anniversary, the brewery is a passion project started by Mike Foniok and Dave Ronneberg (third partner Brandon Hart takes a less hands-on approach).
The self-described beer nerds were heavily involved with the Cowtown Yeast Wranglers home brewers club, but after a decade of home experimentation, they decided to jump on the craft brewery wave before the market really did become too over-crowded. The brewery was named after a communal house in Erlton that they lived and brewed in, reminding them that their new venture started as a hobby and needed to continue to spark their sense of creativity and wonder.
“We're such beer nerds,” Foniok says. “We did this specifically for the love of beer — the quality of the beer was always at the forefront. I know it's hard to differentiate yourself by just saying that we're going make the best beer, but that’s our goal.”
That plan is working. In 2021 The Establishment was named both the Alberta Brewery of the Year at the Alberta Beer Awards and the Canadian Brewery of the Year at the Canadian Brewery Awards. The recognition doesn’t come as a huge surprise to The Establishment’s fans: in addition to using their skills to make a very solid line-up of core beers like the refreshing Afternoon Delight New England pale ale and the ultra-flavourful Jam Rock blackberry and vanilla sour, as well as a constant parade of seasonal offerings, the brewery’s calling card is its barrel-aged wild beers, which are limited edition large-scale bottles made with wild yeast cultures.
The brewery’s production room is stacked with over 80 barrels of beer spiked with live culture — some have been bubbling away for years. Every few months The Establishment will release a new line-up of blends, with each one boasting the complexity of a good wine. It’s a risky and incredibly labour-intensive way of making beer, but carefully blended limited-edition brews have made The Establishment a must-try for serious beer lovers.
“I definitely came here for the barrel program and to get my hands and palette on those beers” says Production Manager Natasha Peiskar, who joined the Establishment in 2020 after brewing at Last Best and Tool Shed. “The complexity changes over time and each barrel has its own personality. Even though we have a house culture we use for them, each barrel is an individual.”
While that barrel program makes for some very exciting brews, they certainly aren’t for everyone, and part of what has won The Establishment their accolades is the brewery’s dedication to providing a little something for everyone, an extraordinary feat given the team’s incredibly high standards. That inclusivity is part of the brewery’s culture — they’re very careful in making sure customers know that there is no place for discrimination within the company or at its tasting room. Earlier this year the brewery participated in the Brave Noise initiative, brewing a special beer with proceeds going to the Hop Forward Society, an organization that works to promote diversity in Alberta’s craft beer industry.
Carefully blended limited-edition brews have made The Establishment a must-try
Speaking of the tap room, the location in Calgary’s Barley Belt has the feeling of an industrial clubhouse, with the barrels lingering in the back and an inviting bar at the front of the room. Even though their core beers and some seasonals are available by the can in liquor stores, since The Establishment produces so many unusual beers the tap room really is the best place to get a handle on the brewery’s spirit. Many of the barrel-aged brews are available on tap so that customers don’t have to commit to a buying whole bottle of a potentially controversial flavour and hard-core wild yeast fans can indulge in the cellar program by ordering select aged bottles of discontinued releases. The bar also specializes in European-style pours, with a side-pull tap that makes for a larger, creamier foam head.
Coming up, The Establishment team wants to push the barrel program further (though, they admit that their current facility is already bursting at the seams) while also continuing to come as close as possible to perfecting every style of beer that they can dream up. But while beer has always been serious business for this crew, even back in the home brewing days, Foniok says that exploring and enjoying the love of beer is still his number one mission.
“At the end of the day, it's just beer,” Foniak says. “It's just liquid. But it helps foster conversation. Hopefully what we do will help expand people's horizons and their pallets and encourage them to try something new.”