XhALE Brewing Co.: Serving social consciousness with a beer chaser
While you will find a few examples of women, people of colour, and a diversity of other people making waves in the always-growing local craft beer industry, the general stereotype of the ball cap-wearing, bearded and tattooed, white male brewmaster still reigns in the small brewery world. Which is not to say that those guys don’t make great beer, but when so many key players come from similar backgrounds, those potential beer professionals who don’t necessarily fit that type often find themselves feeling like outliers, or worse, locked out of the industry.
These inequities are what Christina Owczarek wanted to address when she co-founded XhALE Brewing Co, a small Calgary-based craft brewery that differentiates itself by creating what it calls “provocative beer for conscious thinkers and drinkers.” Beer has been a passion of Owczarek’s for well over a decade and has been something she’s pursued in working for Calgary-based companies like Craft Beer Market and Zero Issue Brewing as well as a beer industry educator.
In 2020 she found herself jobless in the wake of the pandemic and decided that she it was time to start a company that would not only make good use of her vast beer experience and know-how, but could also give herself and other people who feel marginalized in the industry a chance to amplify their voices and concerns.
She calls XhALE the first Alberta-based brewery to be completely woman and LGBTQ+ owned and operated and has an end goal of transforming the company into the province’s first cooperatively owned brewery so that her entire team can benefit from the company’s wins.
“The whole core of what we do is to open up opportunities for those who otherwise would be left off of the opportunity wheel. We want to give voice and make space for people that traditionally haven't had platforms or space made for them,” Owczarek says. “We know what it's like to be marginalized and having to go up against traditional corporate and patriarchal systems that don't often recognize the challenges you face.”
Owczarek is bold in her mission statement, but she’s equally bold in her beer, both from a flavour and marketing perspective. ExHALE came out of the gate a little over two years ago with a beer called Impeachable, a flavourful hopped peach American wheat ale sold in a can depicting the angry face of a certain now former U.S. President. The idea was to announce to the craft beer world that XhALE had no intention of pulling any punches, which is something the company has continued to do with subsequent releases like its See Ya Next Tuesday Aussie-style Colsch and the …I Won’t Do What You Tell Me raspberry cherry Belgian Saison. The names and labels are cheeky and provocative by design, but there are important messages and solid beer making prowess behind each and every can. Owczarek is also a part-time brewing instructor at Olds College, and that expertise is reflected in the product.
Owczarek is hoping to capture both regular customers and fellow brewers’ attention with her beer, prompting them to dig deeper into what XhALE is all about and to examine how they may inadvertently contribute to inclusivity issues in the industry. XhALE does not have its own facility — rather it contracts established breweries to produce its beers. Part of Owczarek’s mission is to help people understand that marginalized brew masters from underrepresented demographics often face barriers in finding the resources and investments needed to secure production space and equipment.
“One thing about craft beer is that there are a lot of good people in this industry, but there just hasn't been much education around the systems that often exclude certain people from opportunity,” she says. “It goes beyond treating people with respect and kindness. It is about helping people understand that one of the biggest reasons why we don't have a lot of gender diversity within our industry is because of a lack of access to equity.”
While giving a boost to a wider diversity of people within the industry and exposing systemic unfairness is a big part of Owczarek’s passion, she’s also serious about using her beer to shine a spotlight on charities and non-profits near and dear to her heart, while donating a chunk of the proceeds from her beer sales to those in need.
As an avid athlete and an immigrant from Australia, she’s used XhALE to support the Calgary Kangaroos Football Club to promote access to sports; she’s partnered with Parachutes for Pets to help low-income Calgarians care for their much needed and beloved pets; and she’s also a dedicated advocate for harm reduction as it applies to the poisoned drug supply crisis.
In addition to supporting these social causes through beer sales, XhALE is also heavily involved in various charity events and maintains a regular presence at community events, especially within the electronic music scene. This month the brewery is also releasing its third annual Balls, Boobs & Beer Calendar, with 100 percent of the proceeds point to Each+Every Businesses for Harm Reduction.
XhALE has a lot going on, and much of it seemingly doesn’t have a lot to do with the actual beer in the cans, but that has been Owczarek and her team’s goal from the start. The beer has always been meant as a catalyst for larger, more important discussions.
“We need to keep having these conversations,” Owczarek says. “I never see myself really getting rich or making a ton of money from this business and that's not why I'm doing what I'm doing. It’s all to open up those spaces and have those hard conversations. And the best place to have those hard conversations is over a beer.”
XhALE does not currently have its own tasting room or facility to visit, but its beer is available at finer liquor stores throughout the province. For more information, visit xhale-brew-co.myshopify.com.