Last night, Audrey and I accepted an invitation to join our friends Jay and Shelley for a tour of Hogshead Brewing in St. Albert. Of the four of us, I'm probably the only, I dunno, call it committed beer fan; Jay appreciates the occasional beer, but they don't always sit well with him, and Shelley is similar, while Audrey has yet to encounter a beer she likes at all, although she did relent last summer and admit that a grapefruit shandy was pretty tasty and thirst quenching. Despite this though, we all had an excellent time, and will probably be back there before too long.
We began with a tour of the brewery itself, which, in many ways is like a kitchen writ large: pots for boiling, stacks of ingredients like malt and hops (lots of hops!), and a variety of ways to monitor temperature and the like. In fact, Stu, their head brewer, is actually a graduate of NAIT's culinary arts program, but has followed his passion for beer to Hogshead.
Our tour guide, Brian, is one of the two owners and founders of Hogshead, and is proud of its many local connections like Stu. This is a man who readily admits that starting a brewery is the most difficult thing he has ever done in his life, "and that includes raising two little girls by myself!", but is clearly doing what he loves. He and his partner have started a brewery from the ground up based on making the kinds of big, bold, flavourful beers that they like to drink, and their tap house and grill in St. Albert is just the kind of place they would like to drink them.
I know that both the microbrewery and restaurant business are fraught with peril, and that the ditches are filled with the wreckage of failed attempts at both in this province, so I was relieved to hear Brian say that both are doing extremely well, and they are working furiously to keep up with demand. A nice problem to have, to be sure.
One of the stories he told was of applying for a loan at a particular bank, and the young lady helping him with the paperwork became incredibly frustrated because she could not wrap her head around exactly what it is that a brewery does (!), and ended up having to go look for someone who could tell her which box to tick on the application form. After half an hour alone in her office, Brian gathered up all the paperwork and left, not hearing from her again until he had returned home. On the other hand, he had high praise for both the City of St. Albert and Agriculture Alberta, which were both only too willing to help a local business to stir things up in not only agriculture, but also hospitality and tourism.
There are more new beers on the way, including two wheat ales (maraschino cherry and orange) and one called 'Freeballin'' which is named thusly for no better reason that to give Brian an excuse to wear a kilt. It also sounds like the nearly mythical Black Hog Down Imperial Russian Stout should be making an appearance by Christmas, and eventually half of their line will be seasonal specials like it backing up their stalwarts like Hop Slayer.
There are big plans for the brewery itself, too; they have reached a point where a warehouse is needed to keep their stock prior to shipping, which will give the pace needed for the brewing area to undergo a total refit and polishing up so that special events with up to 200 people can be held there. They also plan on adding a 6000 square foot deck to the brew pub, which will increase their seating capacity tremendously in the summer months.
Brian's exuberance and earnest nature are infectious, and make him an easy person to listen to, even for members of the group not particularly interested in the finer points of how beer is made. His strong desire to do things the right way for the right reasons make supporting his local agri-business an easy choice.
Following the tour, we returned to the tap house and received our choice of either a flight of samples or a pint. Some of their Rocky Mountain Moonshine was also available, including the much beloved Apple Pie and the newer Black Forest Cake. Seeing Jay's shock at tasting the latter of these, I took him up on his offer of a sip. "Am I crazy," I asked afterwards, "or can I actually taste three distinct flavours in there?"
"It's not just you," he assured me.
I enjoyed their Toboggan Winter Ale, which is their signature Hop Slayer ale conditioned for an additional three months, which not only increases the depth and complexity of the beer, but also brings the ABV up from 7.5% to a robust 8.5%.
A lot of beers and other comestibles were sampled, and they were all good, but the highlight of the evening (beyond the company we kept) was the food. The Hogshead Taphouse has a wonderful kitchen and a diverse, beer-themed menu which centres around comfort food like shepherd's pie and craft macaroni and cheese, but also leaves room for more unique rotational offerings, like Turducken at Christmastime, or the current Duck Confit sandwich. Adventurous diners may want to drop in next month when a Python Stir Fry makes its appearance!
The potato and bacon soup that Audrey and Shelley had as their soup and salad entree was brilliant, with the strongest potato profile I'd ever had in a soup, accented with aromatic, smoky bacon. Jay's Asian Chicken pizza left him extremely happy, but I was ecstatic with my choice of Sloppy Does, a variation on the classic comfort sandwich made with venison instead of beef (get it?).
Over the course of the evening we had the opportunity to try their nachos, tenderloin pork bites in a homemade bbq sauce, and their 'pig ears', a sort of warm pork rind snack in lieu of the more traditional peanuts or pretzels. All the food was excellent and the staff friendly, although rushed off their feet at times. In fact, to get the entrees out on time, Brian stuck around after the tour to help ferry the plates to the tables.
All in all, we spent about 6 hours in this modest venue in a St. Albert industrial park, but we did so in comfort and in the company of good people; the great food and drink went a long way to improving our comfort and spirits, and thoughts about what the future might the bring this ambitious local business continues to intrigue even on the following day.