Wild at Heart
Celebrated Alberta craft brewer starting a new chapter in its growing evolution as a Big Leagues competitor
Quality and drinkability are always top-of-mind for good hardworking folks at Wild Rose Brewery in Calgary. Just as they were more than a quarter-century ago, when co-founders Mike Tymchuk and Alan Yule launched the fledgling upstart craft brewer back in 1996.
Since starting out by producing draught beer for sale in local area bars, Wild Rose has been able to build up a remarkably loyal following and reputation for the quality beers it produced at the company’s popular brewpub and on-site taproom at the Foothills Industrial Park.
After launching its first bottled beer in 2002, packaged in one-liter flip-top bottles, the company proceeded to expand its bottling capacity on a regular basis to keep up with growing demand.
“In 2006 we moved from our original location and opened the brewpub facility on the west side of Calgary,” recalls Wild Rose Brewery’s director of operations Brian Smith.
“By 2011 we had maxed out capacity at that facility, and in 2013 we expanded again by opening a new production facility, while maintaining the brewpub.”
“The current production facility was a great space to move into,” Smith states. “Being the first tenants in the building, we were able to design the brewery to our needs, which included planning for the expansion we’ve undergone since first opening.”
Currently employing 15 full-time people in one-shift operation Monday to Friday, moving to two shifts during peak season, the brewer’s new 39,000-square-foot facility has capacity to produce 20,000 hectolitres of beer annually, according to Smith, sold in a vastly expanded range of packaging formats.
“We produce eight core brands at our facility, as well as three to four limited-time offerings,” Smith relates. “We currently package in 341-ml bottles, 473-ml cans, 30- and 50-liter kegs, and we plan to add 355-ml cans to the repertoire.”
According to Smith, the company’s signature WRaspberry Ale—a wheat ale infused with real raspberries—remains its top-selling beer to this day.
“It is a refreshing, light ale brewed with the addition of real fruit,” Smith explains. “We focus on quality and drinkability with our beer.
“All our recipes are designed so that the consumer can enjoy a couple of glasses, cans, bottles or pints,” says White, also giving a nod to some of the company’s other core bottled brands that include: Electric Avenue pale lager; Barracks Brown brown ale; and Cowbell sour ale, made using the kettle souring technique.
Capably supported with production of a wide variety of seasonal and limited-edition beers available on-tap, Wild Rose has evolved into a true Western Canada craft brewing industry staple, according to Smith, and a great global industry ambassador to boot.
Notably, it was the only Alberta brewery to be recognized at the 2008 Canadian Brewing Awards, picking up two silver medals for its wheat beer (Velvet Fog) and its barley wine.
The brewery also received two bronze medals at the 2015 Canadian Brewing Awards for the Electric Avenue lager and Natural Born Keller kellerbier.
Says Smith: “We produce a great range of straight-ahead easy-drinking beers: fruit beers, hoppy beers, hazy beers, sour beers, dark beers … there’s something for everyone.”
While the company is a relative newcomer to the fast-growing market segment for canned beer, a major $4.12-million investment by its parent company Sleeman Brewing of Guelph, Ont., has enabled the Calgary production facility to expand significantly over the last 12 months, including installation of an updated canning line and additional tank capacity for the brewing process.
While the company was already in the process of transitioning more of its output to the production of cans, the global outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic really accelerated the process, according to Smith.
“With market trends and the global pandemic, we saw a big uptick in can sales,” Smith relates.
“Pre-pandemic, our production breakdown was 60 per cent for kegs, 25 per cent bottles, and 15 per cent cans,” Smith recalls.
“After the big shift of the last two years, our ratio now is 40 percent kegs, 25 per cent bottles, and 15 per cent cans.
“We really had to pivot quickly,” Smith states. “Across North America we are seeing bottle sales decrease, as consumers desire a more sustainable packaging solution such as aluminum cans.
“We understand the needs of our customers and have adjusted our production accordingly.”
Most of that production is centered a round the four-vessel 60-hectolitre DME brewhouse—manufactured by Charlottetown, P.E.I.-based DME Process Systems Ltd.—consisting of a mash mixer, lauter tun, kettle and a whirlpool.
“We also brought over several 60-hl unitanks and a couple of bright beer tanks from our brewpub location,” Smith notes, “while leaving our old brewhouse and a few tanks behind so we could produce at both facilities.
“By having to production sites, each with multiple tank sizes, we have tremendous production flexibility,” Smith proclaims. “We can still do small unique brands at our smaller taproom brewery, and manage our ever-growing core beers out of the production facility.
“We complete either two or three brews per day, as required,” Smith relates. “We currently have 16 cylindrical conical unitanks—ranging from 60-to-180-hl capacity—and three bright beer tanks, also from 60- to 180-hl.
“We’ve also got an additional unitank and a bright beer tank scheduled for installation this fall.
“We mainly produce ales with a relatively quick turnaround time,” Smith notes, “although we’ll produce some lager beers seasonally.
“Some of our beers are unfiltered,” he explains, “but for our filtered beers we send the beer through a three-stage filtration process—diatomaceous earth, lenticular cartridge and sterile cartridge—from the unitanks into the bright beer tanks to be carbonated, and then sent for packaging.”
Thanks to recent capital investments, the plant’s packaging area comprises some of the best beer filling and packaging equipment in the world, including a two-head KHS Innokeg Keg Boy, a KHS Innofil bottle filler, a Krones Robusta labeler and, most recently, a Krones Craftmate filler with a four-head Ferrum seamer.
Manufactured in Germany by leading beverage packaging systems manufacturer Krones AG, the Craftmate VFS-C can filler can process up to 250 standard-size beer cans per minute.
Equipped with 24 filling valves with 141-mm pinch, the volumetric filling system benefits from the unique design of its innovative filling valves, according to Krones, which feature a pneumatically controlled centring bell without a lifting cam.
“Additionally, we supplied a sterile air filter for highest hygienic standards, as well as a can spraying system and CO2 consumption measurement technology,” adds Mathias Gorlitt, managing director and head of sales at Krones Machinery Co. Ltd. in Mississauga, Ont.
“Our Craftmate fillers deliver high filling quality with guaranteed values comparable to high-performance machines,” Gorlitt notes, “with very short changeover times for different can sizes—all in a very compact design.”
Smith agrees, lauding the Craftmate filler’s craftsmanship, flexibility, user-friendly operation, and the reliable expert synchronization between the filler and the Ferrum seamer enabled by the Krones technical staff.
“The new equipment enabled us to double the capacity of our old location,” he says, “while packaging at four times the speed of our previous line.”
Adds Smith: “With safety is a key component of our business, the installation of the new can line came with special focus and attention to installing proper guarding throughout the line.”
With the new canning line offering far more capacity than Wild Rose actually needs at the moment, Smith says he’s happy about future-proofing the company’s booming canning business in this way, as he expects demand to soar in the coming hot summer months.
“Being one of the early craft beer producers in Alberta gave us the time and space needed to build up a good reputation for quality, innovation and good-tasting beer,” Smith states.
“I also think a focus on customer service has been vital,” he adds, “which is why we’ve always had a strong on-premise presence.
“By establishing relationships and working with our partner, we’ve been able to maintain a strong presence in the bars and restaurants.
“It’s a similar story on the retail side, where the relationships have been established over time, combined with a commitment to quality and customer service, has helped us continue to grow over the course of the last 26 years.”
According to Smith, the company’s penchant for innovation should also serve it well in coming years.
“We have never been afraid to introduce new style liquids,” Smith asserts. “We have our core brand of beers that were quite unique when they first were introduced, but we have constantly pushed the envelope with seasonal releases.
“We’ve introduced styles in our market that, at the time, were quite novel—Biere de Mars, Keller bier, Kettle Sour, Saison, Gose, etc.”
Happily for Wild Rose, the company’s innovative spirit goes hand-in-hand with unwavering commitment to high product quality and process efficiency, according to Smith.
“We track all aspects of the production process, with metrics related to quality, safety and efficiency,” Smith relates.
“We are currently introducing some new brewing software to help with the quality and efficiency measurements, as well as giving us better traceability reporting,” he says.
“All the results are to be tracked and reviewed with our national group (Sleeman) on a monthly basis.”
Says Smith: “The beer business is a tough industry—it is ever-changing with constant challenges related to periodic raw materials scarcity, regulatory constraints and taxes, and many other challenges.
“We now compete with many other new craft and mid-size breweries in Alberta, as well as other players in the beverage alcohol market,” Smith concludes.
“But since becoming a member of the Sleeman family, there are really no limits to how far Wild Rose Brewery can grow in this business.”