Can Ben Fiddler and Chad Paulson put their trades training to work cracking Alberta's craft beer market?
When work in the oilpatch slowed in 2016, Ben Fiddler (Instrument Technician ’01, Electrician ’02, above right) and Chad Paulson (Instrument Technician ’09, above left) decided to put their trades experience to a new use. The industry handed them lemons, so they made, well, beer.
After homebrewing for years in their hometown of Slave Lake, they recently scaled up to join Alberta’s expanding craft brewing industry. “It’s always been a dream of ours,” says Fiddler. They had not just the recipes, but an instrument technician’s understanding of how to control and monitor temperature, flow and other processes essential to both the oilpatch and the brew house.
“So, you know what?” Fiddler remembers thinking. “It’s a downturn, let’s just do it.”
Dog Island Brewing – named for a spot of land off Lesser Slave Lake’s eastern shore – opened in town in a business park on Oct. 28, 2016. Within 4 hours, they’d sold everything they’d made: 100 two-litre jugs, eight 30-litre kegs and seven 50-litre kegs.
But by late 2016, Fiddler and Paulson saw an uptick in the oilpatch. These days, jobs in the field are still occasionally keeping them from their fermenters – just as an unexpected opportunity has arisen that could increase their beer production at least 10-fold and make them a legitimate concern in Alberta’s craft brewing industry.
The dream, some might say, is now a dilemma: Focus on a currently break-even brewery, or on careers that can command average salaries of $85,000? For Fiddler and Paulson, the answer is as clear as a fresh pint of lager.
Willing itself into being
It’s easy to understand why they see their future in craft beer. For years, Dog Island has been almost willing itself into existence.
During his time at NAIT, Fiddler would sometimes study at a nearby Brewsters, one of Alberta’s original brewpubs. He befriended the brewmaster and began mentally filing away tips and information.
Working at his dad’s company, Grizzly Electric and Instrumentation, helped too. That’s where Fiddler met Paulson, another technician on staff. When they decided to find space for a proper brewery, Fiddler’s dad offered a shop bay and even had a walk-in cooler stashed away, salvaged from a job years ago.
Fiddler and Paulson built the brewery and tasting room (Fiddler learned to weld to make its centerpiece pipefitted table (left), topped with local black poplar), and have handled all the maintenance and repairs.
“We don’t have to source out a guy to calibrate our instruments every 3 months,” says Paulson. “We do that.”
Timing may also be on their side. Alberta’s craft beer business is booming, with the number of breweries more than doubling during 2016, from around 20 to nearly 50. While beer consumption in Canada has dropped, craft beer accounts for a growing share of total sales. In that respect, Dog Island – the only craft brewery within 200 kilometres – has cornered the local market for fresh suds.
“We have an area we can hit up,” says Paulson. “To have a local brewery that close, most people want to try it.”
Tony Giesbrecht (Culinary Arts ’11) has tried most of Dog Island’s beers, with the Nine Mile session ale and DIBS Berry raspberry wheat ale (seeing tasting notes below) being his favourites. “I think they’re cranking out some of the best beer in Alberta right now,” says the owner and operator of Tony’s Custom Catering.
Currently planning a restaurant in Slave Lake, Giesbrecht looks forward to serving the beers to his customers. He believes local draught is the kind of addition that helps solidify the sense of community in a dining room. “It adds to that whole feeling. It’s more than just a beer at that point – it’s a story.”
An opportunity in waiting
Currently, Dog Island beer isn’t available outside Slave Lake. For a while after opening, it wasn’t available there either. Locals continue to drink the place dry, forcing the company to post occasional sold-out messages on their Facebook page.
“They’re doing so good they’re having a hard time keeping up with volume,” says Giesbrecht. “They have to work on their distribution – but it’s a newer company.”
If all goes according to plan, it won’t always be this way. What they’ve made so far has been enough to attract the attention of an unnamed local angel investor. With his help, Dog Island expects to be operating in a bigger facility by mid-2017 and producing as much as 200,000 litres a year – enough beer to meet local demand and beyond.
For Paulson, the prospect is exciting and unnerving. “The only problem is if you make that much beer you have to sell it.”
Fiddler shows less concern. He knows that Dog Island will soon be competing with 50-some other Alberta craft breweries. There are also more than 3,500 beer products already on the shelves of the province’s liquor stores. But, “there’s such a big demand for beer in Alberta,” he says.
Per capita, the province consumes 66.2 litres per year, slightly more than the Canadian average. What’s more, because of other provinces’ import regulations, Alberta beers have yet to significantly crack other Canadian markets. He sees that as an opportunity in waiting.
“I think it’s still 5 or 10 years before it’s peaked,” he says of the province’s craft beer industry.
Which means that, while they’re not quitting their day jobs just yet, they see them as a mixed blessing.
The oilpatch may provide bigger paycheques but it also interferes with planning brew days, leading to the production gaps that turn off the taps. Their jobs as instrument techs also don’t make people smile in the same way brewing does, says Fiddler.
“That’s the best part – just seeing people’s reactions.”
Nevertheless, he and Paulson are happy with how far they’ve come – and where they may be headed. At their current stage of entrepreneurship, the pint glass may only be half full, but they never see it as half empty.
“What’s it going to be like in a year?” asks Fiddler, excitedly. “Where are we going to be?”
Likely, they’ll be in the brew house more than ever, using their trades training to constantly make their brewing processes better and, ultimately, a full-time job.
A taste of Dog Island
Among Dog Island Brewing’s top sellers is the easy-drinking DIBS Berry (5% alcohol by volume, pictured above). This raspberry wheat ale pours a slightly hazy, orange-red, and smells of berries, vanilla and a hint of banana. The first sip offers the taste of sweet-tart raspberry with a light maltiness like buttered brown toast. It finishes crisp, dry and refreshing.