Alberta micro-maltsters serve exploding craft beer scene

 

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Joe Hamill, head malter at Red Shed Malting. Credit: Andrew Brown/CBC

Alberta might not have the hop prowess of our western neighbours in B.C., but as the craft beer scene rapidly expands under new provincial rules, micro-maltsters are popping up to bring local barley to local brews.

“We’re a craft maltster, so we’re producing specialty malts for the craft brewing industry here in Alberta,” explains Joe Hamill from Red Shed Malting.

Malt is the backbone to beer, adding flavour and colour that helps separate a dark beer like a porter from lighter fair like a pale ale. The barley on which it relies is abundant in Alberta.

Calgary is already home to the country’s largest malt company, Canada Malting, but small-batch producers are a new, and still small, phenomena — two and counting.

READ THE REST AT CBC CALGARY

Branded and bullshit

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Yesterday one of my former colleagues at Fast Forward Weekly noticed that Branded Magazine, a new Calgary publication, had opened voting for their Best of YYC poll and directly mentioned that it wanted to keep Fast Forward’s Best of Calgary™ tradition alive. A couple of snarky tweets were sent and the arguments began.

Most people supported the snark, but some didn’t get the meaning, saying Fast Forward didn’t invent the reader poll and should just go quietly into the night. Fair enough, but they’re missing the point. Myself and the former staff I’ve talked to don’t care about a reader’s poll, or make any claim that it was a unique invention (though the trademark is still protected), we care about the fact that a vapid advertorial rag with no pretense of editorial integrity called Branded is purporting to keep a Fast Forward tradition alive.

This deserves comment.

Fast Forward Weekly was, as former staff writer Jeremy Klaszus so eloquently put it, a pain in the ass. We were at time reckless in our pursuit of stories to the detriment of our bottom line. We weren’t afraid to piss off advertisers for the sake of an opinion, a stance, a review or a news story. For us it was all about the readers and the smart advertisers stuck with us because they recognized our commitment to readers was the reason they bought ads with us in the first place. Others are only interested in the print equivalent of a rub and tug.

And so we have new publications like Branded.

Let’s get one thing clear, I don’t care that Branded is hosting this contest (if only it wouldn’t use the Fast Forward name in vain), or that the magazine exists. If it serves a certain segment of the population and those people enjoy reading it, great. It’s not my thing, and it doesn’t have to be. Best of luck to all involved.

That said, this magazine is about as far from a muck-racking publication as one can get, with features on what the markets are doing, to columns penned by a mortgage broker about housing opportunities and a section on eligible bachelors and bachelorettes. It’s a pile of mush.

I have serious doubts about the integrity of a Best Of poll in a magazine like this, and wonder if the people involved realize the intensity of the process and the controls we put in place to keep the Fast Forward poll honest and reflective of our readers — we scoured the results and eliminated chains, for example. We double checked different spellings of names and locations to ensure that every vote counted. We let anyone who fit the criteria win, even if they didn’t like us, or refused to advertise with us.

Branded is a disheartening representation of a staleness and lack of criticality that has engulfed Calgary and looks like a virus that will spread. There’s nothing of substance, just blind promotion. There’s advertorial rather than insight. It’s just an excuse for ads to have a home free of any uncomfortable statements or disagreements. It’s Calgary’s troubling boosterism wrapped up in a glossy package open to the highest bidder. It’s certainly not keeping any tradition of Fast Forward Weekly alive and they could have at least waited for the corpse to cool before claiming so.

p.s. I voted for Larry Heather in every category, maybe you should too, just to keep the spirit of subversion alive in some form.

It’s hard not to cheer for an economic downturn

Photo by Dave Cournoyer

Photo by Dave Cournoyer

The prospect of a housing market collapse makes me giddy. Low oil prices? It warms my heart. Higher interest rates? Ooh, baby.

I would be willing to bet there are a lot of you reading that and nodding your head in agreement. Yes, you think, that could be great. It might even mean that one day I’ll be able to buy a house, or afford my rent.

If you don’t have crushing debt levels that would be affected by higher interest rates, you might have a point. I feel that way. I’m excited by the prospect of an economy in distress, and that’s problematic.

We have ended up in a situation, in this city more than any other jurisdiction in Canada, where too many are being suffocated by a system geared towards rewarding the already successful. It’s been said many times, and it bears repeating, that it is difficult to thrive in this town if you don’t have the “right” kind of job. That not only breeds resentment, it also sets things up so that people like me, and probably people like you, cheer for a downfall that will bring many down with it.

Not only are we suffering from a bigger wealth gap in this city and in this province than other areas of Canada (and of the U.S. as a whole), we are mercilessly tied to the type of oil and gas commodity swings that recently wiped out $7 billion from provincial coffers virtually overnight, or that bring incredible wealth to a few, while driving up costs for the many.

And so some of us cheer when we see bitumen drop from $100 per barrel to $40. We envision foreclosed houses in inner-city communities that we could actually get our hands on. But of course it’s nothing to be happy about.

We (and I use that term to mean those of us without bursting bank accounts) are just as desperately tied to the swings of the market and the price of oil as the next guy. Sure, the effects of a major disruption will hit those in the downtown towers harder and faster, and may even open up some opportunities, but if that market trauma lasts for too long, it brings almost everybody down with it.

Here we’ve gotten to the meat of the matter. We are hopelessly unable to untether ourselves from the almighty market and its total indifference to our lives and our circumstances. We have a provincial government that is unwilling to even consider how to alleviate the nauseating swings by bringing in corrections like a provincial sales tax, or a progressive income tax, or a living wage policy, or increased corporate taxes, or increased royalties, or real environmental regulations, or a carbon tax, or reliable money transfers to municipalities for things like affordable housing and increased transit.

We have a city council that can’t even pass basic measures to allow for more secondary suites in a city that is years into a housing crisis, not to mention some form of rent control to alleviate gouging by some landlords.

What we get instead of all of these things is a circling of the conservative wagons in Alberta in order to impose austerity measures that will undoubtedly wreak havoc on the lives of the poor while barely touching those in the higher wage brackets. Already the unions are fighting back the first wave of attacks and there are certain to be more. On a city level, we have at least one councillor who would rather fine distracted pedestrians than consider affordable housing measures (no, seriously, you can’t make this up).

It all points to a sick system, and profoundly blinded provincial and federal governments and civic politicians. It’s a system where my automatic reaction to a downturn is to cheer the negative consequences for others in the hopes that I can get a share of the pie, even if I might be hurt as well. It’s a system where those who win, continue to win, without looking after others who fall through the cracks. It’s a system where we destroy in order to accumulate without regard to the future or any semblance of dependability and consistency.

The only hope is that during the coming financial storm, our governments remember the mistakes of the past and the continuing social deficit left over from Ralph Klein’s destructive reign, and realize that in order to build a province, you can’t keep hacking at the legs of the majority of its citizens.

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

Calgary doesn’t care about you

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Photo by Dawn Smzurlo

Back in 2008, a friend of mine lived in a nice apartment with not-so-great neighbours on a bit of a sketchy corner. Still, the two-bedroom, 1950s-era space was big, relatively nice and relatively cheap at $800 per month. Six years later, that same apartment is up for rent, listed on rentfaster.ca for $3,000.

That represents a rise of $26,400 per year compared to six years ago, and I’d be willing to bet that number skyrocketed in one year. It’s a clear indication of just how insane, frustrating and financially debilitating our rental market is. Sure the city fathers/mothers can talk about attracting and retaining the “best and the brightest” from around the world, but what about us? What about those who can’t afford to drop half a million dollars into a mortgage, or pay $1,500 per month to share an apartment on a sketchy corner with the scent of KFC wafting through the windows?

At first glance, this city is maturing and it’s wonderful. There’s better architecture in our skyline and over our rivers, there’s a robust public art program that has mostly survived backlash from a loud and largely ignorant segment of the population, there’s an eclectic and talented arts scene, there are bike lanes coming and there’s a lot of talk about creating the kind of city so many of us want to see.

But those of us who don’t work in oil and gas or trades, those who are responsible for that art scene, for example, are falling behind and getting frustrated. We’re not even talking about those who don’t have a home or deal with subpar living conditions in subsidized housing. Who hasn’t seriously thought of leaving Calgary to find a more hospitable home?

We are bombarded with gushing reports of low unemployment, bursting bank accounts and high GDP. We are bombarded with the notion that the market will sort it out. We are bombarded with the message that interference in the workings of the economy will only hurt us.

At best these arguments centre on the notion that things like rent controls will contract the rental supply because no landlord would want to be in the market if that were the case. Accepting that argument, of course, means ignoring the huge number of cities across North America that get along just fine with rent controls in place. Rent control doesn’t mean you can’t make a profit on a home, it just means you aren’t allowed to be an asshole.

At worst, these arguments come in the form of rants against the unwashed masses — the ne’er-do-well hordes waiting to invade any community as soon as secondary suite zoning is enacted. We hear of how renters will destroy communities. We hear of parking armageddon should renters move into a basement.

We all know this is outsized hyperbole, the kind of empty rhetoric that ignores evidence to the contrary and only serves to demean those who can’t afford a house of their own, or don’t want to be saddled with a massive mortage. More fundamentally, it ignores the very real crisis in housing in the most unequal city in the country.

Some councillors — Ward Sutherland, Joe Magliocca, Jim Stevenson, Sean Chu, Ray Jones, Richard Pootmans, Andre Chabot, Shane Keating and Peter Demong — have consistently knocked down proposals to legalize secondary suites across the city, ignoring their role as leaders and hiding behind the “wishes of constituents.” It’s about as logical as turning off police sirens while racing through intersections because it bothers the neighbours — some things are important and have to be done, no matter what some malcontents have to say.

Even if we could get secondary suites approved throughout the city, there’s no guarantee it will solve our housing crisis. Will there be a flood of people building suites, saturating the market and bringing prices down? Unlikely, at least in the short term. It certainly can’t hurt, but the fact we can’t even get this Band-Aid solution through council demonstrates just how far this city still has to go in order to live up to its hype as a great place to live. Because the truth is, for vast swaths of the population, this isn’t a great place to live; it’s a place to scrape by while praying your landlord doesn’t up the rent. It’s bullshit and we all know it.

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

Winter on two wheels: an interview with Tom Babin

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Long marginalized as mentally unstable radicals, there’s a particular group in Calgary and beyond that is fighting back against stereotypes in an effort to bring more unwitting citizens into their fold. Terrorists? Scientologists? Climate-change deniers? Nah, winter cyclists.

Front and centre in this battle for the minds is Tom Babin, senior tablet producer at the Calgary Herald and author of the new book Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling.

“I think the biggest obstacle to adopting winter cycling is having a healthier relationship with winter and getting over the fear of being cold and the fear of being outside,” says Babin, chatting over a coffee.

His book is geared mostly to people who are considering taking the step of riding year-round, weather be damned, and acts as a sort of guide for how to get started. In it he talks about attitudes and infrastructure around the world, dives into some history and shares information on available gear. He also shares anecdotes of his own journey — from car-dependent, to fair-weather rider, to winter cyclist — in the hopes that others will avoid some of the same mistakes he made, or simply gain the confidence to mount up when the thermometer dips.

“For me it was, I kept wanting to read something as I was starting winter riding and it was hard, I was just figuring it out on my own and I felt there were no resources,” he says. “So I thought, ‘I went through this whole process, I need to write something to help other people out.’”

One of the main issues with winter cycling is the perception that it is difficult, dangerous and uncomfortable, and while you do have to be more cautious — just as you do in any vehicle in winter — the truth is that winter cycling isn’t such a big deal.

“I also think that’s part of the problem right now, it’s sort of holding it back from being accepted as more of a mainstream thing, this idea that you’ve got to be this super-tough masochist to want to ride in the winter,” says Babin. “A lot of that comes from people who ride in the winter themselves — we like to sort of foster that image, and I admit it feels good to be exceptional, but it’s not that exceptional. If we want it accepted widely, we have to normalize it. We have to get over this idea that we’re doing something unique.”

He uses the example of seeing “grandmas putting their groceries in their basket and riding through the snow” while he was touring around Europe as fodder for his argument. He also highlights better clothing and equipment that make it easier to ride in the cold.

Although Babin is careful to note that you can’t sugarcoat the winter riding experience, and he documents a few wipeouts in his book to drive the point home, he also thinks there’s a critical mass of riders in the city who are looking to ride year-round and who need the support — from current riders and from the city. Maintenance and clearing of pathways is important and so, too, is debating cycling infrastructure, no matter how tiresome it can be.

“It would be nice to see the city get beyond the same arguments we’ve been going over and over and over again,” he says. “It would be nice to have a wider recognition that this is a good thing, but we also have to be reasonable too. Not every street should have a bike lane, and not every idea that comes out of the city is a good one, that’s for sure, and not every idea that comes from a bike advocacy group is a good one, but at least these are conversations that we’re having now and it’s nice to see us moving in the right direction.”

At the end of the day, however, it’s Babin’s lucid descriptions of those special moments, like riding down vacant streets and paths as snow falls and silence envelopes the city, that really capture the imagination and encourage a winter ride. You can argue infrastructure and gear all you want, but one trip like that and you’re bound to be hooked.

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

Jim Prentice’s flood of words

Jim Prentice

Although the calendar reads September 2014, some Calgarians would be forgiven for thinking it was June 2013.

Since Jim Prentice was anointed as this province’s new leader, the latest in the 43-year Conservative dynasty, there has been a flood of promises and policies, including sudden decisions on flood mitigation itself.

The government is going to work on a water management agreement with TransAlta and is planning to dam a section of Springbank for a dry reservoir, which has residents a little miffed and garnered one hell of a passive-aggressive response from Mayor Naheed Nenshi. “With respect to the two flood mitigation measures for Calgary that were announced by Premier Prentice today — namely the dry reservoir in Springbank and the direction to negotiate a permanent water management agreement with TransAlta — it is difficult for us to comment in detail since the City of Calgary has not yet been consulted with respect to either proposal and our experts have not yet seen any engineering studies,” wrote the mayor.

In addition to pointing out the possible failings of the plan, due in large part to other elements and agreements not being in place, Nenshi’s posting highlighted the continued maltreatment of cities by a paternalistic provincial government that still governs as though we’re an agrarian society. This does not bode well for the much-discussed city charters that I’ve heard are effectively dead.

But the flood of words isn’t just about shoring up the banks of Alison Redford’s old riding of Calgary-Elbow, where residents are still fighting with the government for flood relief, and where Gordon Dirks, the so-far unelected minister of education, is running for a seat.

The torrent from the premier’s office is reaching biblical proportions — something preacher Dirks can understand — with Prentice desperately trying to prove to a skeptical public that the PC party has changed and that all those promises of accountability and openness will totally happen this time. Swear. Starting with not giving away sole-source contracts to friends to deal with communications during events like the flood.

The premier has outlined five priorities that someone should fact check to make sure they weren’t plagiarized from any of the hundreds of conservative campaigns fought across North America in a given year. Conservative fiscal policies? Check. End entitlements and restore public trust? Roger that. Maximize value for our natural resources and respect property rights? Yup. Quality of life, including leading in health care, education and skills training (but not something silly like social sciences)? That’s there too. And then down at the bottom, hey what’s that? Oh, “establish our province as an environmental leader.”

It’s worth digging into that last outlier. Fortunately, it’s just a click on the Prentice website before we read: “we will not damage the competitiveness of our oil and gas industry by unilaterally imposing costs and regulations.” That’s under the “environmental leader” banner. His whole rationale for environmental protection is to get more oil to market. Other harmful activities appear not to exist in Prentice’s world.

Like a tailings pond breach spewing its toxins into a waterway, we can expect a strong push from Prentice to get our oil out the door. He mimics his old boss Stephen Harper, calling for Alberta to be a global superpower in energy, which should prove challenging given rising global stockpiles, U.S. supply increasing exponentially, forecasted increases in Mexico, and no efficient way for our glut of production to reach the markets.

Prentice’s first weeks in office have produced the same flood of words we hear whenever a new Progressive Conservative takes the provincial reins, and all these years later people are starting to tire of the debris built up from the empty words. Our access to information is a joke, and so too is the treatment of our cities. Dissent is considered dirtier than a barrel of bitumen and there’s never really been a plan to wean us off the oily teat. We’re wholly dependent, locked in to a volatile market at a time of profound societal shift. Just look to the treatment of our colleges and universities if you want any indication of how the government views education outside of science and technology.

But here’s the thing: floods aren’t all bad; they flush a system. Last year’s flood cleansed the Elbow and the Bow of the rock snot clinging to our waterways’ pebbles and stones, providing a hopeful metaphor for the upcoming byelections and eventual provincial contest. There’s no telling just how a flood will play out, but we all know there’s plenty of muck to get rid of in this province, and after 43 years it’s pretty easy to see who’s to blame.

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

Cycling outside of Calgary’s inner city

NEWS Suburban cycling

While cries of social engineering and a war on cars echo off the sides of skyscrapers and condos, the city is busy turning Calgary into a bike-friendly city in newer communities and suburbs without much fuss.

Although there has been at least one councillor bemoaning the separated bike lane being built on Northland Drive in the city’s northwest, there are multiple projects that have been completed or are in the works with little to no opposition. That may change, however, with new “complete street” regulations that will first crop up in committee after the summer.

Complete streets essentially mandate certain features on roadways in order to make them amenable to walking, cycling and driving, rather than focusing on cars alone.

“The stuff that’s going to be greenfield development [new communities], the goal is to have a complete streets policy that says when the developers are building these roads, they provide the right accommodation for cyclists and for pedestrians,” says Tom Thivener, the city’s cycling co-ordinator. “Once that’s in place, if a road is a certain classification, it automatically gets the treatments. So then I don’t have to worry about petitioning, lobbying the developers each time to try and get a facility in. That’s very much a piecemeal approach that we’re trying to avoid, so as soon as we have council’s approval on the complete streets policy, that’ll kind of take care of the greenfield.”

New communities already accommodate cycling, but usually in the form of regional pathways that are more geared towards leisure than commuting. In the southeast community of Mahogany, for example, the developer Hopewell is building 22 kilometres of pathways that will link up to the greenway project — a sort of cycling ring road that will encircle the city with 138 kilometres of pathway.

Darren Bender, a Tuscany resident, cyclist and a former director of Bike Calgary, has nothing but good things to say about the pathways in his suburban northwest community, but takes issue with the connections between communities and the links to the inner-city — and is thankful not to live in the southeast or northeast.

“Yeah, the connections between the communities in the suburbs are not great, especially when you’ve got suburbs that butt up against a major road,” he says, before listing off the veritable car walls that box in Tuscany. “A lot of these communities are quite isolated unless you live by car.”

For Bender, the connections have to be made between communities, and activity centres like the University of Calgary, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of the downtown network. “You’ve got to get the destinations linked in and then build your way outward,” he says. “The city’s doing that really well, I think.”

Doug Leighton, the vice president of planning and sustainability for Brookfield Residential says they recognize the importance of walking an cycling to ehnhance quality of life.

“We’re currently designing several new neighbourhoods to plug into the Seton town centre, health campus, regional park, schools and recreation facilities,” he says over email. “These will feature an inter-connected grid of pathways that will make it very easy to get around on foot or by bike.”

For the older communities stuck between the inner city and the outlying communities, cycling infrastructure mostly comes as roads are repaired and rebuilt, or tied into major projects. For example, the West LRT brought bike lanes and a new pathway to its surrounding area, and this summer, Northland’s painted lanes for buses and bikes are being replaced with the aforementioned separated lane during asphalt repair.

In Bowness, the main thoroughfare is going on a diet during construction, reducing four lanes to three and adding bike lanes. The road was large considering the 13,000 cars travelling its route on a daily basis. The project has the support of the community and the area’s councillor, Ward Sutherland, who opposed the cycle track network.

Thivener says his department is busy planning what they’re going to do once the downtown pilot wraps up, and co-ordinating with the roads department on construction projects and how they might line up with cycling routes.

So why don’t these projects elicit the same level of contempt as the downtown lanes?

“I mean, we do a good job of engaging the public — much improved, I would say, from some of the early projects that Calgary went through,” says Thivener. “We make sure that the community’s aware that these projects are coming and aware of the benefits and trade-offs before we proceed. But by and large, yeah, they don’t get as much interest because they’re isolated on corridors that probably not everyone sees — it’s more neighbourhood type concerns that we deal with. There’s some good projects that are going to be installed this summer that are going to be exciting.”

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.