Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Setting The Bar in Fort McMurray - Wood Buffalo Brewing Co.

I realize the title of this post is a wee bit of a pun, and I couldn't resist it. Yes, the new Wood Buffalo Brewing Co in Fort McMurray is indeed a "bar", but to call it that is a bit demeaning, when it is actually a brew pub and micro-brewery. However, I had the honour of attending the "soft opening" of the new establishment last night, and I can guarantee the title of this post is very accurate. The folks at WBBC are about to open and blow minds in this community, and they have now set the bar very high for other new businesses hoping to capture our hearts (and our cash).

As many of you know WBBC has taken over the space in the Morrison Centre previously occupied by the Primary Care Network. They have lavished time, money, and love on this space, and you can tell just by glancing in the windows. The renovations are extensive, and again I think it's a bit demeaning to even call them "renos". This was more of a total build inside an existing building, and it is something incredible to see.

And you need to remember that what you see on the main floor of the WBBC is just the tip of the iceberg. Much like an iceberg, where you only see 10% of the berg while 90% floats below, the real heart of WBBC is directly below the things you can actually see, in the basement where the beer is brewed and brought to perfection. And perfection it is.

My beer sampler - in a tool box! :)

Last night I got to sample the six brews being crafted right here in our own community, using our own water. To say I was impressed is an understatement. I was overwhelmed by beers that have been carefully crafted and lovingly made. I had the chance during an earlier tour to sample two of the beers right from the vats, and I was anxious to sample the finished products, to taste what the final result would be - and they are, in a word, stellar.

Of the six brews my favourite, surprisingly to me, was the stout, a rich, dark beer with overtones of coffee. It is so smooth, without any unpleasant aftertaste, and as the server helpfully offered also lowest in calories. I also loved the raspberry ale, with its slightly sweet taste of summer berries (a friend who accompanied me could not stand that sweet taste, but that is the glory of a brew pub since he loved five out of the six beers, leaving plenty for him to choose from). All six of the beers are wonderful in my opinion, and each is different enough that I think everyone will find their favourite. And the beauty is that WBBC is open to suggestion, ready to take ideas for improving the brews and changing them to reflect our local palate and preferences - because the WBBC is for us.

That is a point that Socrates, who I have written about previously, and I have discussed. Wood Buffalo Brewing Co is intended to be for us, not for the owners or the servers. Yes, they will run the establishment, and yes, they hope we will bring them our hard-earned money - but in the end it is designed to be about and for the people of the Wood Buffalo region. That is why the beer is made with our own water, and why the beers have been named by members of our community. And yes, before I forget, let's discuss those names, shall we?

WBBC held a contest to name the new beers. They did this to engage the community, to remind us that this establishment is for us, about us, and meant to reflect us. The name suggestions rolled in, and these were the winners:

Gold Digger Golden Ale
Lift Kit Lager
Wood Buffalo Pale Ale
Overtime IPA
Black Gold Stout
New Talent Seasona

There are those who appear offended by some of those names, particularly the first one. In fact some have expressed displeasure with all the names except for Wood Buffalo Pale Ale, which baffles me. "Overtime" is offensive? We not only work overtime, we also have overtime in hockey, a sport much loved in this country. "Black Gold"? Oil has been called that for a very, very long time, and that is a proud history, and not one to be embarrassed about. "New Talent"? How is that offensive to anyone? Isn't that exactly what we rely on in this region, new talent to come in and work in our industry and become a part of our community? "Lift Kit"? That speaks to 90% of the trucks in this community, and again it is reflective of who we are. And so that leaves "Gold Digger", a name that I admit initially caused me to raise an eyebrow, too - and then I stopped to think, leaving my initial indignant thoughts behind. Yes, the term "gold digger" can be a less-than-kind term for a woman, but it can also be a reference to many things, including gold mining (an occupation that created a boom in the far north not unlike the boom we see here, where we are digging "black gold" from the earth on a daily basis). And the thing to remember is this: a) this name was suggested by a member of this community (someone who is Fort McMurray through and through, having been raised here, gone to school here, and continuing to work in this community), and b) this is a bar, not a university. The name is tongue-in-cheek, meant to be funny, not offensive. It is not meant to be unkind to us, and is not a term being thrown at us from some outsider. How is it we can laugh at the "Steve from site" videos (and don't lie, you laughed at them just like I did)? Because they poke fun at the steretype. And so to does this name, as we attempt to reclaim some of the insults hurled on us by turning them on their head and naming a local brew after them. I think we need a few things in this community - and the ability to laugh at ourselves on occasion is definitely one of them. We have a tendency to spend a lot of our time being outraged at the things said about us (and I am as guilty as the next person on this), and in recent months I have begun to wonder if we should try to save our righteous indignation for things truly deserving of it (and the name of a local craft beer is not, in my estimation, one of them). Besides, after one taste of the golden ale you will have entirely forgotten the name. After another few you probably won't remember your own name, either, and the "problem" disappears entirely along with your memory of the evening.

Right, back to the actual things of import, like the beer, which is stellar, and the food, which is amazing. I sampled several dishes last night and they are far better than the standard pub fare, more gastro-pub than greasy spoon, and a delightful companion to the beers. The atmosphere is wonderful, and the decor looks amazing. The servers are funny and friendly and helpful, explaining the beers and the food. The management is well positioned to support the serving staff, and even the bathrooms are terrific (check out the ladies room, seriously!). And in the end, at the end of the night last night, what did I think?

I thought about how bloody fortunate we are that these entrepreneurs chose our community to be the location of their third brew pub, after Jasper and Banff. I thought about how happy it makes me to see a new establishment embrace the community, and want to become a part of it, not just take from it. I thought about the loving care they lavish on their beers, and their establishment. I thought about how this brew pub is going to become a second home for me, a place I will choose for lunch and for interviews, and for a wind-down drink with friends (or even alone) after long and difficult days. And I thought about the challenge they have issued to the rest of this community, although they may not even realize it. They have raised the bar very high, and they have exceeded even the expectations I had of them. Other businesses, old and new, will have to be at the top of their game to compete with Wood Buffalo Brewing Co, and I think that's a glorious thing, because competition is good for all of us. It inspires us to bring out our best, to play our "A" game, to strive and achieve recognition for our hard work. So to you, Fort McMurray, I bring very good news - Wood Buffalo Brewing Co throws open their doors to the general public tonight at 5 pm, and they are ready and waiting to become a part of this community. I can guarantee you this - they will not disappoint you. In fact I suspect they will do something else - they will raise your expectations of everywhere else, and make you want more and better and bigger. And for this I thank them - and I also thank them for allowing this little blogger to come along for the ride, from construction to soft opening. I am grateful to have been a witness to what is sure to become a fundamental part of the Wood Buffalo community.

My congratulations to everyone at
Wood Buffalo Brewing Co 
for raising the bar in our community -
and I thank them for choosing Fort McMurray,
and allowing me to be there for part of it all :)


  1. Great review! I have the same thoughts as to the names. Gold Digger Golden Ale has actually already been used as a beer name by two other microbreweries, one in Washington state and the other in Australia.

  2. I was there for the " soft opening " as well as the general opening the next nite. Totally and thoroughly impressed.

  3. Well done, Fellas! -Jordan Rae