5 Days to Go - Luscious Libations

After a brief hiatus – part of the unforeseen joys of festival management – the Insider’s Blog returns in style with a tour of Canmore’s exploding drinks industry.


.“So why brewing?” was the question I proposed to the owner of Canmore Brewing Company. He paused only briefly before responding “20 years ago in Nova Scotia I was the guy who had 18 different European beers in his fridge when everyone else was drinking Moosehead and Keith’s”. This seems to me like a pretty respectable staring point.

Throughout a career in engineering and investment banking Brian Dunn dabbled with home brewing until the day he quit work and bought a pilot brewing system – using the theory that at worst he would have a “lot of good stuff in the garage”, and at best he could end up with a brewery. After two and a half years of perfecting recipes, Brian and his wife Susan made that best case a reality by opening in Canmore, a town they “absolutely love”, and according to Brian a place that is perfect to take advantage of the boom in craft brewing, with one already established brewery and 4 million people a year stopping as they pass though the Rockies

“Beer is proof God loves us and wants us to be happy”
— Ben Franklin. Apparently...

Canmore Brewing Co. is located next to Safeway, very close to the downtown core. The building hosts both the Brewery and RAW Distillery (featured in a previous blog) and features a spacious tasting room adorned with beer-related slogans and maps of the local wilderness – which remind Brian to get out on his bike and stay aligned with the brewery’s vision: “Think outside. There is no Box”.

Brian doesn’t differentiate his beer using clichés such as glacier water and Alberta grain, because as he says, everyone out here is doing the same thing. Instead he focuses on being “that little bit different” – doing a Rye IPA instead of a more traditional hoppy brew, using flaked barley to add a creaminess to his stout, and of course staying true to the vision by targeting product to (and being inspired by) the avid hikers and bikers in the community. Hence his growlers being vacuum-insulated and stainless steel – perfect for a backcountry hike!

Trailhopper - launched at Uncorked

Trailhopper - launched at Uncorked

Which leads us to Canmore Brewing Co.’s special feature for Canmore Uncorked – a $5 tasting room pairing of two Springbank Cheeses with a brand-new beer – their first canned and labelled seasonal that is being unveiled to the public on the first night of Uncorked!! ‘Trailhopper’ is a highly hopped amber ale which Brian describes as being “everything Canmore” and is inspired by many a great ride through the mountains. I was lucky enough to have a sample, and the beer is fully as advertised – the thick body and slight sweetness of an amber ale, with a great hoppy back-of-mouth finish. Well worth a trip to collect an Uncorked stamp early in the festival.

Finishing off I asked Brian after two and a half years of trying new ideas, what was his own favourite recipe. “The Rye IPA,” he replied. “The best reward beer after a bike ride. The reward for my workday. It makes me smile”.


Let’s just say you found yourself with an 1800 litre container of 10% alcohol beer – could you honestly find a practical use for it? Joking aside, it would be a challenge for most people, but for local distillers Matthew Widmer from Banff and Keith Robinson from Canmore, co-owners of Wild Life Distillery, it is a perfect starting point for the creation of fine quality spirits.

Distilling in Canmore is new but clearly up-and-coming as part of the local beverage buzz, with both RAW and Wild Life having opened in the past 6 months. For Matt and Keith is it the opportunity to set up a business in the valley they love, doing something they love. With degrees in Kinesiology and Commerce and backgrounds in restaurant management and oil&gas, distilling might not seem the most obvious venture, but as Matt says, it is unique, creative, and always interesting.

Ever wondered what a ton of grain looks like?

Ever wondered what a ton of grain looks like?

At Wild Life, Alberta gran is the inspiration behind their clean yet complex spirits, as well as (of course) the surrounding mountains. They start the process with a ton of prairie spring wheat, crush it to expose the starch and add malted barley which gives the enzymes that convert starch to sugar in the boiling mash. Once the grain is spent, the liquid is transferred to the aforementioned 1800-litre tank where fast-acting yeast creates alcohol quickly, resulting in a 10% beer within about 4 days. The recipe is always the same, but as Matt points out, they are not too worried about precise flavor at this stage. He does point out that the spent grain goes to feed chickens in Cochrane, resulting in almost zero waste from the distillery.

There are two distinctly different stills at Wild Life – one is a classic-style copper pot, and the other is a more modern-looking column still. Once brewed, the beer goes into the column still on a ‘stripping run’ where the alcohol is boiled off and purified with the help of thousands of stainless steel springs that fill the column, adding a vast amount of surface area to help distillation. This process takes two days and the result is a clean spirit at about 95% proof, which is then diluted with Canmore water using a reverse osmosis system until it is about 50%, at which point it is filtered and diluted to the required 40%. And at that point Wild Life Vodka is ready to bottle – with that 1800 litres finally producing about 350 bottles of finished spirit.

Of course vodka is not the only spirit produced at the distillery – though it is the base for everything else. Many distilleries buy pre-distilled neutral alcohol to make gin or whisky, but Wild Life believes that using their own vodka base makes the taste so much better. So the process starts again – the vodka goes back into the column still where the steel springs have been replaced by a unique mix of 10 botanicals that includes, amongst other things, juniper, coriander, citrus fruits and cassia. I won’t reveal all the ingredients, but according to Matt it is the Vodka that makes it unique!

As production grows, Wild Life will start production of whiskies and other spirits, at which point the copper still will come into its own by producing much deeper and more complex flavours. But for now, doing less better is the unofficial motto.

For Uncorked Wild Life will be offering a $10 special – one of their excellent gin-based cocktails. The gin is slightly over-proof at 43%, which makes it stand up better in a G&T or in most cocktails. I asked about how the alcohol was measured at which point Matt showed me the most important piece of equipment in the room – the government-certified hydrometer, which measures alcohol to a fraction of a %. Matt takes such care of the fragile glass that I swear I’ve seen plutonium rods handled less delicately.

I asked how set up has been, and Matt gives the smile of an entrepreneur, admitting that much has not gone to plan over the past 6 months. “It’s funny looking back”, he says, “but it really wasn’t at the time!” It is clear though that they love the work – “it’s very rewarding and dynamic.”

My last question was about their favouite cocktail. “Well we do this Vesper, like James Bond in Casino Royale” is the response – “a mix of gin, Lillet and citrus”. Apparently Keith likes it shaken, Matt likes it stirred. As for me? I just like it.  

Wild Life’s tasting room is open Wed-Sat 12-8. Uncorked is a great time to go have a taste and take a tour.


As I have said many times in previous blogs, I can give no greater compliment to RAVE Coffee than the fact that I now drink coffee without any additions, after a lifetime of copious cream and sugar. Over these last two years I have experienced so many different subtleties of flavor that I never knew existed, and it all goes back to that first taste of RAVE’s decaf (!) that made me want to try it au natural.

RAVE’s café has expanded over the past year, with the addition of some much-needed extra space for tables and chairs, while the big glass windows at the back provide a great view of the roasting room where small batches of beans are expertly prepared for serving and distribution. Owner Dean Smolicz is always a big supporter of other local businesses, and in the café you will find sodas by Grizzly paw, chocolates from Le Chocolatier, snacks and goodies from An Edible Life, and even soaps from Rocky Mountain Soap Co.

As usual RAVE will be offering an in-house special during Uncorked where you can get 3 of their bags of beans for $25 – offering great value. Their main Uncorked offer however is something quite wildly different, and rather fun! For their main Uncorked tasting experience you will be served espresso two ways – served both straight up and with steamed milk – the idea being that you can taste the impact of acidity on your coffee. The shots are served on an attractive wooden holder and separated by a small glass of sparkling water. I tried the milk version first, and it was smooth, creamy, nutty, and chocolaty – at the sides and back of the mouth. Having cleansed my palate with the water I then tried the straight version and was stunned by the difference – it was a mix of bitterness and fruitiness and all in the front and middle of mouth. Dean explained that milk neutralizes the acidity and allows different flavours to dominate – and that too much milk or cream kills all the flavour of the coffee. It was a fascinating demonstration, and one I plan to do again using other types of the single origin beans

Always a big supporter of Uncorked, Rave will be at the Long Table Dinner and the Big Brunch, and if you check out the Uncorked Mannequin Video you may notice Dean having a quick nap on the job – cradling what looks suspiciously like one of Brian Dunn’s brews…


Andrew Nickerson