One of the great things about Craft Beer is the story behind it. Whether it be the brewery, the brew master, the beer – or all of the above – you can bet that behind each of them is a great story. ABF is proud to support the brewers who are showcased in our events, and give you a little insight into the lives of these extraordinary people.
This month, we sit down with Rob Walsh from Brewsters, who according to my dental hygienist is, ‘The nicest man on the planet!’ I’d recently changed dentist’s offices because I had moved (admittedly I’d moved 13 years ago, so the change might have been overdue….). As is often the case when I tell someone what I do for a living, the conversation turns to beer – and in this case – it turned to Rob. ‘He really is such a great guy. I can’t imagine our neighbourhood without him.’
When I tell Rob, his humble reply is, ‘She’s just saying that because I provide the beer for her big BBQ every year.’ I doubt that is the only reason she thinks he’s a great guy, but then again, it isn’t just any beer Rob brings to the BBQ. This is the stuff he makes with his own hands – and incidentally has won him not one, but two awards at the Canadian Brewer’s Association Canadian Brewery Awards this year.
The journey for him to get to this point has been a long one. ‘I was living in Whistler and my girlfriend got a job at Whistler Brewing. I would swing by to pick her up after work – I worked on the ski hill – she was a manager – and because she worked long hours, there would be days where I’d end up waiting hours for her – and since I knew all the guys at the brewery – they’d give me a beer to help them make boxes in the back while I waited. Then they offered me a job – and it kind of went from there.’ It certainly did. After 2 months of doing labour jobs, they asked if I wanted to become a brewer. Then came a 4 year apprentice program – learning from the brewers that worked there. ‘After that I was head brewer for 2 years. That’s where I met a lot of the guys in the industry – Matt from Phillips and Gary Lowen from Central City – those are two of the guys who replaced me – lots of guys went there for a couple years then went and did their own things – you’d work hard, and create something, and then see someone drinking what you made – it felt good – still does actually.’
And there was a lot more to the job than just brewing. ‘I had to get my engineering ticket in Whistler – 4th class – because we ran boilers. I got my trucking license because I did deliveries. I also did the filtering, brewing, ran the bottling line, and worked in the lab. I did it all. Didn’t feel like training because I loved what I was doing.’
So how did he end up becoming one of the longest serving brew masters in Alberta’s history? ‘We wanted to move out of Whistler once my wife got pregnant – we decided to move to Alberta – it was close to Saskatchewan which was where we were both from. I got a job at Brewsters in 1995 – July 1st we started in Edmonton then moved down to Calgary after 9 years. Love the small pub setting, creating the different beers. The whole experience has been great. I still feel the same way about brewing now as I did back then.’
‘Can it be hard? Sure, some days. Growth has been hard. As we grow, we’re now doing 10 times the amount of work. One year, I designed 30 brand new beers. Finding new ideas can be a challenge. If you look at my beer fridge, a few are Brewsters, but the rest are everyone else’s. I’ll like a part of one beer, and another part from another beer – and that will lead to me getting an idea. That, along with all the new brewers coming up in Alberta right now, all being adventurous in what they are trying – that pushes me – helps me elevate my game. I absolutely love where the industry is heading.’
Brewsters is one of the oldest and longest running breweries in Alberta, and a lot of people forget that because they are a brewpub. ‘We really are connected to Alberta. We use local companies to supply our ingredients – our 2 row malt has always been through RAHR – we were the very first brew pub to go through them – we employ hundreds of local people – try to tie ourselves in with other local companies – collaborations – right now we’re doing something with the firefighters association – designing a beer that will be sold for charity – we try to be involved within our community as much as we can – we want to show we will support the people that support us – we always try to change things up – we are always trying to improve.’
And what advice would he have for someone thinking of starting a brewery? ‘Write a business plan. I’m always stunned when I see a brewery with great beer fail – you need to have a great business plan to go with that great beer. And plan for 5 to 7 years – have the capital – be progressive – never think you’ve totally got it figured out.’
It hasn’t been all good times for Rob though. He’s been through some very difficult challenges – and one particularly difficult time that stands out. In some ways, that’s helped him shape his feelings about how to have a good life. ‘Live your life. I went through a big tragedy in my life where my son passed away about 7 years ago, and that has been the number one lesson for me. The second thing – kind of funny – I go 100 MPH all the time. That’s what got me through my son passing away – I didn’t curl up in a hole – I would have died – I kept going so I could get through it. And the third thing, never leave a glass half full – in everything – beer and in life.’
The longer I talk to Rob and really get to know him, the more I think my dental hygienist was right. He really is a great guy, and it comes out in the little details of all his answers. His father as his role model – the man who told him to do what he wanted in life as long as he had a life he enjoyed. The fact that if he wasn’t doing this, he’d probably be a surf instructor – though admittedly, some of his once decent surf skills may have eroded a bit over the years. The fact that when I asked him who he’d most like to sit and have a beer with – anyone, anywhere, anytime – he said, ‘Anyone. I’ll sit with anyone and have a beer.’ Which ties in well with his Brew Master Super Power of wanting to time travel so he could try everyone’s beers everywhere in history – (drunk time travel…. Hmmmm). And what does he hope people will say about him when he is gone? “That I lived my life well. And at my memorial, they can drink whatever they want – just as long as it’s a party.’
Join us at the Edmonton Craft Beer Festival where you can meet Rob and so many other amazing Brew Masters who make the great beer we enjoy so much.
EDMONTON CRAFT BEER FESTIVAL – JUNE 2 & 3, 2017
Get Tickets At: www.myshowpass.com/2017-edmonton-craft-beer-festival
And keep up to date with everything happening in the Alberta beer community by following us on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram at @ABBeerfestivals