Breaking down barriers to create a craft beer revolution

Graham Sherman talks about the extraordinary measures Tool Shed Brewing took to change the Alberta beer landscape and the great future he sees for the industry

Graham Sherman is co-founder of Tool Shed Brewing Co.

Graham Sherman
Graham Sherman

Tell me about Tool Shed’s history and how it started?

Sherman: That’s a crazy story! In my former life, I used to be in the IT world working on satellite communication projects for government and military customers throughout Afghanistan. I lived there on and off from 2007 to 2010, which is a dangerously hectic life, especially when you have a wife and three young kids back home here in Calgary.

When I wasn’t in Afghanistan, however, I was always obsessed with using my nerd powers to build coffee roasters, tech out my barbecue with a twitter handle and remote access, and finally building a lab in my backyard tool shed to perfect the art of homebrewing beer.

Back then, Alberta legislated a 500,000-litre-per-year minimum brewing capacity, which effectively shut down any thoughts of a small craft brewery startup. Essentially there were really only two breweries in the city (Big Rock and Wild Rose), along with a couple of brewpubs, while cities like Vancouver seemed to have breweries on every block.

So my co-founder and I decided we need to take the plunge, quit our jobs, try to find a way around this insane provincial legislation, and break down the doors allowing for the craft beer culture in Alberta to explode.

It seems like there are a lot of craft breweries in Calgary. Are there too many?

Sherman: Well, I’d say Calgary is only just catching up to the number of breweries per capita the rest of the country enjoys. It took a lot to break down that old provincial legislation barrier.

Back then, despite not being able to start a brewery, we could import beer. So we actually went across the border, brewed our beer out in Aldergrove, B.C., (using Alberta barley, of course) drove back home to Calgary, then imported our own beer back into the province. It was insane but we shipped our beautiful local barley across the border only to brew with it in a different city then ship it back as an import.

That’s a significant part of what it took to get these laws changed and only since December 2013 has that legislation been abolished and small craft breweries been able to open their doors.

The cautionary tale I see on the horizon is not the number of breweries so much as the size of the breweries being built. With a brewery the size of Tool Shed, it takes a massive amount of sales and marketing to sell beer at wholesale prices across the province with the monster competitors we have in this industry.

I see the opportunity for small neighbourhood-specific breweries serving their communities while enjoying retail prices in their taprooms as limitless potential. Heck, Oregon has over 230 of them.

What would you say differentiates Tool Shed from other breweries?

Sherman: It’s kind of funny to be only six years old and seen as one of the old grandfathers of the Calgary craft beer scene. But Tool Shed has an awesome story of helping to break down barriers allowing for the new craft beer revolution in our city. We also have an awesome story of being the loudest and proudest advocate of our Alberta barley and the incredible farmers our province boasts. It’s the best on earth!

We use our story to make sure the rest of the world recognizes that just as you’d go to Napa for wine since they have the best grapes, you come to Alberta for beer because we have the best barley. Our tag line is “handcrafted beer best served with a story!”

With any visit to the Tool Shed you’ll see that our multi-award-winning beers serve as an incredible platform to share great times and great stories with great people. That’s what beer is all about and we know that people proudly hold a Tool Shed beer in their hands because our story is about something much bigger than us. It’s about promoting economic development, supporting our farmers, getting craft beer back into the Stampede and even getting vocal about cutting through city call red tape once in a while.

What are your plans for the company?

Sherman: As in any industry that experiences a boom as big as the Calgary craft beer scene, we need to revisit our direction and pivot as needed in order to stay on top of the current market trends. We don’t even really look at that as a discussion on what type of beer to brew as much as we look at how will Tool Shed Brewing Co. lead the industry.

Last year, we started a new business under the Tool Shed umbrella called Cantastic. We recognized that the new breweries starting up all had tremendous cash flow constraints yet Tool Shed was a little more established and had tremendous industry relationships with great local companies such as Calgary’s own Cask Global Canning Solutions. They invented and continue to manufacture the greatest craft, micro-canning machines on earth.

We worked with Cask to bring a mobile canning operation to all the new breweries in the city. By lowering the huge minimum order requirement of items like cans and saving the need for every brewery purchasing expensive lab equipment and canning machines day one.

It also lowered our overall costs based on our new purchasing power so we effectively now help most other breweries in the city save money by labelling, and package their beers beautifully for them and we can still make money doing it.

The future of Tool Shed is certainly one of collaboration over competition.

Why are craft breweries so popular in Calgary?

Sherman: Years ago, my wife woke up in the middle of the night to smell smoke in the house. She came running downstairs to find me at the kitchen table with my little wood-burning kit, burning the Tool Shed logo into pieces of wood. I was making tap handles all through the night for our new customers!

“Check it out!” I grinned as I showed her the latest tap handle, which I think was my best one yet. She broke out laughing and said, “Oh I get it … craft brewery!”

I think any time that much love, passion and attention to detail goes into a product, it shines right through, almost emitting light from the finished product. How can you not fall in love with an industry like that?

I’ve watched grown men walk into our brewery just like my kids used to walk into Build a Bear – the look on their faces glows as if to say “So this is where my favourite thing on earth comes to life!”

We all want great-tasting, handcrafted artisanal products, we all want to support local and we all want something that brings people together. That’s local craft beer!

Interviewed by Mario Toneguzzi, a Troy Media business reporter based in Calgary.

© Troy Media

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