When the Alberta oil fields slowed down in 2013, business partners Ben Fiddler and Chad Paulson put their trades experience to work in a different field – making beer in their hometown of Slave Lake, Alberta.
Spotlight on Business sat down to chat with Ben Fiddler, co-owner of Dog Island Brewing in Slave Lake, Alberta, about life as a brewer and making great beer.
For 18 years, Ben Fiddler worked as a dual ticketed tradesman doing instrumentation and electrical in the Alberta oil fields. It’s not the background you think of when you picture a craft brewer. But for Ben and his partner, Chad Paulson, it has worked.
“When I was going to school, I went to a local brew pub and ended up meeting the head brewer there. I fixed up some equipment he had that wasn’t working. In return, he taught me how to brew.”
Life was busy and Ben returned to the oil fields. When things slowed down in 2013, the two started to homebrew back home in Slave Lake. “You could see the writing on the wall that the oil field wasn’t going to pick up. So, it was time for us to do something. And that was all we really wanted to do, so it was a pretty easy choice for us.”
“Slave Lake is a pretty small town of only about 7000 people in the winter and about 10,000 in summer. And really there was nothing – no pubs, no craft beers. The liquor stores didn’t carry craft beers. Every time we would hit up a city, we would go out and check out different craft breweries and pubs. We thought we’d bring that to Slave Lake.”
Starting a brewery in a town where there were none was no easy feat. “Our biggest challenge was getting the town’s approval. Our town had nothing in the rulebook about craft brewery operations or distillery operations or anything to do with alcohol manufacturing.”
“When we first approached the town, they were obviously excited because we’ve never had a brewery in the town before, but they had to do so much extra work to make the rules when we applied. So that took a few months. They were all for it, but they had to create the zoning and rules and stuff.” Zoning rules had to be passed, along with ordinances regarding patios and other restrictions. Decisions had to be made about effluent waste and getting rid of spent grain.
The doors opened at Dog Island Brewing on October 28, 2016. “The town really took to it from the first day. The taproom has been the hub of Slave Lake and for any tourists that come here, it is the first spot they want to come to and enjoy a pint. We’re on the biggest lake in Alberta”
With the lake in the background, naming the brewery was the easy part. “There is one island on the lake that is a fair-sized island – called Dog Island.” The brewery is the only one within about 300+ km.
Ben and his partner built their own pilot brewery. “We opened the doors with a little 55 gallon electric setup. Since we were electricians, electric was the way to go for us. We didn’t have to worry about gas or being outdoors. And we still use that system today for test batches.” The team expanded the brewery to include a 20 barrel, fully automated brewery and 4 double size tanks. “We just ordered two more triple size tanks – so we can make a lot of beer.”
Currently, the brewery employs 12 staff, including four people in the back, a tap room manager, secretary and serving staff. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, food is not being served at this time.
The culture at the brewery is laid back and do it yourself. “Since we’re so remote and since we’re all trades people when something has to be fixed or maintained, we chip in and do it ourselves. And we really take advantage of the summers. Winters here are a little bit longer than other places.” The team might take off on a nice Wednesday to go fishing or play golf and catch up on a rainy weekend.
In the past, the brewery has hosted food trucks and participated in pop-ups with restaurants from Edmonton. “We distribute a lot of beer to Edmonton. So, we know a lot of small restaurant owners who support craft breweries. A lot of these restaurants like to come to Slave Lake for two days and do a pop up. The town goes nuts for it. The restaurants can’t believe it. In a small town, they’re expecting 30 people and they get 1000 people through there.”
One of the biggest challenges the brewery faces today is interprovincial trade. The brewery struggles to get their beer exported to other provinces, although beers from any other province can be found in local liquor stores. “Our Alberta Small Growers Association has been fighting this for two years. We have a lot of fans Canada wide who would love to have our beer.”
Dog Island Brewing runs 18 taps with nine core beers. “Then we have rotating beers, depending on the season and what’s around. We do fruit beers and some sours.”
The Saints and Sinners IPA, a hop forward West Coast IPA that isn’t too bitter, is the brewery’s best seller.
The Hulk S.M.A.S.H is another customer favorite. “S.M.A.S.H is an acronym for single malt and single hop. We try different malts and different hops all the time. That one has been really popular in our taproom so that beer is going to get scaled up to a big system and then we will can it and get it out as well.”
Other beers include the Dog Island Blonde, a 1965 Old Town Porter, the Foggy Dew NEPA, Lip Pointer DIPA, and more.
The town of Slave Lake has embraced the brewery, from 18-year-olds celebrating their first beer to old timers. “We have every type of person coming here. A neighbor of mine who’s 87 years old, comes in, sits down and just likes to enjoy a pint.”
Ben credits the beer with the success of the brewery. “A lot of it is word of mouth. The easiest thing to do to succeed is to make good beer. If you just make good beer, all your ducks will fall in a row for you. We really believe that if you’re going to own a brewery, you should be the one brewing. That’s why you started. I could keep brewing for 15 years and be happy. We know quite a few breweries that still exist today, but when they lost their brewer, they lost their identity and spent the next year playing catch up and trying to re-create the recipes.”
The collaborative camaraderie of the craft brew industry is a change from the oil fields. “I came from a very competitive career before where you’re always bidding against another local person, or a big company out of the cities for that same job. There was a lot of competition. But now in this, it seems like we’re all in this for the same goal. And that goal is to take over from the big guys. I think we’re about 15 or 16% market share in Alberta, which is really high compared to a lot of provinces and some of the states. So, we’re taking a big chunk out of these huge brewery’s stakes, and they’re taking notice. We want to put ourselves on the map for that.”
Dog Island Brewing can be found at most Alberta brew festivals. “For us, they are super important because that’s the only way some of the people in our province actually get to try our beer. It helps to make people aware that we’re here and the next thing you know we’re selling more beer in Calgary or other cities.”
COVID-19 has shut down most of the events the brewery had planned for spring and summer, but a partnership with the Oilersnations Group resulted in a new beer, NationBeer, made just for the Oilers fans. “They have all these groups all over the NHL towns that follow the teams and do interviews and they do all kinds of neat fundraisers. They have parties going on when these teams get in the playoffs.”
So Oilersnation approached us about four or five months ago to make NationBeer for them. “It’s one of the beers we can’t keep up with now. It turned out to be a nice light crisp beer that’s perfect for summer. It’s been a great partnership. We’re going to try to do this beer for all the Nation networks.”
by Anita Flowers