Alcohol: The good times roll at Big Rock

With a new deal with Westjet, the Calgary brewer is quietly starting to make a move.

Twenty-five years ago, Big Rock Brewery entered the Canadian beer market as a tiny craft brewer in the West. Since then, the Calgary-based brand has slowly been forging its way across Canada, and to other parts of the world. You can now purchase Big Rock at liquor stores in every province and territory except Quebec. There’s even a bar that serves exclusively Big Rock beer in the most unlikely of places — Seoul, South Korea.

Founded in 1985, Big Rock got its foot in the door a year later when a strike at Molson and Labatt meant that it was the only beer available in Alberta that summer. Today it produces 13 premium beers and a handful of specialty products; in the third quarter of 2010, Big Rock reported $12.2 million in sales.

The past year has been a pretty busy one for the company. It celebrated its 25th anniversary in September 2010, and last month the brewery unveiled freshly designed labels for their bottles. In August, it was announced that WestJet would offer Big Rock Grasshopper Wheat Ale on their flights across North America.

But despite this worldwide expansion, Big Rock marketing manager Brenda Sgaggi says the company is still just a local business trying to move on up.”We’re still that little brewery trying to make it,” says Sgaggi. “I’m not sure we’ve grown a ton in the five years I’ve been working with Big Rock, but we’re certainly trying to branch out more.”

Though the brand is certainly small compared to big-name brewers like Labatt, Molson Coors Canada and Sleeman, beer expert Roger Mittag says Big Rock has made its name in the mid-size beer market. “They’re the second-largest Canadian-owned brewer after Moosehead,” he says, noting that the company pumps out just over 200,000 hectolitres of beer each year. “They started as pioneers in the craft industry, but because of their volume output, they’ve moved up and out of the micro-brewing category.”

Sgaggi says that the recent summer lime-beer frenzy gave the company a big boost when it released Big Rock Lime. “Big Rock Lime was huge,” she says. “It hit the marketplace during a phenomenon, and it helped us to grow as far as how much beer we produce.”

Maintaining that small, micro-brew feel is part of Big Rock’s marketing presence, and the brewer continues to place an emphasis on the Prairies in its new labels and advertising. “We identify with western identity,” says Sgaggi. “We stay true to agriculture, and out west there’s an idea of being an entrepreneur. People stay true to their regional breweries because there’s an emotional tie.”

In fact, this tie to the West is what made the WestJet partnership such an exciting prospect to Big Rock. “We’re two Calgary-born and -raised companies,” says Sgaggi. “It speaks to our roots. We share the same upbringing — small companies that are trying to make it.”

The beer that comes out of the Big Rock Brewery is produced using local grains and mountain water, and is even hand-brewed by staff rather than using state-of-the-art technologies. In their 2010 third-quarter report, the company cites poor weather as a reason for slightly lower sales — a lack of rain last summer meant less beer in the fall and winter.

The continuing trend toward local products doesn’t exclude beer, says Mittag: “The marketing aspect of creating smallness is interesting,” he says. “When you position yourself as a small craft brewer, that leaves a lot of interest with people. People don’t just buy beer because of taste — they buy it because there’s an emotional attraction.”