Building a cozy Cabin in Calgary’s Barley Belt

When Cabin Brewing opens its taproom in southeast Calgary’s Barley Belt district later this year, expect to find an American pale ale, a northwest IPA and plenty of hygge.

You expect to find beer at a brewery — but the third offering, hygge, is something different: it’s a Scandinavian word that describes a feeling of comfort and coziness. And that, along with the beer, will be a significant part of Cabin Brewing’s identity.

“You don’t see a lot of breweries naming themselves after the taproom,” says Jonas Hurtig, Cabin’s head brewer and one of three founding partners, along with Haydon Dewes and Darrin Sayers.

“Hygge” wasn’t a word that came up during my recent interview with Jonas and Haydon, but I’d heard about the concept before and it’s what immediately came to mind when Haydon explained the thinking behind the brewery’s name.

“It’s creating that feeling of making your own space and feeling you’re comfortable and switching off. It’s more about the emotional kind of feel,” he says.

The taproom is the metaphorical cabin in the brewery’s name, but it will not be a literal one — and in this part of the world, where log construction and reclaimed barn wood have become a clichéd shorthand for “Western” or “rustic,” I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

“It’s won’t be like walking into a lodge. We like clean, modern design with a cozy touch. It’s going to be comfortable, with a bit of that nostalgic touch,” Haydon says.

“It’s that place you go, with the people you like, to do the things you want to do.”

And if you’re visiting a brewery, you want to drink beer. Atmosphere may be an important selling point to Cabin’s founders, but beer is the main attraction. The Cabin team has put a lot of thought into its approach to beer and brings a wealth of expertise to the venture.

Haydon is likely best known in Alberta beer circles as a regular beer columnist for the Calgary Eyeopener on CBC Radio and as the creator of The Daily Beer, a blog he started in 2015. Like me, Haydon is a former journalist who decided to combine his passion for writing and craft beer after he left a career in newspapers to work in communications. It’s no surprise, then, that we became fast friends and I was a regular contributor for The Daily Beer before I moved to Edmonton. (Alberta’s beer community is relatively small and it’s probably common knowledge that I wrote for The Daily Beer, but consider this my “full disclosure” statement if not.)

Haydon is also an award-winning homebrewer and a member of the Cowtown Yeast Wranglers club. Like many accomplished homebrewers, Haydon began wondering if he had what it takes to go pro and start his own brewery.

“The more I met people and got to know about the industry, I thought, ‘This could be pretty cool,'” he says.

Haydon and his wife, Jill, talked it over and began formulating a plan in mid-2016. At one point — maybe from watching legions of other Alberta homebrewers turn pro with varying degrees of success and/or aggravation — they decided it would be a better idea to get some other experienced hands involved. Haydon first approached Jonas Hurtig, a friend and fellow Yeast Wrangler who was brewing professionally at Wild Rose Brewery. Jonas politely declined, saying he was already working on his own brewery venture with someone else.

Undeterred, Haydon approached another Yeast Wrangler buddy, Darrin Sayers, with his idea. Darrin, too, said no. He was planning to open a brewery with somebody else. What were the odds?

Cabin builders: Haydon Dewes, Darrin Sayers and Jonas Hurtig. (Photo courtesy Cabin Brewing.)

Haydon later found out that Jonas and Darrin weren’t involved in separate ventures but were, in fact, going into business with each other. The three of them sat down in the fall of 2016 and talked about joining forces. Things clicked, and Cabin Brewing was formally incorporated on April 1, 2017.

“With these guys, everything felt right. We all liked each other,” Jonas says.

“I really liked the diversity of our skill sets.”

Despite all three partners having solid homebrew chops, Jonas’ experience in a full-scale production brewery made him the logical choice for head brewer. Haydon’s track record in media and communications landed him a role as Cabin’s marketing guru, while Darrin’s skills as a trained mechanic earned him the job of running operations and logistics.

The partners may have a varied skill set, but they have similar taste in beer.

“We’re all big hopheads,” Jonas says.

The two mainstays will come with big hop flavour and aromatics, but Jonas says it won’t come at the expense of balance and drinkability.

“I don’t like when anything is too much in one direction,” he says.

The pale ale is derived from a recipe of Jonas’ that has won more than 30 medals in homebrew competitions.

“It’s an easy-drinking American pale ale with nice aromatics,” says Jonas.

The IPA will be a departure from the current trend toward low-bitterness, citrus- and tropical fruit-forward New England IPAs: a West Coast-style IPA with more pine and citric bitterness and a dry finish. West Coast IPAs may not be all the rage like NEIPAs currently are, but they’ve hardly gone out of style.

And the rest? Cabin will brew a steady stream of rotating releases. “It’ll be, ‘What do we want to brew?'” Jonas says. While that strategy may appeal to their sense of creativity, it’s also smart from a marketing perspective: many craft drinkers are equally whimsical, choosing their beer according to mood, season or meal pairing.

Speaking of food: the taproom will serve snacks, though the concept is still being worked out. The taproom will also be kid-friendly, which makes sense. It’s not much of a cozy cabin if the whole family can’t be together, is it?

When it opens later this year, the taproom will also be the primary place to get Cabin’s beer. Initially, the focus will be on selling from the taproom and a small number of draft accounts around Calgary.

“We want to be careful and treat our accounts well,” says Jonas.

In addition to allowing the brewery to focus on quality, starting small is also a way of keeping expenses in line and remaining nimble in an increasingly crowded marketplace. How to stand out in a city where the number of breweries is closing in on 30 is a question Haydon says he wrestles with “every night.”

“It’s competitive — we know it’s not going to be easy.”

Cabin’s space at 505 36 Ave. S.E. is about half the size of what they were originally looking for, but Haydon says they’re happy with the turn of events. Citing the example of Calgary’s Dandy Brewing, Haydon says small breweries can be mighty, using their small capacity to make a steady stream of creative, small-batch beers.

In 2016, Dandy made an audacious pledge to release 40 different beers that year. Not only did Dandy deliver the promised quantity, the exercise cemented its reputation as one of Alberta’s most adventurous and well-regarded breweries — a brewery that recently expanded with a spacious new taproom and restaurant that opened in April.

As inspirations go, Cabin could hardly have chosen better.