When ConnecTour is biking at the speed of life, we meet the most interesting folks along the way. Hard Knox Brewery in Black Diamond was our lunch, beer and music stop for our group of 24 in June 2020 on a 38-km loop ride from Millarville to Turner Valley and Black Diamond. where we had lunch, a couple of beers, some, tasty BBQ from the onsite Smokey Goose BBQ.
Siblings Pamela and Cory Lyken had both suffered hard knocks when Alberta’s oil and gas industry took a downturn a few years ago. Cory lost his job first and a couple of years later Pamela did, as well.
But that seemingly cruel twist of fate led to some creative thinking. One day in 2016, 61-year-old Cory admitted that he’d probably never find another job in oil and gas. He recalled a fine microbrew called Wild Huckleberry Lager that he had sampled at the Great North Brewing Company in Montana, and mused that it would be fun to start a little brewery just down the highway from their homes in Millarville, in the town of Black Diamond, Alberta. Pamela jumped on the idea.
“I said, ‘Let’s do it,’” she said.
Opportunity often relies on two key factors: the courage to act on intuition and some lucky timing. The Lykens had both. Their inspiration to start the brewery came just as the Government of Alberta was amending laws to create a friendly investment environment that would stimulate the craft brew industry.
The first change was eliminating the requirement to produce a minimum of 5,000 hectolitres a year. In 2017, happy hour restrictions were lifted, patio hours changed, and regulations updated to allow young artists to perform in licensed venues.
Suddenly, craft beer-making was taking off, and the Lykens found themselves in the right place at the right time.
“All the stars have come together for us,” said Pamela.
The brother and sister found a local white knight investor who offered to buy the land and erect a building for them beside Highway 7 on the high-traffic area of Black Diamond’s east side. With the capital costs taken care of, the Lykens found it easier to get financing for a leasing arrangement. Then a federal loan covered the cost of the necessary equipment.
After a few delays caused by red tape, Hard Knox Brewery opened on May 18, 2018, to instant success. “We were jam-packed on that soft opening,” said Pamela. Now, 2,500 to 3,000 fans pop by each week for a taste of Hoof Hearted black lager, Black Diamond Blonde or the spicy Burning Fuse pineapple jalapeno IPA. They also come to Vince Gosling’s Smokey Goose BBQ
The beer names (and the tap pulls) all pay tribute to Black Diamond’s once-gritty and thriving coal mining industry and its agricultural roots. While you’re waiting for you beer, you’ll see old sepia photographs of the town from its early heydays.
There have been a couple of bumps along the way. When the two first looked for a brewmaster, they advertised in Canada but couldn’t find one. So, they hired a brewmaster from the U.S., who stayed for about a year and then left – with all the beer recipes.
But that setback also turned into an opportunity. The second time around, they hired David Karran, a graduate of the Olds College brewmaster program, who has upped the quality of their products.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, drying up the market of about 60 bars around Alberta that Hard Knox was selling its product in. Yet, the brewery was able to keep operating through online sales and growler refills.
“Now we’re going great guns,” said Pamela, 57, who laughs when asked if this is her retirement project. “Hopefully, we can become a household name.”