Are Albertans becoming choosier in what they eat and what they drink? Are significant numbers of us shopping at farmers’ markets as well as Superstore or Costco? At the big supermarkets, are organic and deli sections thriving?


Are independent butcher shops like Acme or specialty cheese shops like the new Cavern on 104th Street becoming more popular?


When you go to the shiny new huge-choice liquor stores and confront literally 1,000 brands of red wine, are you adventurous, learning about different grapes … or do you grab the usual Apothic Red?


To be blunt, are you willing to pay more, significantly more, for quality?


The subject arose at a multi-course dinner presented at Joseph Rustom’s Parkallen Restaurant by Big Rock Brewery last week, celebrating the launch of Big Rock’s Rosmarinus Aromatic Ale.


“Craft” beers, loosely defined as beers made by small, independent and traditional breweries, are a classic test of this quality versus quantity idea.


Big Rock is Alberta’s best known, and biggest, independent brewery. Its Traditional and Grasshopper beers are near-household names in the Alberta beer biz, but Big Rock will make 15 “deliberately different” premium craft beers in 2013.


“Let’s be realistic,” says Big Rock’s president and CEO Robert Sartor. “The majority of beer drinkers will always make their choice on quantity and price. But a growing number of those lads in the oil patch are becoming interested in different tastes of beer, in really good beers versus OK beers.”


Big Rock itself once competed in the big volume, generic beer market — remember its Jackrabbit and XO labels? But when Sartor took over at Big Rock, the former CEO of the Sport Chek retail group made a company commitment to innovative, creative craft beers, which, thanks to a price premium, can keep Big Rock in business.


So is the trend for real? In 10 years, will Edmonton be like Portland, Oregon, with 30 independent breweries and 70 brewpubs, where the average beer drinker regards mass-produced “cheap yellow fluid” with disdain?


“All I can tell you,” says Sartor, “is that the mega-breweries’ share of the Alberta beer market has stayed constant while craft beer sales continue to grow in double digit numbers.”


Rosmarinus Aromatic Ale is a classic craft beer. Something very different — an ale that uses rosemary as its differentiating flavour and aroma — yet somehow familiar, probably thanks to the coriander and citrus found in white wheat ales. Big Rock thinks the beer has the potential to be a classic summer sipper, with appeal to both men and women.


Social media has been the saviour of the craft, quality gang. Social media means smaller breweries can speak directly to their fans, let them know when a special craft beer is been brewed, where it’ll be available. Big Rock has a beer-locator section in its website, listing which pubs and liquor stores in Alberta are carrying which of its craft brands.


As in so many niche products, variety is the name of the game. The little specialty guys offer tastes and combinations that big food corporations don’t venture into because the market is too small.


I’d suggest it’s not an either/or but both.


Speciality “craft” foods and beverages cost a whole pile more than mass brands, so they are bought as treats alongside the usual weekly shopping cart from the nearest mega-grocery store. A case of Coors Light plus a six-pack of Big Rock as a special treat: Kraft cheddar from Superstore, plus a stop at the Italian Centre for Italian Asiago: Hamburger on sale by the kilogram, but then two rib eyes of grain-fed, organic beef as a special treat from a farmer’s market.


There’s no question that travel and multi-cultural influences have changed Alberta’s food and beverage expectations. But there’s only so much money in the family food budget.


Where in Greater Edmonton can you buy interesting, affordable quality alternatives? Send your suggestions to me via e-mail, or Facebook, and I’ll get a suggestion list going at www.hicksonbiz.com. The Sherbrooke Liquor Store, the Italian Centres, the Duchess, Dauphine and Tree Stone bakeries … there’re hundreds of speciality stores deserving exposure, especially when they’re reasonably priced!