Mar. 30, 2011 - Issue #806 : Insidious
Changes on Whyte
Can beer geeks return civility to notorious party zone?
However, in the past year or so, I have discovered some sparks of hope, some beacons of beer-y light. Whyte Avenue may be changing again, this time for the better. Three different places have opened or revamped and, importantly, committed themselves to good beer and a space for the rest of us.
The Next Act on 104 Street is a Whyte Avenue mainstay but it had seen better days and was clearly losing its coolness factor, until mid-2010 when a trio of young upstarts bought it and realized it needed a makeover. They completely redid the interior, but more importantly revamped its beer philosophy. Co-owner Mike Rebalkin says the goal was to become a "community institution" and they were going to do it through reasonable prices, a friendly atmosphere and a great selection of beer. Local is a big part of what they are doing. "We support local beer," says Rebalkin. "During our testing we fell in love with Alley Kat," and they realized their customers wanted good local beer on tap.
To that end, the Next Act has a number of local beers available and has become the location for Edmonton's second monthly cask ale event. My suspicion is that the place is still evolving and, over the next year or two, we will continue to see great beer developments.
What may quickly become my favourite Whyte Avenue location is Wunderbar. This small bar east of the tracks has historically been a bit dodgy for beer-geek guys like me. A few months ago, however, it was bought out by three guys with a determination to do something different with the space. The trio of owners—Craig, Levi and Chris—is doing this without tons of capital, corporate backing or even staff. They are the bartenders, managers and janitors. More importantly, they are lovers of good beer. Their tap offerings have become exclusively local—the only bar in town to do so. They have Alley Kat, Amber's and Yellowhead offerings on tap. The farthest import is Calmar's Roughneck Brewing. The beer fridge has 75 quality craft brews from around the world. It is an eclectic mix that has something for everyone.
The outside is still rather intimidating and the inside reflective of its goth/punk origins—plus the place is still mostly known as a music venue—but the new owners are trying hard to shift perceptions of the bar. What I say to beer aficionados in town is give it a try, preferably early in the evening when it's quiet. I guarantee you will be able to engage the owner/bartender on duty in a conversation about beer.
The third place on Whyte is more of an enigma. The Pour House quietly opened a few months ago in the old Bagel Tree location—if you're old enough to remember that institution—on Whyte between 103 and 104 Street. It calls itself a "bier bistro" and is clearly aiming for a gastro-pub feel. The décor is elegant with lots of wood, soft light and an impressive brick accent wall. The tap selection is disappointing, only offering the standard big boys. The bottled beer menu, however, saves them. It has 43 beers listed, categorized by colour and strength. None are earth-shattering but there is an impressive highlight reel, including Anchor Steam, Czechvar, Cannery Blackberry Porter, Tree Hophead, Blanche de Chambly and Dieu Du Ciel Hibiscus. There is also decent local representation, with Yellowhead Lager, Amber's Mountain Pepper Berry and Alley Kat Aprikat.
The Pour House prices may be higher than other places, but it offers an elegance you'd be hard pressed to find elsewhere on the Avenue. The beer menu is undoubtedly imperfect at this point, but you have to give points for trying. My hope is that over time they tweak the bottle list and re-work the tap lines in order to offer a more complete craft beer line-up.
All three locations are part of what I think is a growing interest in good craft beer in town. I am very encouraged by their appearance. If the trendiest strip in Edmonton is moving toward good beer, can the rest of the city be far behind? V
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