Jul. 04, 2012 - Issue #872: The Beer Issue
How does Edmonton stack up as a beer town?
What would it take for Edmonton to rate a mention in such an illustrious list? More broadly, what are the elements of a good beer town? There are a few dimensions. Allow me to walk through them and offer some thoughts on where Edmonton sits on the scale, and what it needs to do to advance on it.
I would argue there are five dimensions to being a quality beer city. The first is being home to a number of quality craft breweries. All good beer places have a sizeable roster of local beer. Take Vancouver, for example, who has 12 craft breweries (not including Granville) in the lower mainland metropolitan area. Local breweries are a good signal that craft beer is accepted and that people are willing to seek out good beer.
On this score, Edmonton is doing so-so. We have three established breweries – Alley Kat, Amber's and Yellowhead – each of whom has established a solid niche in town. But we could use with at least two or three more to fill out the roster.
For that to happen, we need to make gains on the second dimension. In good beer towns it is easy to find locally-produced beer in pubs and restaurants. Pub owners realize the need to offer their customers something made in their backyard, because consumers are demanding it. In Portland you can't walk into a bar without finding at least one or two local beer on tap. In that city, local craft beer is the default; you give yourself away as an outsider if you order a macro-beer. In Portland craft beer captures 30 percent of the beer market – one in three beer sold. As a comparison, in Alberta, less than three percent of beer sales are craft.
On this measure Edmonton lags behind badly. Most bars are loyally tied to Molson and Labatt and you are lucky to even find a Big Rock or two. A long way to go here, beer fans.
The third dimension is a variety of beer-specialized pubs/restaurants. Good beer cities have a handful of places where beer reigns supreme. Montréal has Vices et Versa, which has 36 Quebec beer on tap and a commitment to beer culture. Vancouver has the Alibi Room and Toronto Bar Volo. And then there is Brussels, which has beer cafés that list hundreds of amazing beer to offer and make a religion out of serving them properly.
Up until recently, Edmonton didn't rate on this measure, but things are getting better. For the last few years, the Sugar Bowl, with 18 craft taps and hundreds on the beer menu was the closest thing we had to a Belgian beer café. We also have a number of pubs trying to make beer a key element of their image, including Next Act, Wunderbar, Accent, Ale Yard, Pour House, and Local Pub, but they have not yet made the jump to being "beer destinations". However, in coming months we have, and will see, a couple of new pubs open up that are endeavouring to put beer first. The most impressive might be the looming launch of Underground (Jasper and 100 Street) which plans to have 72 taps, mostly craft, and a solid commitment to making the place a beer fan go-to. Time will tell whether they succeed, but it is clearly a step up for Edmonton.
There is also confirmed talk that two Calgary beer destinations—Craft Beer Market, which has over 100 taps, and Beer Revolution, who have the most innovative model with only rotating taps (after one keg that beer is replaced by a different one)—will soon be opening Edmonton locations. Things are about to get a lot better on the beer location scene.
Strong beer cities also have a selection of brewpubs on offer. Brewpubs only brew beer for on-site sale and they are a fantastic way to get fresh, original beer not available anywhere else. In a way, brewpubs are the epitome of local beer. Dieu Du Ciel, now a nationally distributed brewer, started as a brewpub and the pub continues to be an anchor for Montréal's beer scene. Denver, a city smaller than Edmonton, boasts eight different brewpubs.
Here in Edmonton we have a few locations of the Brewster's chain. Brewster's makes some good beer, but having only them seems inadequate to me. I can't understand why we don't have competitors for it. Edmonton should have at least three or four different brewpubs pushing each other to make better beer. This is one area where Edmonton fails miserably.
The final piece of the good beer town puzzle are beer events. Beer cities have a variety of beer-themed events to attend, some large, some small. Victoria has a huge annual beer festival, called the Great Canadian Beer Festival. Montréal has Mondial de la Biere. Denver hosts one of the largest beer festivals on the planet. Common among them is the throngs of people devoted to sampling original, creative beer, as opposed to getting smashed as quickly as possible. Beer cities also have beer-themed dinners, cask nights, beer tastings and beer workshops. Beer becomes a part of the social life as much as theatre, wine or music.
Edmonton has some of this going on, but we have further to go. We do have a handful of cask nights (when a single keg of beer processed in a traditional fashion is tapped and served until it is gone, usually within an hour), and the occasional restaurant offers beer dinners (Continental Treat deserves a particular mention for their monthly beer dinners). But at the moment it still feels sporadic and rare, rather than a regular feature of our nightlife. Plus we need a real beer festival, one where beer fans, rather than frat boys, can feel comfortable to sample beer from around the province and around the world.
So, where does Edmonton fit? To be honest, at the moment we are a second tier beer city, but we have potential. The last couple of years have seen rapid progress on most of the five dimensions. I am hopeful that in a decade or so other people will speak of Edmonton they way the speak today of Vancouver, Montréal or Denver. It may or may not happen, but I can dream, can't I? V vueweekly.com comments: powered by Disqus
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