Sweet, beery memories. With my head on my pillow I look out my bedroom window, through a gap in the trees, and see the old rotating M sign atop the former Molson Brewery in Oliver.
When I moved back to Edmonton in 2001 the Molson brewery was still a going concern. If the breeze was right I could smell the sweet, malty aroma of brewing at my house five blocks away in Westmount. Add in Edmonton’s only brewpub at the time, Brewster’s, in Oliver plus Original Joe’s on High Street, which carried Edmonton’s Alley Kat beer on tap. A few years later Sherbrooke Liquor Store began its growth towards being one of Canada’s best beer stores. I really picked the right neighbourhood for a beer nerd. Even better, just down the street lived Jim Whittome, a fellow beer enthusiast, homebrewer, certified beer judge and soon enough a great friend.
A member of the Edmonton Homebrewers Guild, Jim hauled me out to one of the Guild’s meetings at Alley Kat Brewing. I chatted with hotshot homebrewers, sampled some great beers and met Alley Kat owner Neil Herbst. For a beer geek like me, Neil was a rock star – the man behind Alley Kat’s world-class Full Moon Pale Ale and the flag bearer for craft brewing in Edmonton. What I admire particularly about Neil is his idea that craft beer is a community. It’s a very Edmonton idea, cooperating and collaborating as a way to success. A rising tide of craft beer raises all boats.
With the leadership of Neil and the enthusiasm of so many others, great places to drink Alberta craft beer, supportive media and excellent beer stores, most of the elements to make Edmonton a great craft beer town are in place. The missing piece has been successful Edmonton craft breweries. We’ve seen local breweries like Flanagan & Sons, Amber’s, Maverick and Hog’s Head come and go. We’ve watched the beer scenes in Victoria, Vancouver and Toronto explode. Toronto! Come ON. Even worse – Calgary. As of this writing I count 18 breweries in Calgary, plus another six nearby. For Edmonton I count six breweries, including Labatt’s, plus one in Fort Saskatchewan.
But – dare I say it? – I think Edmonton brewing has turned the corner. And there’s no turning back. Stalwarts like Alley Kat, Brewsters and Yellowhead have been reinvigorated. The newbies like Two Sergeants, Bent Stick and Situation have strong visions on what role they can fill. I’m particularly impressed with Wayne Sheridan’s Situation Brewing – a welcoming and stylish brewpub serving good, locally-focussed food and making really good beer. And the five or six coming soon breweries look promising, led by the high profile Blind Enthusiasm Brewing. Greg Zeschuk has assembled a strong team for Blind Enthusiasm, with brewing underway as of April.
Another hope for the future is the fate of the old Molson brewery. Molson closed the historic Oliver brewery in 2007 and it sat abandoned over the last ten years, leaving many to expect it to suffer the fate of most old buildings in Edmonton: demolition. But this is a special building, emblematic of Edmonton’s brewing and commercial history. According to historian Lawrence Herzog, the brewery was opened in 1913 by the Edmonton Brewing and Malting Company, which brewed Yellowhead Beer, Edmonton Family Lager and Imperial Stout there until Prohibition hit from 1916-1924. Sick’s Breweries, makers of Old Style Pilsner, bought the brewery in 1927 and operated it until 1958 when Molson took over. Molson added the giant “M” sign in 1960. Most importantly, in 1988 it was where Peter Pocklington announced he had traded Wayne Gretzky to the LA Kings.
Today Gretzky is back in town, the Oilers are on the upswing, Edmonton craft beer is surging and the old brewery is safe from the wrecking ball. Part of the commercial Brewery District development, with $4.1 million in assistance from the City of Edmonton, the old brewery is being completely refurbished. And plans call for a craft brewery for the restored building. Wouldn’t that be nice, a brewery in the Brewery District?
Think globally, drink locally. You can find these Edmonton beers at the breweries or brewpubs themselves or at better beer bars and stores around town. #yegbeer
|Alley Kat Sunburst Session Ale, Edmonton
Alley Kat’s summer seasonal is a hopfen zwickelbier, which Google translates from the German as a hop grudge beer. Thanks Google, but there’s no grudge here. Sunburst is simply a zwickelbier or kellerbier – light, unfiltered ale – here heavily hopped with Citra hops, which lends a juicy, fruity taste. A nice throwback to former Alley Kat Germanic beers like Weihnachtskatze and Ein Prosit!
|Brewsters Oilberta Stout, Edmonton
Opened in 1995, Brewsters in Oliver Square was Edmonton’s only brewpub for years. Most beer for the Brewsters empire is now brewed in Calgary, but Brewster’s Oliver under brewmaster Gunther Trageser continues to brew seasonal and specials on-site. Oilberta is a dark, roasty American stout with chocolate and coffee notes. Pair with an Oilers game on TV.
|Yellowhead Premium Lager, Edmonton
Yellowhead takes its name from the first commercially brewed beer in Edmonton, made by the Edmonton Brewing & Malting Company on the Rossdale Flats and later in the Oliver brewery built in 1913. Today Yellowhead brews from a renovated heritage building in downtown Edmonton, including their flagship Premium Lager, a mellow, malty lager in the Dortmunder style.
Bent Stick Swap the Hops Pale Ale, Edmonton
Scott, Kurtis, Patrick and Ben, the owners of Bent Stick are the brash young turks of the Edmonton beer scene, brewing with a rock and roll attitude. The former Alley Kat employees are committed to quality over quantity, brewing only 400 hectolitres a year. Each batch of their pale ale swaps the hops, switching in new hops to the base brew. Current batch uses Amarillo and Cascade hops.
|Situation Brewing Page Turner IPA, Edmonton
Situation’s brewpub is something Old Strathcona has needed for so many years. It has changed the dynamic of the area in a positive way. Also welcome is their flagship beer, a big, fruity, hoppy (80 IBUs) American IPA full of Mosaic and Citra hops.
|Elbeck KGB, Edmonton
Bruce Sample is the utility player of Edmonton brewing, brewing for Alley Kat, Hog’s Head and Yellowhead. Now he’s set out on his own as a gypsy brewer, brewing his Elbeck beers at Two Sergeants in Fort Saskatchewan. KGB stands for Kevin, Glenn and Bruce, the three Edmonton Homebrewers Guild members who came up with the recipe for this fabulous imperial Russian stout.
Peter Bailey can’t see Russia from his house but he can see the old Molson brewery. He’s on Twitter and Instagram as @Libarbarian.