The Road to Beertopia

By Peter Bailey.

In the autumn a young person’s fancy turns to thoughts of beer. Fresh-faced kids flood into the big city for school and they might just change the world. But, first, they need a beer.

They come from all over, stopping in at U of A, MacEwan or NAIT before heading out to academia’s main street: Whyte Ave. Back in my day, the mid-80’s Whyte Avenue wasn’t party central. There were stalwart dives like the Strath, the Commercial and the Park, plus restaurants like Yianni’s and the Keg. But bars like O’Byrne’s or The Black Dog didn’t arrive until the 1990s.

So we made our own fun, by God. I lived in a fraternity house just off campus which had a pop machine in the basement converted to accommodate stubbies, the ubiquitous little brown beer bottle of the era. We were a Carling O’Keefe house as they gave us a better deal than Molson or Labatt. For 75¢ you had your pick of ice-cold Old Vienna, Calgary Export or Black Label.

Back in those days our in-house future lawyers had a flexible interpretation of liquor laws. We held open parties where hundreds of folks would stop by to enjoy our company and my mix tapes — and, oh yes, the cheap beer. A certain star Edmonton Oiler was an occasional guest. Looking out at the crowd from behind the bar a future captain of industry or librarian would inevitably say, “If someone opened a place like this on Whyte Ave they’d make a fortune.”

Well, someone did open a place like that on Whyte Avenue, and if they haven’t made a fortune they are certainly doing okay. The first Hudson’s Canadian Tap House opened in Edmonton in 2003, expanded around town, then Calgary, Vancouver and soon across Canada. They took the frat party aesthetic, refined it and bottled it. With sports on screens, macro beer, Roots store/Banff condo décor and air so thick with testosterone you can cut it with a knife, Hudson’s is the quintessential Whyte Ave bar, perfect for the Canadian pastime of watching NFL football while drinking a Bud. And yet, Hudson’s is tinkering with success.

This year Hudson’s launched Beers Across Canada, a selection of 12 Canadian craft beers, including faves like Propeller IPA and St. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout. Matt Salucop, a Hudson’s marketing manager, told me it’s part of its bid to brand itself as Canada’s Pub, but also a response to customers. He noted that tastes in beer are changing, with young drinkers both having and demanding more beer options. Was Hudson’s converted to craft beer on the road to beertopia? No, but Beers Across Canada was Hudson’s most successful beverage promotion and they’re planning expansion.

Perhaps Hudson’s experiment signals that Whyte Avenue has turned a corner too. Certainly the weekends are still full of young folk barrelin’ down the boulevard, lookin’ for the heart of Saturday night, as Tom Waits sang. But five years after the Stanley Cup Final riot perhaps the Ave has mellowed. Places like Next Act Pub and Wunderbar have changed hands, now owned by craft beer fans looking to serve the discerning tastes of older folks and woo the changing tastes of the Hudson’s crowd. Whyte Ave is no beertopia yet, but maybe those fresh-faced kids have started us down the road.

A walk down Whyte Ave and the streets nearby gives you many delicious beer options. The beers below are also available at better beer stores like Sherbrooke Liquor, except Amber’s Zombie Apocalypse, available only on tap. there are pics of all beers

Paddock Wood 606 India Pale Ale, Saskatoon

Ask for this delightful IPA at Hudson’s Campus (11113 87 Avenue) or Hudson’s Whyte (10307 82 Avenue). Unlike hop bomb American IPAs from the Pacific Northwest, this is a mellower English-style IPA. Lots of hops are balanced with a solid malt background.

Alley Kat Red Dragon Double IPA, Edmonton

The new owners of Next Act Pub (8224 104 Street) are unabashed Alley Kat fans. One of their taps is reserved for Alley Kat’s current seasonal. For fall, Alley Kat heard the plaintive cries of local hop fans and brewed a monster double IPA that comes with a warning: this beer is intended for Hop Heads, 100+ IBU.

Amber’s Zombie Apocalypse Red Lager, Edmonton

The Wunderbar’s (8120 101 Street) motto warms the hearts of beer geeks: Life is too short for crappy beer. Their only-local beer taps include Apocalypse, born when people touring Amber’s tasted Sap Vampire Maple Lager before the maple was added. That beer was a Vienna red lager, rechristened as Zombie Apocalypse.

Hopworks IPA, Portland, Oregon

Slightly hidden just off Whyte, Accent Restaurant (8223 104 Street) has a civilized European feel. Their well-chosen beer menu includes a classic Pacific Northwest IPA, new to Alberta in 2011. At 75 IBU (bitterness) this beer is a hop bomb, but nicely tempered with three different malts.

Mill Street Lemon Tea Ale, Toronto

High Street stalwart Urban Diner opened a south side location (8715 109 Street) recently, with Yukon beers on tap. But try this unusual wheat beer infused with black tea leaves and lemon. A refreshing taste of the sunny summer we never had, easing us nicely into autumn.

Brooklyn East India Pale Ale, New York

The Sugar Bowl (10922 88 Avenue) has mainly Belgians on tap, but from time to time they’ll feature this yummy IPA from Brooklyn. This is an English-style IPA, similar to Paddock Wood, heavy on hops but fully balanced with mellow malt and 100% scrumptious.