Three years ago in Vancouver, David Helm saw the future pour out in colours red, gold and chocolate. It was the rise of craft beer bars, and it was beautiful.
Now the 25-year-old manages the Underground Tap and Grill, a 160-seat, 72-tap bar opening this month, five months after the 60-tap, 300-seat MKT Fresh Food Beer Market. But when Helm first tried to spread his gospel, he was met with doubt. He says, “A lot of people were telling me it would never work in Edmonton because we’re an oil and gas town and people are really set in their ways.” Meaning, you can’t pry the Molson out of their hands.
The naysayers had a point. Even Jim Gibbon, majority owner of Amber’s Brewing Company, one of three local breweries, admits to selling more beer in Calgary than at home. Cowtown has been ahead of the game when it comes to microbreweries, brewpubs and craft beer bars.
Though places like Wunderbar have offered abundant craft bottles for some years and Sherbrooke Liquor Store just added its 1,000th label, Edmonton bars couldn’t hold a pint to Calgary’s fancy watering holes with dizzying selections, including the 100-plus-tap Craft Beer Market as well as Beer Revolution (the Brewsters-owned bar that highlights coming and going microbrews like an airport departure board). But now, they, too, are feeling out the Edmonton market. (Update: CRAFT Beer Market announced it will be opening in spring 2013 inside the old Hy's Steakhouse spot on Rice Howard Way.)
MKT’s resident beer expert, Lindsay Pennock, welcomes the competition: “It just helps to further educate more people about beer and how you can make an experience around it.”
But with 120 draft and bottle labels that never overlap, the experience could be overwhelming. So, for the most stubborn, a third of its inventory is what you’d probably call “pedestrian,” like Bud Light, and for the curious neophyte, they include tasting notes in the menu. (So, if “slightly sweet, hint of toast” with a crisp finish sounds appealing, it’s Löwenbräu that you want.) MKT also plans to put its 90 front-of-house employees through a level-one beer sommelier course.
Helm, who refuses to carry anything more mainstream than Stella Artois, has opted to assign employees homework — reading his self-authored “Beer 101.”
He says, “The only way this place is going to work is with an educated staff.”