Big Alberta Beer Bars

The beer scene in Alberta sure is changing. Aside from a few visionaries, like Wild Rose Brewing in Calgary and Alley Kat in Edmonton, who have been brewing for 20 years, the rise of craft beer in this province has been very slow. All of a sudden the last few years have witnessed an immense growth in beer bars, but not necessarily brewers, though that side of the industry is slowly growing too. In Alberta’s biggest cities there are now a number of establishments where the discerning beer hunter can whet his or her whistle.

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The Underground in downtown Edmonton boasts 72 taps, and the list is very good, with a number of beers from Dieu de Ciel (Quebec), Mikkeller (Denmark), Bad Attitude (Switzerland) and well as British and European specialties, plus some quality U.S. and Canadian product too. The place was on the tail side of a busy Thursday night, so room to slide into a booth and look at the menu. On offer are various flights as well, pick a selection in 5 oz. taster glasses and explore the menu. I started with a Hennepin (7.7%) from Ommegang (New York), a delicious golden and effervescent Saison-style that is not often see in the west, never mind on tap.  It is a bit tart and tangy, but dry and refreshing. I then thought I’d have one of my favourite Edmonton brews, a Full Moon Pale Ale (5%) from Alley Kat. How disappointed was I when I realized on first sip that this usually well balanced, hopped and coppery brew was off. How could this be? I thought it would be one of the freshest beers available, being the closest brewery to this craft beer lounge. But here’s the rub: how many taps can you have and still keep the beers fresh? There are many examples of large chain distributors in the U.S. like The Yardhouse for example. They often offer over a hundred taps, and are usually situated in very busy downtown club and restaurant zones, guaranteeing a high flow of traffic, and a quick turnover of beers. But this is a fairly new aspect of the industry in Canada, with a number of players vying for the hip fad of offering a staggering amount of craft beer. Of course, you’ve got to pack the drinkers in if you want to keep the kegs turning over and the beer as fresh as possible. This is all well and good, and it certainly can be an education to your average beer consumer, but it is not necessarily the place for a real, discerning beer geek. This would become even more evident when I visited The National in Calgary. But that said, the food and service at The Underground was quite good, the staff friendly, knowledgeable and they do have a lot of good beers.

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The National in Calgary is a place that I had heard about for a little while. Yet I had been unable  to get there, as each time I tried there were line ups out of the door and down the street to get in. Popular spot indeed. I lucked out on my last trip to Calgary and managed to snagg a couple of seats at the bar for my son and I on a steady, busy Thursday evening. Nick liked the Brooklyn Blast IPA (9%) a full bodied brew with deep hop presence, dark amber hues, good malty architecture and a drying finish. I enjoyed another Saison-style, this one from Charlevoix (Baie-Ste-Paul, Quebec) with a rocky, thick white head, spicy aromatics, light gold, long palate, smooth hop and a gentle but definite funkiness, all fading to a dry finish. The National‘s beer is listed on a high and long electronic board, the list rotating from what they have on to what is coming up, all very impressive. We then tried Tamarack Steep & Deep White IPA (6.8%) from Lakeside, Montana, a very wheaty and tutti-fruiti nose, tropical for sure, leading to a citric palate that spreads the love, hop understated somewhat, but balancing against the wheat malt, very quenching, long finish. Anderson Valley Heelch o’ Hops Imperial IPA (8.7%) is a pale gold number from Boonville, California. Huge floral hop aromatics, good deep bitterness on the palate, but smooth and hiding its strength in hints of tropical fruit, pine and pepper leading to a long dry finish. A local Calgary brewer The Village was present with their Blacksmith IPA (5.4%). Nick recommended this brew, it is a dark broIMG_1383wn colour, with a white but quickly disapating head, balance and light on the palate, a malt accented IPA really, easy to drink, subdued hops teasing the drinker for more. We next turned to the darker side still with Alley Kat’s Baltic Porter (8.3%), deep and dark, slightly sweet, with a big malt nose, a wonderfully balanced palate and a smooth long finish. Le Mousquetaires Baltic Porter from Quebec (10%) was our unintentional closer. It is a little sweeter than the Alley Kat, but is strong and black, deep and mysteriously complex, notes of chocolate, coffee, smoky malt, but with enough hidden hop to dry out the finish. We had enjoyed some deliciously spicy wings with all of this and great conversation with the very knowledgeable and friendly bartender. But then things changed. Burly bouncers came around and informed us they were taking away all of the bar stools. What? Why? “It’s what we do at 9:30 every night!” was the only explanation offered to my perplexed expression. Nick explained that this is when they switch over to ‘club’ mode, allowing throngs of people to flood in, hang out shoulder to shoulder on the open wood floor in front of the bar. And us? Well, it was stand or leave. The comfort of relaxing at the bar and talking about the great beers we had just tasted was gone. We floated next door to the iconic Ship and Anchor, a true, original Calgary beer bar if there ever was one, unpretentious and welcoming to a diverse crowd. We ended the night with what I still consider one of the best beers made in Calgary – Wild Rose IPA (6%), copper coloured, grassy nose, big hoppy palate, caramel and toasted malt notes, deep and quenching with a full body and a nice dry finish.