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Comparing Edmonton’s Craft Beer Bars

craftbeermarketOn my CBC column later this afternoon (Friday, January 10, 2014) – CBC Radio One (740 AM, 93.9 FM) at 4:45 – I will be looking at Edmonton’s rapidly expanding market for craft beer bars. These are larger pubs that actively anchor their business around beer, offering dozens of taps and centring their marketing around beer.

With the recent opening of Craft Beer Market (admittedly the motivation for the column), Edmonton now has, by my count, 4 craft beer bars: Beer Revolution, Craft Beer Market, MKT, and Underground. I know there a number of quality beer spots, many of whom have served us loyally for years, including Sugar Bowl, Next Act, Wunderbar Three Boars, etc. I don’t include them in this list because they are smaller, offer an atmosphere distinctly different from the four new entrants and tend to market themselves more wholistically. In contrast the four I identify resemble big U.S. craft beer locations.

A key thing to remember is that 18 months ago, Edmonton had ZERO craft beer bars (of the ilk I am examining). So it has been a rapid growth phase. With Craft’s entry I think it is time to pause and take stock at where we are.

I am not going to score the bars. Nor am I going to rank, order or indicate preference. That is not my job. Instead, I was motivated to do a little number crunching. I analyzed each pub’s tap list and categorized every beer they list. I have put the results in a table which you will find after the jump.

underground logoAfter the table I offer some definitions for the categories I created. The table offers what the bars had on offer on January 8, 2014. I include rotational taps in the calculations, recognizing that by their nature they shift and move. So consider this a snapshot of what the four places have to offer, beer-wise. Including rotationals was a way to both level the playing field for Beer Revolution (who has mostly rotational taps) and to recognize that rotationals are a way to extend the diversity of beer on offer.

The table suggests very clearly that the four places have adopted very different approaches to beer. Which, if we look at it from a consumer perspective is a good thing. Collectively they can fit various palates and tastes.

Here is the table, and after I provide some basic analysis, although I mostly present it to allow consumers to make their own judgments:

 

Beer Revolution

Craft Beer Market

MKT

Underground Tap and Grill

Standing Taps

3 (house beer)

94 (2 house beer)

54

50

Rotational Taps

21

10

6

22

 
Lagers

5

29

23

13

Ales

19

75

37

59

 
Macro Beer (Can./U.S.)

0

6

12

0

Macro-owned Craft (Can.)

0

7

11

2

Macro-owned Imports

1

9

9

3

 
Alberta Brewers

3 + 3 House

18 + 2 House

4

8

Canadian Craft

7

20

3

21

U.S. Craft

4

16

3

16

Independent Imports

6

26

18

22

 
Pale Lagers

4

18

16

7

IPAs

3

11

2

10

Porters/Stouts

2

5

4

10

Weizens/Wits

1

9

7

4

Belgian (Abbey, Saison, Lambic)

1

8

6

6

Definitions:

Macro Beer: Beer produced by the large multinational corporations on the continent of North America (e.g., Budweiser, Kokanee).

Macro-owned Craft: Beer produced by breweries anchored in a craft tradition currently owned by one of the large multinationals (e.g., Creemore Springs, Unibroue).
Macro-owned Imports: Beer produced outside North America owned by large multinational corporations (e.g., Guinness, Stella Artois).
Alberta Brewers: Beer produced in the province of Alberta.
Canadian Craft: Beer produced in Canada by breweries committed to craft beer principles (broadly defined).
U.S. Craft: U.S. produced craft beer.
Independent Imports: Beer produced outside North America by breweries not connected to the large multinational corporations.

All other definitions should be self-evident. I take responsibility for any classification errors or incorrect judgment calls (although I don’t apologize – you try doing this…).

Analysis

mktlogoThe first warning is to recognize that I have presented raw totals, which biases toward the places with more numerous taps. I refrained from adding percentages to prevent table clutter, but will try to offer a bit of that below.

The first thing I notice is that each place clearly has different priorities. Beer Revolution and Underground have way fewer macro beer, emphasizing Canadian craft more. Craft has the most Alberta beer – almost 20% of their taps compared to just over 10% for Underground and Beer Revolution (if you discount the house beer which are made by its sister company Brewsters) and just over 5% for MKT. MKT leans more toward imports, while Craft has a surprisingly balanced menu of imports, macro, Albertan and Canadian/US craft.

MKT and Craft offer up the highest proportion of lagers and Underground is the most ale heavy. MKT and Craft also offer a high percentage (27% and 18% respectively) of pale lagers – some craft, some not. Those two bars also have a higher number of weizens and wits, often considered more accessible options due to their light body.beer revolution logo

Craft and Underground offer high numbers of IPAs, generally a less accessible style, and Underground also loads up on porters and stouts (in part explained by a high number on their rotational list given the season). It also seems having more taps seems to allow for a larger number of Belgian-inspired beer.

I think I will stop there. You can analyze the numbers how ever you please. My main conclusion is that Edmonton has four very different places to go for beer, according to the tap lists. I also think that is true for the atmosphere and food, as well. They each offer a different dining/drinking experience. MKT is younger, Craft more upscale, Revolution more casual and Underground more conducive to conversation. Each place seems to be carving out its own space in what has quickly become a very crowded segment of the market.

I am curious to hear readers’ opinions on the four locations.

17 comments to Comparing Edmonton’s Craft Beer Bars

  • Brady

    Hey Jason – nice analysis, I like the number-crunching approach, followed up by the qualitative summary. Myself, after experiencing 3 of these establishments in Calgary before they arrived here (I consider MKT and Craft to be the same thing, even though I know they have different ownership – that’s the problem), I’ve come to the conclusion, based on my attendance record of late, that Beer Revolution and the Underground can, and will, split my going-out beer money neatly down the middle, full stop.

  • Kurt

    I just don’t understand why these places bother with the macro stuff. Underground and Beer Revolution FTW. MKT is a huge fail and CRAFT just seems like they are trying to hard. In truth though I’d rather spend my beer budget at Keg n Cork…

  • squared

    My hard earned money will mostly go to underground, followed by a tie between beer Rev. and craft. I’ve had some of the WORST service at MKT I’ve ever experienced and thats saying a lot because I’m among the most patient people you’ll ever meet.

  • Brendan

    Moved here from Victoria in the fall and the only one I’ve tried so far has been Beer Revolution. Didn’t like it at all. The servers seemed to lack any knowledge of their beers and there were huge flat screens everywhere. Not exactly the kind of atmosphere I find conducive to good conversation over a good pint.

    I’m skeptical of places that have 60 – 100 taps. With so many choices, how quick is the turnover? I’m sure the most popular ones move fairly quickly but I’ll bet some of the kegs of more unusual, pricier beers end up sitting around a long time and going stale…

    When I feel like drinking beer somewhere other than home I generally head to the Sugarbowl. 15 standing taps, 15 rotating weekly and tonnes of well selected bottles. Three Boars is also great. I much prefer the feel of a cozy, indie place over somewhere that feels more like a sports bar and is owned by a corporate hospitality group.

    That said, I’m sure I’ll try them all eventually.

  • Ernie

    Have to agree with Brendan that looking at beer selection and staff knowledge, as well as other factors such as price, food quality, and atmosphere, Sugarbowl comes out on top of all of these places.

  • Mark

    I havent been to Edmonton in years, but regardless, i always prefer a smaller place with a smaller selection of well thought out taps. The big craft bars i have been to in Canada typically have a fair bit of boring to middling choices, and high prices. The big craft bars in the US also have high prices, and then the selection is typically overwhelming (there is often 10 or more world class beers i want to try, plus interesting locals and one offs/seasonals). I also have the same concerns about turnover, though i recently heard or was told that the slowest moving tap at Craft still turns over every 2 weeks, though i dont know how true that is.

  • Ernie

    Question: Craft lists Alexander Keith’s as an IPA in their menu. Did you count what they called IPAs in the table, or actual IPAs?

    • beerguy

      Ernie, I classified it where it belongs, as a Macro Pale Lager. Good question, though. When slotting into styles, I put beer in the category that they are, rather than their label. I was gentle around interpretations – a timid or modest example but still within style was okay – but anything way out of line was moved to the appropriate place.

  • beerguy

    As a general reply to all the comments, which I appreciate immensely, I want to acknowledge that my analysis is limited in its scope. It solely looked at tap menus. It ignored a number of important aspects, including but not limited to bottle menu, staff knowledge, quality of service, pouring and serving ability, and integrity of branding/advertising/etc. For me the knowledge base of the staff is particularly important.

    I felt it was too ambitious to try to create a matrix that included all of those factors. The Edmonton Beer Geeks Anonymous – http://www.edmontonbeergeeksanonymous.ca/ – made an attempt a while back at a more comprehensive rating. One day, time and energy permitting, I may try to develop a more comprehensive measurement of craft beer locations, one that includes the smaller, independent places many of you have expressed a preference for. I get that, and in many ways agree. I was simply trying to examine this new form of beer bar. I hope it has been helpful.

  • mark

    Really appreciate you doing this sort of analysis Jason. I dumped your chart into a spreadsheet and did a couple other quick calcs for my own interest:

    % of Alberta Craft Beer
    Revolution – 25% (I included their house beers)
    Craft – 19%
    MKT – 7%
    Underground – 11%

    % of North American Craft Beer
    Beer Revolution – 71%
    Craft – 61%
    MKT – 35%
    Underground – 65%

    % of IPA
    Revolution – 13%
    Craft – 11%
    MKT – 3%
    Underground – 14%

    Again, never been to these places before, but I certainly know where I want to go next time I am in town. Craft beer is all about fresh and local, the North American craft beer scene is by far the most interesting*, and IPA is king whether folks like it or not.

    *yes, there are other interesting beer scenes around the world, but again, it comes down to fresh and local… many imports greatly suffer from shipping.

  • I am in agreement with the above posters who say that they prefer Underground and Beer Revolution, (for me mainly because of the larger number of rotating taps). I also am a big fan of Beer Revolution’s embrace of the half-sized beer. I like to try as many things as possible, and drinking it by the pint is not the safest way to do so when you are driving home. I don’t drink less than I would if I was drinking pints, but I drink twice as many beers. That is the same reason I don’t mind 16 oz pints as a serving size. Kudos to Underground for serving 20 oz pints, and I will always give them the beer-nerd cred they deserve for that, but an 8 oz serving just makes more sense to me. Add to that the great happy hour at Beer Revolution and the fantastic Wednesday night specials at the Underground, and I don’t have much reason to look further.

    Having said that, Craft and MKT have a place. By not being as directed towards a pure beer nerd audience, they can create an atmosphere that is less intimidating for a person who might be put off by what they perceive as snobbery or by the sheer obscurity of the beers on the menu at a more craft-oriented bar. Having macros on tap means that there is a comfortable fall back for a more conservative beer drinker. Many times I have been at MKT with unreconstructed Stella and Coors Light drinkers and I have been able to get them to try out more adventurous offerings. Just as there are gateway beers, there are now, in Edmonton, gateway beer bars.

    • Ernie

      I don’t think they advertise it widely, but Underground will do custom sampler trays for you, giving you 4 beers at 4 oz. each, so if you want to try a bunch of beers without needing a designated driver, it’s tough to beat that.

      While I like that Beer Revolution offers the 8 oz option, close to half of the time that I order an 8 oz, they still bring me larger size. It’s happened more times than I can count and with different waitresses, which seems to be a very annoying practice of theirs to “accidentally” up-sell.

  • Hierlihy

    I am partial to IPAs and Belgian style brews, and I’ve had the pleasure of having pints at all of these places. Underground is my favourite place by far. I’ve been loving their rotating tap takeovers and can’t wait until Rogue gets it’s turn in February.

    MKT should allocate more space for rotating taps!

  • […] Foster has an interesting comparison of the four beer markets in Edmonton, and what he sees as their distinct […]

  • jon

    Craft Beer Market – obviously great selection. Downside? Thought it was too big, too commercial, but hey, that brings in more money. I like to see smaller places. I also had one of their Brewdog beers which was clearly off (trust me, I lived in Glasgow for the past year and drank this beer on a weekly basis). Point being, having too many beers can potentially be a downfall – i’m not sure the staff will know how the beer should taste, and if it’s not bought, might go off. Beer Revolution – actually preferred the atmosphere, but had terrible service from a woman who didn’t even drink. I respect people who don’t drink, however, I think a server at a craft beer bar should be able to comment on their product…kind of an essential part of sales..and experience.

  • Hey we have a Craft Beer market in Vancouver, I agree with Jon, too big, too commercial, the only thing that save we had a good looking female bartender that knew her product, and she amitted that she didn’t know all of it. I not going back, beside there are many craft beer places in Vancouver, our Beer Revolution is going full speed ahead.

  • Norman Mackenzie

    Just arrived in Edmonton for a couple of days. Thanks for all this useful info!

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