Alley Kat Brewing Company toasts 20 years in business

After a slow start in the early years, Edmonton's Alley Kat Brewing Company adding more fermentation tanks and space to keep up with growing demand.

Not so micro any more: Craft beer brewer churns out 4M bottles a year

Not so micro any more - this Edmonton craft beer brewer churns out 4M bottles a year! Watch this video as they toast 20 years in the beer business. 4:43

Neil Herbst, 57, laughs as he reminisces about starting his business.

"It's been quite a ride."

The co-founder and co-owner of the Alley Kat Brewing Company recalls 20 years ago, when he was a mere beer enthusiast with a germ of an idea to open a microbrewery in Edmonton.

"We have a great idea," Herbst remembers thinking. "'The world will buy into it!'

Co-founders of Alley Kat Brewing Company, Neil Herbst and Richard Cholon. (Alley Kat Brewing Company)

"And after the first year the world isn't buying into it and it's a little bit more difficult than you expected."

Herbst says for the first three years, he and former partner Richard Cholon failed to make any money.
A variety of Alley Kat suds on tap and in the bottle. (Adrienne Lamb)

"When we first started off, being local was seen as kind of a black mark.

"People would say, 'How could you possibly brew beer in Edmonton?'" he says, despite national chains like Molson and Labatt operating in the city for decades. 

"They were very suspicious of small breweries."

Fast forward 20 years and "now people embrace local," says Herbst looking around at his 20 staff bustling around the 10,000 square-foot brewery and retail space off 99th Street at 60th Avenue.

Herbst remembers hand filling bottles.

"Now we have an actual filler that does it for us."

Last year the brewery churned out four million of those bottles, all sporting labels like Pumpkin Pie Spiced Ale, Three Bears Oatmeal Stout and something called Main Squeeze, a grapefruit wheat ale.

Alley Kat is also a member of the newly-minted Alberta Small Brewers Association.

Executive director Greg Zeschuk says they have 15 members so far and growing. "I know four or five other breweries opening, so some pretty exciting things going on here.

"Obviously across North America the craft beer scene has totally changed, so we want to make sure Alberta is right up there with the best of the world."

Khalil Akhtar has been charting that change. The CBC food columnist says "even though big beer companies still have the lion's share of sales, craft beer sales are growing, accounting for roughly six per cent of the market, although it's as high as 20 per cent in British Columbia."

For Herbst and the Alley Kat Brewing Company that growth means they're adding more fermentation tanks and another 4,000 square feet this year.

"We need to keep up with our drinkers."

To see more from behind the scenes at Alley Kat Brewing Company watch this week's edition of Our Edmonton. 

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