Sunday, July 17, 2011

Cambie Malone Group Gets Crafty

Last week, as a part of my dogged, never-ending research in the field of craft beer, I came across an opportunity at one of Vancouver's craft-beer focused establishments, to taste BrewDog's Tokyo Imperial Stout, an 18.2 ABV bomb of a beer, not for the faint of heart.
It takes a lot to surprise this jaded, grizzled, old dog these days, but I was gob-smacked by this experience and the shock was more associated with where I found this beer than with the beer itself.

If you are paying any sort of attention, you will already have figured out by the title of this post I was not at the Alibi Room, or St Augustine's or any of the other handful of "traditional" craft-beer focused establishments you'd expect to find such a delicacy. No, I was in Malone's Bar & Grill, located at the corner of Seymour and W Pender, a place that will soon be one of "the" go-to stops for local and visiting craft beer lovers in this city.

When pigs fly indeed!!

I had been hearing rumours that Malone's, recently renamed Malone's Urban Drinkery, had undergone some changes but I was not prepared for the extent of those changes when I walked in the door to meet the Cambie Malone Group's new Director of Operations & Services, Rachaal Steele. I was skeptical heading into my meeting, but I have to tell you, I was more than pleasantly surprised by what I found at Malone's and very impressed with Steele and her staff who can be described as very craft-beercentric and enthusiastic about the changes Malone`s is undergoing.

Steele, who landed her current position after answering an ad for the position on Craig's List, is an American who brings a wealth of experience and knowledge with her to Malone's having worked in the craft beer industry for various breweries, pubs and restaurants in California and the US Pacific Northwest. Steele arrived in Vancouver March 20, this year and began changing the face of Malone's the following day.

Malone's currently has 24 taps on offer, 20 of those of the craft variety from both BC and the US. Those four remaining taps of mainstream, macrobrews will soon be replaced by more craft taps in the next few weeks. Steele stated she gave the big breweries Malone's had traditionally done business with a bit of a reprieve, keeping them on for a few extra months in a limited capacity.

"It's the least I could do since we were breaking up with them," joked Steele.

For those who don't know Malone's, it was known more of a sports-oriented, establishment which served mainstream, marcobeers to a burger & chicken-wings-eating, twentyandthirtysomething crowd. It was a place no self-respecting beer aficionado would ever be caught dead, but this has quickly changed in the past few months. As I sat and chatted with Steele over a few jars, I noticed a few familiar faces from the local craft beer community seated around Malone's enjoying the great beers on offer.

Steele was expecting a backlash when Malone's made the changes but says the transition has been smooth and most of the regulars have embraced the craft beer. She states that beer sales, in dollars, are up 13%, some of which can be explained by the fact that craft beers are slightly more expensive, but Steele says she has noticed more people coming in and more beer being sold.

As an added bonus to the craft beer selection in Malone's, they have a lounge next door, which can be accessed off Seymour St, under the Syemour Cambie Hostel sign, or from inside Malone's by mounting a few stairs at the south end of the establishment and crossing a hallway. Called the Second Door, this small intimate room, which has a few tables and a few couches to lounge in, features 12 taps and over 100 bottles of craft beer. Steele says this is where you will find the "real beer nerd beers" such as the BrewDog Tokyo Imperial Stout I shared with Steele and a few others. There are plans to install a beer engine in the Second Door lounge so that cask beer will be on tap permanently.

Probably even more improbable than Malone's joining the ranks of craft beer only establishments is the fact that Steele and the Cambie Malone Group are also converting the infamous Cambie Hotel to a craft beer venue. You won't find Brew Dog or any fancy Belgian lambics there but if Steele has her way, the long-established hangout for the Gen X, grunge-loving lager drinkers and world travellers staying in the attached hostel, looking for a cheap pint of whatever, will be craft-beer focused with a more local-BC flavour. The conversion has already began, with all the Granville Island taps being replaced with Russell Brewing Co beers. The existing tap lines have undergone an ``aggressive tap cleaning`` and new lines are being put into place with the hopes of having local BC favourites like Red Racer, Howe Sound and Phillips on tap, although Steele does admit nothing has been confirmed.

I see this as the beginning of the next big wave of changes to our beer-drinking landscape here in Vancouver. It has already started with groups like the Donnelly Group featuring craft beer in some of their establishments where craft beer has not been traditionally offered. Now with places like Malone`s and The Cambie getting all crafty, if the moves works out for them, it won`t be long until other establishments start to see the dollar signs and follow suit. I`m not suggesting that every bar and restaurant in the city will be serving craft beer, but I think, in the next few years, you will see craft brews on offer at many more pubs and restaurants.

I personally don`t care how the craft beer gets into more places or what motivates owners and managers to serve it as long as it is available and served properly. With knowledgeable people like Steele in charge, proper handling of the beer is not going to be an issue, but for others who are not up to speed in regards to craft beer styles, proper handling, etc, there may need to be some education supplied to those pouring and serving our beers. There is no use in ordering a great IPA if it is served over-carbonated in an ice-cold, frosted glass! This is where groups like CAMRA can become valuable, supplying this education and helping bars and restaurants handle and serve their beer properly and with some knowledge as to what exactly they are serving.

As consumers, this expansion of the craft beer market is great news. As more places feature craft beer, our choices of where to go to enjoy a pint obviously grows. And as craft beer is offered in places that traditionally have served mainstream beers, more people will be exposed to craft beer and will drink it on a regular basis. If you pour it, they will come! This is turn helps the local breweries grow and prosper and hopefully more craft breweries will open as the market grows and is able to support them. We still have along way to go, but with places like Malone`s and The Cambie serving up craft beers, the Vancouver craft beer scene is definitely heading in the right direction.

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