Friday, October 5, 2012

Tippler's Trilemma

An enormous new liquor store opened up close to where I work about a week ago, and after about a dozen people from work asked me if I had gone yet, I thought I had better check it out; apparently my reputation precedes me. At any rate, I previously only had to choose between two stores for my alcohol-related purchases, and now a third has entered the mix.  Authoritatively.

Most liquor sales in Alberta are done beneath the banner of a single chain, but Wine & Beyond  looks to challenge that with their gigantic box stores in Windermere and Sherwood Park.  I don't want to overstate the bigness here, but I've been in Canadian Tire stores smaller than the Windermere location.  The map gives you a sense of the scale:

My love for the local beer shrine that is Sherbrooke Liquor is a matter of public record, but their claim to have the largest beer selection in Western Canada at 1000+ varieties is eclipsed by the alleged 1800 beers carried by Wine & Beyond.  I didn't have time to count, but I wouldn't be inclined to dismiss the claim out of hand, that's for certain.  It's unfortunate to have a serious competitor in the breadth category just as their original manager Jim Pettinger has moved on to other things after 8 years at Sherbrooke.

Premium product at a premium selection will not come at a bargain price, and this is just as true at W&B as it is at Sherbrooke.  That said, they have far more space to devote to large merchandising displays and special offers.  It looks like you can even win a Vespa, courtesy of an Italian brewery.

The store is brightly, well laid out and organized, with spacious aisles and copious signage.  If I was looking for something offbeat, its proximity to my workplace makes it an ideal resource.  But the best feature in my estimation is the Growler Bar and tasting area.

W&B keeps a number of kegs on tap with varieties both imported and domestic (Amber's Mountain Pepper Berry was prominently displayed, and they had run out of Alley Kat and Yellowhead offerings) that you can not only sample, but take home as draft in either a 32 ounce 'howler' or 64 oz 'growler'.  My friend Dave in Red Deer had introduced to the growler concept via Drummond Brewing last year, and I have to say I am a fan of the concept.  After tasting up to three different varieties, you purchase your own re-sealable bottle and have it filled with your choice, so I took home a howler of Black Thorn cider for Audrey and myself.  It was very lightly carbonated, dry, crisp, and just the thing for a day when she discovered that after finally returning to work, there are 4 staff due to be cut at her school.

Jill, who was staffing the tasting bar was friendly and knowledgeable, and if she is indicative of the rest of the staff, they are off to a good start.  Being a boutique store makes that pretty much a necessity though, and the Sherbrooke staff have always been delightful to talk to as well.

While Sherbrooke has been working to build a beer culture in Edmonton with craft beer keg nights and food pairings at places like The Next Act and The Sugar Bowl, W&B has their own education area where they can host presentations by representatives or learn to tasting sessions for groups.

If you drink or purchase alcohol at all, you owe it to yourself to check out Wine & Beyond the next time you are in southwest Edmonton, for the sheer spectacle of it if nothing else.  You can also check out some obscenely priced beverages, like the $4500 bottle of scotch, and a number of other 4-digit bottles as well.  The question of where to purchase though, that gets a little more complicated.

For major brands, party purchases and holiday stockage and such, I will continue to frequent the Safeway Liquor Store by my house, because there is frankly very little I will not do for 100 Air Miles, and buying $100 worth of hooch periodically is definitely not going onto that little list.  They are also relatively competitive on price.

For non-major-label beer I will probably continue to shop at Sherbrooke, supporting the smaller local enterprise and checking in at W&B to fill in the gaps the beer spectrum that their prodigious selection affords.  No matter how many different types of beer The larger store can bring in, however, there will always be some I can only get at Sherbrooke, since they have created a number of exclusive labels with local brewers like Alley Kat, or Paddock Wood in Saskatchewan (such as their Beer Gods series).  As long as Sherbrooke continues to bring in unique and quality offerings like their Neapolean (Neapolitan Ice Cream Stout), I will support them to the best of my ability.  Plus, virtually all of Sherbrooke's beer is sold nice and drinkably cold from their walk in cooler, brilliant sanctuary on hot summer days, whereas W&B's selection of chilled beers is a much smaller fraction of their overall selection.

I mean, if not for Sherbrooke and their newsletter, I might never have been made aware of this brilliant Craft Beer Advent Calendar, a brilliant rendezvous of my favourite season and beverage!  24 beers, none of which have been imported into Canada before, each hidden behind a little numbered door on the enormous box.  Glee!  Look forward to approximately 24 beer-related blog posts in December.  And please don't spoil the surprise if you read that cheating git's article on Beer Advocate where he opened all 24 and blabbed about it, thanks very much!

All in all, having even more selection of beer (and wine, and spirits too) within the city is nothing but a good thing, and I wish the purveyors of Wine & Beyond the best of luck, or perhaps more more appropriately, "Cheers!"

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