One of Edmonton’s first craft breweries has been sold to new owners from St. Albert.
Former owners Neil and Lavonne Herbst decided to sell the Alley Kat Brewing Company after 25 years, but knew they wanted it to stay locally owned and operated.
“At a time when we are seeing some craft breweries being absorbed by large multinationals, keeping Alley Kat in independent hands was extremely important to us,” Neil said in a statement posted on the brewery’s website.
Zane Christensen and Cameron French were both born and raised in St. Albert, and both are graduates of the University of Alberta. They officially took over the brewery on Feb. 3, and started working there full-time three days later.
The two friends said they always had a passion for the craft beer industry. Before they decided to take over the reins at Alley Kat, Christensen said they were considering building their own brewery from scratch, and reached out to Neil about a year ago to learn more.
"With Alley Kat being a well-known and long-standing successful brand, we thought Neil would be a great guy to talk to about how he's had such good success," Christensen said.
"We started talking to him and just got the feeling that he may want to retire at some point, and he wasn't sure what the succession plan would be. So we started talking about how a better approach might be for us to get involved with an existing brewery, rather than starting from scratch."
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Alley Kat is Alberta’s fourth-longest operating brewery, and last year the company was awarded Brewery of the Year at the 2019 Alberta Beer Awards.
The idea for the brewery started in 1993 with Neil and his former business partner, Richard Cholton. Two years later, Lavonne bought out Cholton’s share, and the brewery continued on for more than 20 years as a family business.
“This sale will ensure Alley Kat continues to remain locally owned and operated,” Neil said, adding that he will still be involved in day-to-day operations to help with the transition.
The craft-brewery culture had always been a draw for the duo, Christensen said. But it's "a bit of a different beast" trying to set up a new brewery these days with how saturated the market has been.
Alberta saw a craft-beer boom in the years since the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission (AGLC) removed minimum production-capacity requirements set at 500,000 litres per year. That meant new brewers would essentially have to be a mid-level brewhouse before even obtaining a license.
"I think in 2015, there were about 40 breweries in Alberta. Today, there's probably around 140, so it got more difficult to start from scratch and get your name out there," Christensen said. "When we saw the opportunity with Alley Kat, it made a lot of sense."
The independent Edmonton brewery's line of craft beer includes brands Aprikat, Full Moon, Scona Gold, Main Squeeze, Fish Bone and Buena Vista, as well as rotating seasonal brews throughout Alberta.
Christensen said the Alley Kat Brewery employs around 22 full-time staff with work opportunities for students in the summer.
"Alley Kat has such a good formula for success, that we don't want to make any changes that is going to affect what makes Alley Kat, Alley Kat," he said. "Longer term, we definitely want to continue to be innovative in the industry and grow the brand, and see where we can take it. But first, we really want to make sure we understand the culture."
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The response from St. Albert and the public since the news broke has been "overwhelming," Christensen said.
"I think everyone's excited to see it stay in local hands, everyone's just really supportive," he said. "We're just thrilled to be a part of one of the original craft breweries in Edmonton – it's an institution of history. We're very humbled."
The Herbsts' decision to keep the brewery’s ownership local follows the acquisition of two Calgary breweries by multinational corporations. In 2019, Calgary-based Wild Rose Brewery was acquired by Sleeman, the third-largest brewer in Canada. Then late last month, Branded Peak, another Calgary craft brewery, was acquired by Labatt.