The pipe dream of three beer aficionados and home brewers, Alley Kat Brewing Company started in 1993 in Edmonton. Two years later, Lavonne and Neil Herbst bought out their partner, running Alley Kat as a family business and bringing its first beer to market in early 1995.
“Our vision then, as it is now, was to brew flavourful, high-quality beers using local ingredients,” says Neil Herbst, co-owner of Alley Kat. “The market has changed dramatically — for the better — since we opened our doors in December 1994, but our passion for beer remains the same.”
At the time, there was only one other brewery operational in the area and the Herbsts saw an opportunity for their craft-beer business to flourish.
But it was not without its challenges. “We started just after the system was privatized in Alberta and the market was pretty much in flux. But it went pretty smoothly — although the one thing we could probably have done better was figuring out our marketing approach, since Edmonton was still a heavily industrial, “big-beer” kind of place.”
Alley Kat started with kegs before producing a limited number of bottles. “We built that up pretty quickly so we could [sell to] retail as well as on-premise and off-premise sales,” says Herbst.
Fast forward to today and craft beer is a top foodservice trend and while that means more business for Alley Kat, it also means increased competition.
When Alley Kat began production, “people had no idea what craft beer was. We started off with filtered wheat beer and people couldn’t understand that beer might be cloudy,” says Herbst.
To get the word out, the brand became a fixture at beer festivals and the sales team canvassed restaurants. And once people tasted the beer, Herbst says they were hooked.
Alley Kat now employs 25 people at its 10,000-sq.-ft. facility, where it produces approximately 10,000 hectolitres of beer for both retail and foodservice.
When it comes to retail sales compared to foodservice sales, “that varies with the economy,” says Herbst. “When the economy is up, bar and restaurant sales are good. When the economy is suffering, it’s a little more [retail] as people cut down on their expenditures.”
The brewery recently added a New England-style pale ale to its lineup of more than nine varieties, but its Aprikat Apricot Wheat Ale remains its top seller.
In terms of expansion, Herbst says “we’ve always followed the growth as opposed to pushing past it. It would be nice to do some inter-provincial trade — and hopefully that will come sooner rather than later — but we’re still focused on the Alberta market.”
As important to Alley Kat as its revenue stream is its commitment to the environment. “It’s cost effective to be environmentally conscious, so we use recycled bottles and recycle as much water as we can,” Herbst adds.