Matthew Mallon
Matthew Mallon

Where the (Draft) Beers Are

An epic and ill-advised pub crawl through the city’s drinking establishments, in search of the perfect draft pint.
Not pictured: ten pints of Keith’s

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Prompted by a discussion of all the new establishments opening or set to open here, we started to wonder: where was the cheapest draft beer in town these days? Who had the best pour? Selection? Specials?

We assembled a crack team, worked up a methodology, and decided on a plan of attack.

It went like this: we devised a set of criteria on which to rank the establishments and their draft offerings. We would, as discreetly as possible, bring along a simple set of tools to measure those criteria: our five senses, plus a pyrex measuring cup and a cooking thermometer. Science! We would set a control draft, the most common brand found in town: Keith’s. We would hit every bar serving draft in town in one night, with the exception of the Woodyard. Recently opened, praised to the skies, Keith’s-less and sui generis to any other joint in town, it would have to be handled differently. We’d include it, for the sake of comprehensiveness, but not attempt to take it in during our initial ten-bar run. (only bars serving draft would be included, so no Gold Range, Raven etc.)

We really, really should have rethought this plan.

Here is how things played out, on a Wednesday evening in mid-December, 2015:

Stop 1: Hot Shot’s Pub and Grub, 5:30 pm.

Aside from a low-key office party, it’s quiet this early in the evening. Perhaps because the kitchen is prepped and ready for a wings-night bacchanal, the onion rings and mozzarella sticks we order take forever. Right off the bat, this is a blow to our plans, which were built around quick, efficient in-and-outs. Instead, we wallow.

“This would be a really good affair bar,” says a team member, “because no one you know would ever come in here.” Examining the decor, sprinkled with Christmas decorations that don’t quite cover up the air of a semi-abandoned ’80s rec room, they continue, “and you’d have a pretty good chance of bluffing if you got caught, because this is not… romantic.”

Everything is friendly enough, but we definitely feel like the hipster-doofuses we are, off our beaten path. This impression is probably heightened after we start temperature-testing the beer and pouring a pint into a measuring cup. At this point in the evening we are still trying to be discreet but it is clear that we are Up To No Good.

Pint Price: $6.75*

Temperature: 5.1 C

Volume: 15 oz.

Head: 1.25 cm.

Selection: Keith’s

Service: Friendly enough but why the hell aren’t you ordering wings.

VERDICT: Cheap, price-wise. Warm, temperature-wise. Perhaps because they had just cracked a new keg?

Stop 2: Coyote’s, 6:45 pm.

Place is buzzing. As with almost everywhere we go tonight, the crowd is predominantly large young men in baseball hats. But after Hot Shot’s, it feels like we’re in gay Paree. The hits of today are playing, the waitresses are cheery and attentive, the beer glasses are nicely chilled. (Full disclosure: one member of our team does business with the owner of the place and is a semi-regular, but he is outside having a smoke when we first sit down and order, and despite his attempts to Ray-Liotta-in-Goodfellas everyone when he arrives, service doesn’t change.)

The measurer is effectively hidden in a booth corner. Things are still under control, but this is where the first strains of things to come appear, as one team member begins to pontificate about his dislike of Keith’s. Another team member starts to insist that we include the aesthetic qualities of the pint glasses in our notes until everyone tells him to shut up.

Price: $7.38

Temperature: 1 C

Volume: 16 oz.

Head: 0.5 cm.

Selection: Keith’s IPA and Red

Service: Bubbly. Any one of our servers could get work at an Earls no problem.

VERDICT: Chilled glasses really take things up a notch or two.

Stop 3: Monkey Tree, 7:30ish

Woah. This place is packed. I guess we’re at the height of wings night. “There’s a lot of carrots in this stew,” says a team member, morosely. A sea of baseball caps. A wave of ennui. On the wall of the men’s bathroom there’s a sign that says: “No Matter How Good She Looks, Some Other Guy Is Sick Of Putting Up With Her Shit.” “That’s kind of a weird choice,” says another team member. It’s perhaps there to boost the morale of failed pick-up artists? Our pint-measuring and temperature-taking are slightly sloppy at this point. We maybe should not have given these responsibilities to the smallest and youngest of the team. It’s still early: we have only made it to three establishments. We have seven more to go.

Price: $7.86

Temperature: 3 C

Volume: 16.5 oz.

Head: 0.0 cm.

Selection: Rickard’s Red, Rickard’s White, Kokanee Gold, Stella, Moosehead, Keith’s

Service: Efficient as hell.

VERDICT: Best imitation of a southern suburban sports bar so far. An indifferent pour, but the place is so busy it’s pardonable.

Stop 4: After 8, 8:20ish

Empty. Not literally, but this is one of the few places not celebrating wings night and we easily double the population when we walk through the door. Which is too bad. It’s actually a very nice room when you look at it, and boy it’s easy to look at it right now with about a dozen people in here tops. The sound system is at a reasonable volume (though the increasingly surly measurer demands that we “dock the whole place five points for playing Maroon 5”) and we can talk easily. Service is friendly, and fast. No baseball caps in sight. This feels like a little oasis. A doomed little oasis. How’s the team doing? We’re conserving our energies. The measuring cup and thermometer are being wielded in a manner verging on unprofessional at this stage. I wouldn’t completely trust the numbers from about this point on, to be honest.

Price: $7.86

Temperature: 1 C

Volume: 16.3 oz.

Head: 1.5 cm.

Selection: Keith’s, Kokanee, and Budweiser

Service: Present!

VERDICT: A nice quiet place to get away from wing-night mania. A fair pint.

Stop 5: Twist, 9:30ish

In an effort to support the local music industry and counter-program against wings night, Twist is holding an open mic, which, you know, good for them. But again, it is mostly deserted. It is here our team is augmented by two fresh faces, who arrive expecting to meet a merry band of happy travellers awash in Keith’s-induced merriment and good cheer, but the grind is getting to us, as is the guy playing “Stairway to Heaven.” We are now discussing whether we should try and make a short horror film for the upcoming Dead North festival, and running through a variety of scenarios. One scenario that does not come up, surprisingly, is “The Pub Crawl From Hell”

Our measurer has very little stealth mode now, and our extremely swift and efficient waitress clearly clocks him unsteadily pouring his pint into his measuring cup. She does not bat an eye. She has seen things. And if she has been working here on the reg for open mic night, she has heard things.

Price: $7.86

Temperature: 0 C

Volume: 19 oz.

Head: 0.5 cm.

Selection: Keith’s and Budweiser

Service: Fast, unperturbable

Verdict: Much like After 8, only with someone playing “Stairway to Heaven.” Very generous pour.

Stop 6: Trapline Lounge, 10:20ish

We nearly lose a member of the party while leaving Twist, as he wanders obliviously off in the wrong direction. Then, after marching up the hill to the Explorer, we realize that the measurer has left his tools — both cup and thermometer — at Twist. He is sent back in disgrace to pick them up, and we make some hard choices. It’s getting late; even at our fastest we are not going to be able to hit our scheduled ten places. It’s decided: we’ll split the team, with the measurer being sent back and forth between the two groups. As far as the Trapline goes, there’s the built-in plus of the fact that it is a hotel lounge (Some of our fellow patrons might be from out of town! It’s almost like being on holiday!), and has the vague sprinkling of glamour that comes with that. Plus, nice fireplace. This is where the server fully busts us and what we are up to. But in a nice way. She also gives us technical reasons as to why draft here is better than in other places, but at this point it is getting hard to grasp such concepts, especially for the measurer.

Price: $8.65

Temperature: 0 C

Volume: 16.3 oz.

Head: 1.2 cm.

Selection: Keith’s IPA and Red

Service: On to us.

VERDICT: A touch pricey, but worth it for the ambiance. One team member terms the pour a highlight of the evening.

Stop 7: The Cellar, 10:30ish

An attempt by team 2 to hit the Black Knight is thwarted by the fact that it’s full, so we head to the Cellar, where Ribs Night is just winding down. This is a semi-regular haunt for many of the team members, and we might be a little biased by familiarity, but we’ve always been impressed by both server and bartender here. Of all the current downtown spots this is the one that has the least amount of annoyances, which might sound like faint praise but it isn’t, especially after five hours of power-drinking our way across town. The measurer has to be reminded at several points, even during the actual measuring, to actually record his results. Just putting a thermometer in the beer, looking at it vacantly and then taking it out is not enough.

Price: $7.50

Temperature: 2 C

Volume: 15 oz.

Head: 0.5 cm.

Selection: Keith’s, Rickard’s White, Guinness, Strongbow, Trad, Stella

Service: Cheers-like

VERDICT: Our downtown choice, usually. Excellent pour.

Stop 8: Kilt and Castle, 11:30ish

Team 1 hits the recently opened K&C, a controversial spot. Online reviews from opening day on have not been kind, to put it mildy. Our own experiences here haven’t been entirely successful. While staff have almost always been pleasant, every one of our visits has been beset by some sort of technical snafu — a different one each time. This visit is no exception. This time, the problem is odour: the entire place is permeated with a foul, eggy stench. The beer is fine, if a little flat, but it’s hard to enjoy it given the circumstances. The measurer, eager to escape, is briefly more efficient. He has recently taken a tumble, and so is perhaps chagrined.

Price: $6.00 (Special)

Temperature: 1 C

Volume: 18.5 oz.

Head: 0.75 cm.

Selection: Keith’s, Guinness, Budweiser, Smithwick’s, Innes & Gunn, Kilkenny

Service: Eager, embarrassed.

VERDICT: Ooh, that smell.

Stop 9: Boston Pizza, 11:30ish

Team 2 hits the dystopian sports bar/barn that is the pub-side of Boston Pizza in a thoroughly disgruntled state. Nine bars in, we are bloated, joyless, dyspeptic, driven to a state of despair by Yellowknife nightlife, by all the blaring sports games and cheerless crowds of beady-eyed, thick-necked men with baseball caps and beards. Some of us, I think, need a hug. But no. All we get is the yeasty embrace of Keith’s. The measurer has absolutely no chill left at this point. He brazenly pours his beer into his measuring cup right in front of the waitress. “What are you doing?” she asks with concern. Silently, with a curl of his upper lip, he dips his thermometer in. Other team members strain to explain, or apologize, but no one has the spirit left in them anymore. We’d rather bear her suspicion and disdain than work up the energy to defend ourselves.

Price: “About $9,” according to our fact-checker.

Temperature: 3 C

Volume: 17 oz.

Head: 0.75 cm.

Selection: Keith’s, Heineken, Coor’s Light, Rickard’s Red, Rickard’s White, Budweiser

Service: Annoyed, and who can blame them.

VERDICT: A place where sports fans can watch other sports fans watch sports. By this point it’s genuinely hard to rate our pints.

Stop 10: The Black Knight, Time:  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The team reunites in the Black Knight, Yellowknife’s default drinking establishment. The crowd here has emptied out enough for us to get a table. We sit slumped in a daze. Our measurer is wild-eyed now, and prone to hugging other members of the group. He must be assisted in the measuring process. Later, he will lose his tools once again. A few of us are able to face the prospect of ordering more Keith’s, but not with any enthusiasm. Are we able to really judge them? No. Any judgement we had in the first place has been abandoned somewhere several bars back.

Price: $7.38

Temperature: 3 C

Volume: 17 oz.

Head: 1 cm.

Selection: Kokanee Gold, Stella, Honey Brown, Guinness, Wild Rose, Rickard’s Red, Rickard’s White, Kilkenny, Trad, Keith’s and Strongbow

Service: A friendly and efficient blur.

Stop 11: The Woodyard, Lunchtime, several days later.

It’s quite some time, over a week, before anyone can be roused to finish this terribly, terribly conceived experiment. On a busy Friday afternoon, a reduced team (one person, plus the measurer) heads off to the packed-out brew pub for a cautious pint. (The measuring cup has been rescued from the Black Knight lost and found, but the thermometer is a goner. We have had to buy a new one, which may have skewed our results.) We order a Tool Shed People Skills, which our server describes as “our version of Keith’s.” It’s what they suggest for folks who’ve never had a microbrew before, but comparing it to Keith’s is near-defamation.

Price: $8.75

Temperature: 4 C

Volume: 15.5 oz.

Head: 0.0 cm

Selection: a carefully curated, rotating collection of independent brews

Service: Excellent, informed.

VERDICT: Another league.

 

* NOTE: We’ve done our best to ensure prices and selection are accurate, but must note that in a few cases our receipts contradicted what we were told during our follow-up fact-checking calls. In cases where this occurred, we have gone with our receipts.