Tapping the West to represent Canada in international competition

Award offers readers a chance to learn about beer writing from around the world

Gourmand World Cookbook Award winner Tapping the West

If you look at the “Awards” section of my site, you’ll probably roll your eyes. I make a big deal about how awards never do enough to acknowledge that writing – be it a book or a magazine article or whatever – is a collaborative exercise. Sure, the editor got the story, but the writer gets the glory.

The former often deserves more credit. So, I don’t list any awards I’ve received, because the editors aren’t mentioned.

I stand by that today. But I’m also about to be a huge hypocrite, because this post is about how Tapping the West, my book about Alberta craft beer, has been recognized with an award.

I’m about to be a huge hypocrite.

This July, the Gourmand Awards named it the best recent book on beer in Canada. I have no idea what the book was up against. How many books about beer can possibly be written in this country in a year? Shrug.

But I like the award because of this: It now puts Tapping the West up against top beer publications from other countries. One of them will emerge from that battle royale of books as the world’s best (at least according to Gourmand).

That’s a chance to highlight an often overlooked global body of literature about a globally enjoyed drink, the variety of traditions surrounding it, and the myriad perspectives on it. So, allow me to make an exception just this once and talk about an award, or, more specifically, some fascinating finalists.

The competitors

The challenge here is that not all the books on the list are in English. This is beautiful, though not exactly practical for readers. That said, you can glean from one entry that homebrewing is a not just a North American preoccupation but one that’s gaining popularity in Italy, and from another that thobwa is a fermented drink made from white maize flour and that’s common in Malawi and Zambia. Now you know.

A couple of the other entrants, for me, however, invited deeper investigation.

Jef van den Steen is one. He’s a Belgian writer and brewer, and up for Bieres d’ Abbayes Belges, a book that covers all existing abbey breweries in Belgium (there appears to be an English translation of an earlier version as well). So I guess it’s a guide to nearly three dozen of the world’s best breweries.

Van den Steen seems like a character written for craft beer: eccentric, passionate, a polymath. He was once the guitarist in a rock band, a math professor, then picked up writing about Belgian breweries a decade or two ago, when locals just took them for granted as a part of the cultural landscape.

What’s more, Van den Steen knows his subject in a very intimate way. He owns De Glazen Toren, the brewery where he perfects his beloved saison, as well as a few other traditional styles.

Another entry of note comes U.K. food and beer writer Pete Brown. During the recent lockdown, Brown pounded out a treatise on the nature of craft – writing to publishing in 13 weeks flat. Amazing what a person can get done when they’re not allowed to leave the house (and have no children).

Craft: An Argument explores that not-very-old but suddenly essential question of, What makes craft craft? Is it an ethos? A matter of marketing? An idea as much as a thing? A feeling, for gawd sake?

In any case, it sounds like the kind of book that will thereafter send you deep into the lengthy back catalogue of one of Britain’s most highly decorated beer writers.

Then, of course, there’s me. Somehow. Scott Messenger. Author of Tapping the West: How Alberta’s Craft Beer Industry Bubbled Out of an Economy Gone Flat.

We all know that Belgium and England have been brewing what’s essentially craft beer for hundreds of years. But how did Alberta come to craft? That question is the (beer) engine of my book.

The editors

Brown credits the editing of his award-winning lockdown project to his wife, who also designed it and such. My wife was not my editor, though she was very supportive.

In my case, the job when to Curtis Gillespie, who served as the primary editor on Tapping the West. He’s easily one of Canada’s best writers of narrative journalism and I’m very lucky he was willing to work with a book-writing novice like me.

Once he’d finished reading my first draft, he said something along the lines of, “This is great! But …”

Then, we got on with making the whole thing way better (i.e., rewriting, front to back). It’s a team effort. Lockdown or not, you can’t do it alone.

Thank you, Ryan Jespersen: Tapping the West and the Alberta craft beer boom

“He kind of sounded like he was shouting at you,” said one friend who listened to this recent interview. He was joking, but the observation speaks to the enthusiasm with which Ryan Jespersen approaches pretty much any topic he covers – including Alberta craft beer. I think it’s great.

Many thanks to him for having me on the show in early May to talk about my book, Tapping the West, and about some of the factors that went into making the province’s craft beer industry possible. And awesome.

Definitely something worth shouting about, I’d say.

Thank you, Avenue Edmonton: An interview about Tapping the West

If someone’s willing to think of me as an artist for having a written a book about beer, I’ll take it! Thanks to Avenue Edmonton and writer Cory Schachtel for this interview in the May issue of the magazine.

“The book is about the beer scene, but it’s also about business diversification in Alberta. And to me, that’s something that the craft beer industry represents.”

Thank you, CBC Edmonton AM: Tapping the West and the state of Alberta’s craft beer industry

Not to make excuses for myself, but I’m about to make excuses for myself. This one was done at 6:40 in the morning, long after I’d switched over to keeping work-from-home pandemic hours. How does Mark Connolly and his team do it everyday? Cheers to them!

I’m grateful for the interview, no matter what I might have said. (I can’t bring myself to go back and listen – something to do with the idea of having to listen to my own voice, perhaps.)

Thank you, Canadian Beer News: Announcing the release of Tapping the West

I’m very grateful to Canadian Beer News, an online voice for beer industry developments across the country, for sharing news of the upcoming release of my new book, Tapping the West.

The book officially launches May 5, and is available at local bookstores (like Audreys in Edmonton, which offers curbside pickup) and online at Amazon and Indigo.

Homebrewing in the time of COVID-19

With a book coming out, and no chance of a launch anytime soon thanks to the pandemic, I was asked by my publisher to pull back the curtain on what I was up to at home these days. Here’s the big reveal.

This blog post doesn’t have a lot to do with Tapping the West: How Alberta’s Craft Beer Industry Bubbled Out of an Economy Gone Flat (now available for pre-order!). Writing it, however, got me thinking about the potential for COVID-19 to teach us something about ourselves. If this thing doesn’t kill us, it might indeed make us stronger somehow.

And if the proof doesn’t turn up in the pudding, maybe it will in the homebrew.

Give verse a chance

Ryan Merkley [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

After Gord Downie, is there hope for lyrics in mainstream Canadian music?

This article originally appeared in Eighteen Bridges, a Canadian magazine of narrative journalism.

A LOT OF WHAT I SAW ON MUCHMUSIC in the 1990s has stayed with me. Perhaps it’s because I entered the formative years of my adolescence during the channel’s heyday that so much of my memory bank has been signed over to VJ Erica Ehm, Big Shiny Tunes playlists and Dan Gallagher handing out two-slice toasters on his gameshow, Test Pattern.

But some useful things stuck, too, like a report from the network that aired on September 24, 1994. That day marked the release of Day for Night, an album that galvanized (in platinum, six times) the Tragically Hip’s reputation as atypical but accessible CanCon.

Toronto record stores stayed open until midnight to move copies, and MuchMusic cameras captured an scene that still strikes me as anomalous. A frenzied teenage boy tears plastic from the CD to free the liner notes. “There’s lyrics!” he shouts. Weirdly, he’s not alone. His frenzied friends join the chorus, high-fiving as if Bill Barilko or Paul Henderson or whichever hockey hero that Downie deified in verse had just pocketed a winner. I’d never seen anyone lose their mind over the words a modern, popular Canadian singer set to music. But MuchMusic took note, so I did too. Frenzied Teenage Boy and I became kindred spirits, acolytes of the people’s poetry of Gord Downie.

Continue reading Give verse a chance

Why a blanket exercise made me disappointed, uncomfortable and angry

As participants in the blanket exercise that was to come, we were told that we’d likely need the boxes of tissues being set out for us. It was a way of being told we weren’t ready to hear the things we were about to learn. Colonialism, our facilitator said, was “a brutal history.”

I’m ashamed to say that I really had no idea. This exercise helped me learn. Please read more at techlifetoday.ca.

Gotta Run: My complicated and sometimes troubling relationship with running and racing

This story originally appeared in Eighteen Bridges, a Canadian magazine of narrative journalism. Sorry that all the pictures are of me. It’s all I had at hand and long reads aren’t any fun without pics, so there you go.


Near the halfway point, the trail became almost impassable. It was only a 10-kilometre race, but its dirt trail made it treacherous from the start. Within minutes of leaving the starting line, I plunged into the tangle of poplar, chokecherry, cranberry and dogwood that carpets the banks of Edmonton’s North Saskatchewan River. The late summer days had coaxed gorgeous reds and purples and yellows from the foliage, but who cared?

All that mattered was the linear metre of earth directly ahead, laced with roots and studded with stones. For two-and-a-half kilometres, the course rose and fell like river rapids, twisting and bucking capriciously. More than 370 runners were at its mercy. None got any.

Continue reading Gotta Run: My complicated and sometimes troubling relationship with running and racing