The craft beer drinker’s guide to Tapping the West

tapping the west book by scott messenger

Perfect pairings, page by page

Tantalus had it tough. You probably know him: he’s the guy in the myth who (for some pretty awful crimes) was doomed to spend his afterlife forever thirsty. Were this old Greek king to bend to drink from the pool of water in which he stood, it would suddenly drain, rising again as he rose. The gods were tantalizing him, see?

Tell me that reading about beer isn’t a bit like that. An especially good beer review can generate a wicked thirst, yet never satisfy it. My book about the development of Alberta’s craft beer industry, Tapping the West, contains no beer reviews. But when one reader on asked on social media what beer I might suggest pairing with a particular chapter, I realized there was a chance for me to fill the sensory chasm that lies between what I’d written and malty, hoppy happiness.

Here, I hope, is relief: a list of beers to enjoy as you read. Each is chosen for a reason, whether it represents something important about a brewery I’ve mentioned, or that it stands for some issue being discussed, or, yes, just because I love it and want you to have the experience of loving it too.

Maybe Tantalus got what he deserved. But you, dear reader, should not be so cruelly deprived. I can’t put a beer in your hand, but I can at least point you in the direction of a nice one, which might be more than a Greek god ever did for anyone. So here, like a little taste of heaven, are 32.

Page 8. Ring Pop Kveik Double IPA, Eighty-eight Brewing. When I think back on the summer of 2020, I’ll think about this beer. This bright and juicy hazy IPA was a ray of sunshine brightening dark times, and maybe even helped me to see them in a different light.

big rock poster featuring ed mcnally

P. 11. Traditional Ale, Big Rock. A classic in every sense, this is one of the beers that birthed the Alberta craft scene back in the mid-eighties, before a good portion of the province’s current brewers were even born. I may not reach for it often these days but when I do, it holds up.

P. 39. Squeeze, Village Brewery. This lemon raspberry helles is to Traditional what Village is to Big Rock. What does that mean? The answer is in the book, which describes how one brewer joined with a few of his fellow Big Rock employees to follow in Ed McNally’s footsteps in crafting an alternative. Squeeze always tastes brand new and refreshing – exactly what those six Village guys were after at the time.

P. 41. Full Moon Pale Ale, Alley Kat. If co-founder Neil Herbst was one of the province’s earliest craft proselytizers, the bold and delicious Full Moon was like the work of a heretic. He may have met with skeptics when the beer came out more than 20 years ago (e.g., “Agh, it’s so bitter!”), but let’s not forget that we’re all believers today because of it.

tapping the west and the white wit ale from something brewing

P. 46. The White Wit, Something Brewing. It’s hard to overlook this Red Deer brewery’s product – it’s the only one in Alberta to be regularly packaged in groups of four small cans. In a box. That’s the reason I bought The White Wit the first time. The second, third, fourth and so on, were because it’s a lovely wheat beer, featuring mild maltiness, citrus and spice.

P. 48. Oh my Quad, Brewsters. I like to joke that this Alberta Beer Awards gold-medal winner is a runner’s beer, and perfect after hard hill training (quad, get it? I know – I can hear the groans). It might be gone by the time you look for it, but I list this dark, rich 10% Belgian ale here because it stands for a diversity of beer that Brewsters’ brewer Rob Walsh was trying to put people onto 20 years ago. It’s good to see the brewpub being recognized for it now.

tool shed's red rage and tapping the west book by scott messenger

P. 83. Red Rage, Tool Shed. The guys at Tool Shed managed to turn pretty much every battle the brewery staged for craft beer in Alberta into a media event. In one way or another, it’s made a difference. At the very least, it made people not previously curious about craft curious. I’ll raise a glass to that, one filled with one of my favourite Alberta red ales.

P. 90. Kettle Sour, Blindman Brewing. How do you pick a beer from Blindman? The easy answer is: close your eyes and grab anything – it’s all very good, and a lot of it is amazing. But the kettle sour series they launched in 2016 was, to a then-uninitiated craft beer drinker like me, an early indication that this brewery was striving to surprise. They’ve never given up on that, which is why they remain one of Alberta’s best.

folding mountain brewery howler

P. 100. Moraine West Coast IPA, Folding Mountain. After helping to shape the brewing program at Olds College as the original brewhouse instructor, brewer Dave Mozel has made his mark at this not-to-be-missed stop en route to the Rockies. A nice blend of pine and citrus, Moraine was a standout from my own trip to the brewery in the summer of 2020.

P. 101. Open Road American Brown Ale, Troubled Monk. This is a brown with some bite, and testament to the talents of a brewer who wouldn’t settle – and who was rewarded with a silver medal at the coveted World Beer Cup. But that brewer, Garret Haynes, tells the story best himself, which we’ll leave to the book.

olds college brewery hefeweizen

P. 102. Limited editions and student creations, Olds College. Would Alberta craft beer be what it is without the brewing program at Olds College? I say no, because its grads are in the best breweries across the province. And they keep coming! Get a taste of the future of Alberta craft by trying the best output of the student brewhouse, available in the school’s tiny taproom.

P. 102. White Raven IPA, Apex Predator. When I first tried it years ago, this ale struck me as a rare bird indeed. You think you know Alberta beer? it seemed to ask. Think again! Oh the memories. Regardless of all the choices of NW IPAs available from the province’s brewers today, I happily revisit this one and think about those extraordinary days when it was becoming clear that everything was about to change.

sawback india dark ale

P. 105. India Dark Ale, Sawback. One of the hallmarks of Alberta craft beer today is a propensity for style stretching. A dark IPA isn’t an extreme example but this is such a roasty, toasty, tasty twist on tradition that it’s my pick for Sawback, which was just opening its doors with the help of an Olds College grad when Tapping the West was in the works.

P. 112. DIBS Berry Raspberry Wheat Ale, Dog Island. A fruit beer is never a first choice for me, but this one deserves mention for serving as part of the foundation of Dog Island, in Slave Lake. The brewery has grown and moved well beyond this easygoing ale, but it keeps DIBS on the list (a hot seller to this day, I hear). Never forget where you came from, right?

P. 115. B.S. Wit, Bent Stick. This fresh and crisp Belgian wheat beer figured prominently in the making of Tapping the West and will forever have a special place in my heart. In fact, chances are good the book would never have happened without it. But that’s another story. Buy me a B.S. Wit one day and I’ll tell it to you! In the meantime, try the beer and let it speak for itself. It has good things to say.

sea change the wolf hazy pale ale

P. 128. The Wolf, Sea Change. Though Sea Change makes but a cameo appearance in the book (the taproom had yet to open during my research), it deserves mention here. The brewery has quickly earned a reputation for a small selection of very well-made beers, including this local favourite (and award-winning) hazy pale ale. When in doubt at the liquor store, I tend to take home the Wolf.

P. 136. Dandy in the Underworld, The Dandy Brewing Company. Are there more exotic beers to mention from Dandy? You bet, but this oyster stout stands out in my mind as a classic Alberta craft beer. Not, it isn’t that old. But in a scene that moves as quickly as ours, anchors like this are essential for pausing to reflect on how far we’ve come – and that we came from a very good place to begin with.

P. 155. Salud, SYC. West Edmonton’s SYC was a baby of a brewery when I spoke with co-founder Richard Fyk, but it’s a good example of what happens when community members like Sherbrooke Liquor and what was then the restaurant version of Arcadia (which only served Alberta beer) offer some nurturing. That is, it grows. Salud, kveik fermented and hopped with the bold and citrusy Sabro variety, speaks to the confidence that comes with rapid maturing.

tapping the west book and outcast stout

P. 155. Whatever’s pouring, Outcast. Speaking of Sherbrooke, did you know that the Edmonton liquor store was the first place ever to buy an Outcast keg? Since the brewery has no core beers, you take your chances whenever you walk through the door (of the brewery or Sherbrooke). My luck, however, has always been good.

P. 168. The Whistling Pig, Arcadia. Just as Tapping the West was going to press, I learned that Arcadia, Edmonton’s all-Alberta beer restaurant, was shutting its doors to rise again as a brewery across town. With panicked additions and amendments behind me, I’m pleased to include beer from the brewery that wasn’t but now is. The Pig was Arcadia’s first release, a great sign of things to come.

P. 175. Dayliner Golden Ale, Siding 14. Perhaps it makes sense that Siding 14 cleaves to an old-timey railway theme. When I first talked to the original owner (the only time, actually, since I was never able to reach him again), he pointed to a time back when every little town had the “four Bs”: the butcher, baker, barber and brewer. Are we circling back to that? Set up in Ponoka, pop. 7,500, he thought so. In my mind, Dayliner speaks to a kind of small-town renaissance, clear and simple, but hoppy enough to signify that change is coming down the line, and it’s going to be good.

grain bin II wild ale by grain bin brewing

P. 180. Anything, Grain Bin. I feel a kind of cosmic gratitude to have enjoyed during my lifetime not one but two bottles of Grain Bin II, the malty, funky barrel-aged wild ale the brewery made to mark its second anniversary. On occasion, I’ll be taken with the memory of it and pause to ask myself, What did I ever do to deserve that? None of this is helpful to you, though, because GBII is gone. But since pretty much everything else Grain Bin makes is great, you’ll be OK, and probably grateful, too.

P. 184. Hefe, Fahr. Jochen Fahr is a beer engineer. It’s all biochemistry to him, no romance or mystery required. Well, maybe a little romance. This Bavarian hefeweizen was the beer he brewed for his own wedding. If it wasn’t part of what won over his wife, it’s gone on to win other things, including a gold World Beer Award in 2020 for its traditional notes of pepper, banana and clove. Keep in mind that this is for a beer brewed not in Germany, but Turner Valley, Alberta – by an endearingly pragmatic and very talented brewer.

fahr hefe wheat ale and tapping the west by scott messenger

P. 187. Black Pilsner, Banff Ave. When in Banff, drink what the locals drink, which, I was told by brewer Miranda Batterink, is a lot of black pilsner. It features a crisp hops bite with a little coffee and chocolate thrown in – and it might pair very well not just with the story about how Batterink juggles tanks to conserve water in a national park, but a certain candy bar. I bet you know what I’m talking about. An experiment is in order!

P. 191. Industrial Park Ale IPA, Wild Rose. Just before the brewery sold to Big Beer, I had a chance to hear about its hardscrabble days of trying to sell IPA in winter. For a long time, they couldn’t, so they didn’t even make the stuff until summer. Today it may be a standard but reliable, malt-and-hops perfectly balanced, blah blah blah, but don’t forget it was one of the earliest local tests of the Alberta palate. Pay respects by cracking one for old time’s sake.

P. 195. Tail-twitcher IPA, Prairie Dog. I have to admit I have never had a Prairie Dog beer, a problem I need to rectify. But this one will be my first to try because, at the time of writing, it used hops extract prepared by a Calgary startup called Aratinga Extracts. I liked the innovation and efficiency this represented, but also Prairie Dog’s intention to support new local industries. Community is a huge part of craft, but not always the way we might imagine it. Sometimes, it even gets scientists involved.

power up porter by analog brewing

P. 213. Power Up Porter, Analog Brewing. I was fascinated by this beer from the start because the label once described it as a “beta version.” Analog wanted feedback in making it better and wanted it from drinkers like me. But with a perfect and smooth blend of vanilla, chocolate and coffee, what’s not to like – including the humble, unassuming nature of the brewer?

P. 231. Old Man Winter Porter, Ribstone Creek. I’ll be surprised if this beer ever leaves my top 10 Alberta favourites. Richer and heavier than Power Up and more of a sipper, this is one complicated old man, but I love him for it. I’d like to unpack that love, and get into the brewery to see how the balance is struck between the roastiness and caramel and burnt marshmallow and little hint of vanilla and on and on. By the time I’d have figured it out on my own, it’d be spring again.

ribstone creek old man winter porter and tapping the west by scott messenger

P. 242. The latest from The Monolith. It’s hard to recommend a beer from this Edmonton brewery because no two will ever be alike. I’m not going to attempt to describe the process of making these lambic-style beers (there’s a cursory explanation in the book) other than to say the final product is a process of blending barrel-fermented and -aged beer. If you’re reading this in time to get your hands on Substantially Complete, it stands for what Monolith is all about, and hints at what’s to come. Funky but refined and refreshing.

P. 255. Whatever’s on tap, Odd Company. My early favourites at this Edmonton brewery (just minutes from my house!) were a rye saison and guava gose. Were is the operative word. I’ve seen some beers reappear on the menu but the eager-to-experiment brewer seems to guarantee nothing to creatures of habit like me. Grab what sounds good to you, and it probably will be.

P. 262. My Best Friend’s Girl, The Establishment Brewing Co. Some American band once sang, “We may lose or we may win, but we will never be here again.” Moments are precious, for they pass and they take their beers with them. Nothing I mentioned in Tapping the West remains on tap at Establishment, but I had My Best Friend’s Girl recently (which sounds odd, which I bet they intended) and it was a simple, clean, crisp, clear and delicious testament to a brewery that has already established itself as one that has, well, honed its craft.

forward progress hazy pale ale by annex ale project

P. 263. Forward Progress, Annex Ale Project. This was the beer that introduced me to the haze craze that has since swept craft beer nation. Revisiting it recently was a pleasure, and proof that my palate has also made progress. I wasn’t sure what to make of this pale ale way back when; now, it strikes me as a yeasty yardstick against which other Alberta entries might be measured. It’s smooth but sufficiently bitter – is creamed grapefruit a thing? (See why I don’t write beer reviews?) I love it. And I love what it, and its name, says about Alberta craft beer.

We’ve come a long way as a craft beer province since Trad, but there’s still so far that we can go. Onward!

Thank you to The Tomato for recommending Tapping the West!

“If you love craft beer,” writes says The Tomato, a long-time Alberta food magazine, “you’ll love this book.”

There’s not much more than that, but I am very grateful to see Tapping the West in these pages – and so close to the holiday gift-giving season, no less. (Hint, hint.)

Thank you, Edmonton Public Library, for having hosted the first Tapping the West event!

Here’s just one more reason why libraries are awesome

I’m terrible, because I am long overdue in posting this. Edmonton Public Library and branch manager Katherine Gibson were so kind to host what (as far as I can remember) was the first real event for Tapping the West. Really, it was the launch!

Also very kind were Greg Zeschuk, owner of Blind Enthusiasm Brewing, and Ben Rix, co-owner of Bent Stick Brewing, who joined me as a small but mighty panel of industry experts. I remember them both being very entertaining and super smart. What they said specifically, though, I don’t know, because I’ve never watched the video of the event, and won’t because, well, I’m in parts of it.

That’s OK. If you don’t have the memory itself, at least you can have a record of the memory (what?). Thank you, internet! And Katherine and EPL! And Greg! And Ben! I could not have asked for more – other than no COVID-19 and a normal book launch.

But this was still pretty darn great.