7 beers for 7 albums: My favourite music of 2020 paired with Alberta craft beers

High points in a pretty bad year

In addition to my family, and friends who were willing to tolerate glitchy video calls, three things got me sanely through 2020: running, music and beer. 

The running I can manage on my own. As for music and beer – despite my acoustic guitar and homebrewing equipment – well, to say they’re just not the same is to be kind to myself. I need a better, more reliable supply of both.

Happily, that remained available throughout this heartbreaking holding-pattern of a year, though not without sacrifices. Musicians delivered, despite having to virtually give it away thanks to cancelled tours. For brewers, just breaking even likely proved a luxury for many. But in both cases, creativity was clearly not curtailed.

To close out the year, I’m pairing my favourite albums of 2020 with Alberta craft beers that were experiences in their own right. These were bright lights illuminating anything that stayed good during dark times. Let it never be said that funding for the arts is misspent, or that government grants to help build a nascent industry were misguided.

After all, it’s sobering to think of the world without amazing music or excellent Alberta craft beer, even in a year without a plague.

Matthew Good, Moving Walls | Dark Mild, Sturgeon Brewing

dark mild beer, sturgeon brewing co.

I don’t think everything is automatic for Matt Good anymore. Over the years, his music has evolved from the catchy Can-rock mould buster that was Underdogs to much more introspective, more carefully crafted stuff. It’s a searching of the soul as though Good lost the key to his own heart somewhere there in the darkest recesses.

Moody and wistful, Moving Walls grabs on and gets you thinking about things you probably don’t think about too often. That tends to take a while. A couple of savoury Sturgeon Brewing dark milds will do the job, and without making the next day feel like work you can’t handle.

Standout track: Parts

Sophie Hutchings, Scattered on the Wind | Separated to a Degree, Trial and Ale Brewing

trial and ale, separated to a degree, beer

Australian composer Sophie Hutchings produced much of my go-to writing music for Tapping the West, my book about Alberta craft beer (also a pandemic release). Pianos do that, though, don’t they?

When played in a certain way, as Hutchings does on Scattered on the Wind (at once atmospheric and focused, uplifting and ominous), they can awaken sleepy parts of the brain that actually have things to say, if they just get poked once in a while.

Separated to a Degree, Trial and Ale’s first barrel-aged offering, was a beer that, for me, encouraged more thoughtful tasting. What is a beer, really? it seemed to ask as the cork popped. It was a question that inspired deep consideration, a more vigorous exercising of the senses, and I was pleased to oblige.

Standout track: Two Flames

Dogleg, Melee | Ring Pop Kveik Double IPA, Eighty-eight Brewing

ring pop kveik double ipa, eighty-eight brewing co

Oh, what a joyful noise! Listening to this Detroit punk-pop quartet is like riding a crazy carpet down the stairs, and Melee is Dogleg’s most bombastic outing yet.

If 2020 was determined to bring you down, this record’s screamy but melodic vocals and blistering guitars promised to pick you up by the collar, give you a good shake and tell you that you’re alive and well and you damn well better remember that. Ring Pop, bright and boisterously hoppy, had pretty much the same effect, demanding attention and gratitude in equal measure.

Standout track: Wartortle

Hum, Inlet | The Wolf, Sea Change Brewing

the wolf, hazy pale ale, sea change

After 22 long years, one of my favourite bands from youth, Hum, returned with an album so good it does indeed seem as if it has been slaved over for decades. I feel like the Wolf, Sea Change’s multi-award-winning hazy pale ale, is also a thing that was worked on until it was just so (whether that was the case or not).

Inlet is classic Hum drone rock: dense, layered and mysterious. Again, same for the Wolf, I’d say. I go back to both again and again, and always find something unexpected to enjoy, some new way into both.

Standout track: Step into You

Sarah Harmer, Are You Gone | Front Lawn Saison, Bent Stick Brewing

front lawn saison, bent stick brewing
Dear Bent Stick, sorry this photo is so bad.

Throughout her career, Ontario singer-songwriter Sarah Harmer has used nostalgia as a bridge between herself and listeners. Whatever past she conjures up she is able to transform into a past we all share. Those are worth revisiting, especially when they sound like Are you Gone, which is beautiful and grounding.

It’s a fine match for Front Lawn Saison, a down-to-earth, dandelion-infused 2020 favourite for me. After all, what’s a more nostalgic image than that of plucking that yellow flower gone to seed, and watching it disappear on the fleeting breath of childhood?

Standout track: Wildlife

Travis, 10 Songs | 1929, The Growlery Beer Co.

This is proof that you should take a photo of every beer you drink. You never know when you’ll need it.

Nearly 20 years after the tear-jerker hit “Flowers in the Window,” Scottish pop-rockers Travis are still sowing the seeds of chart-topping hits, even if the charts don’t care like they used to.

Six albums later, the band sounds more grown up, less saccharine (though not a lot), but as accessible as ever. 10 songs is undemanding yet unrelentingly clever and poignant. To me, that sounds like a kolsch, a deceptively simple beer. The Growlery’s crystal-clear and delightfully crispy 1929 is one of my favourites among Alberta offerings.

Standout track: A ghost

Elder, Omens | Oh My Quad, Brewsters Brewing Co.

Since 2005, Boston’s Elder has grown into a much more progressive band than its gnarled roots as a sludgy, stoner metal band might have been expected to produce. Yet much of the old black magic of early records remains. It just shimmers and shines more than it used to.

Make no mistake, Omens is heavy, sonically viscous stuff. The shortest of the album’s five songs clocks in at more than nine minutes (it’s 55, all told). Oh My Quad, Brewsters’ big, rich Belgian ale, was the perfect slow-sipper for this musical journey, which takes the scenic route through uncharted territories of the imagination – just like a great record, and a great beer, should.

Standout track: Embers

Tapping the West makes the pages of one of Canada’s best magazines

That’s just one tiny reason you should read New Trail

Of whatever attention my book Tapping the West has received, the mention that got my mom the most excited was this little blurb in the fall 2020 issue of New Trail, the magazine of the University of Alberta.

Why am I telling you about my mom’s preference for media coverage? Partly because she’s a grad, and that’s pretty special for her.

When I was a kid, she decided to go back to school to become a teacher. I was maybe 10 years old, my brother was a little younger, and a great deal of the responsibilities of the household fell to her. I have no idea how she struck the balance and got through it all. But in the end, the university – the one that’s currently being gutted by Alberta’s UCP government, along with most of the province’s post-secondary institutes – made it possible for our family to have a better life. I am so proud of her that my cold, dead heart feels as if it is flickering back to life as I write this.

The university – the one that’s currently being gutted by Alberta’s UCP government – made it possible for our family to have a better life.

After my mom went, it only seemed natural for me to eventually go as well. Under much less demanding circumstances, I did a degree in biotechnology (in one class, we made beer!). But any fondness I have for the institute doesn’t come from that. I was a terrible scientist, and the world is a better place because I bailed on it soon after graduating. To this day, I cannot tell you the difference between meiosis and mitosis, which is pretty much the foundation of everything a microbiologist ought to know.

What the U did do for me, and for which I will forever be grateful, is give me access to some of Canada’s best writers and writing instructors, from whom I was lucky enough to learn other fundamentals upon which I am still building today. Those have given me a career, and a vocation. I owe many thanks to Greg Hollingshead and Christine Wiesenthal, in particular. I also owe them a couple of Alberta craft beers.

The same goes for the editors of New Trail, because not only did they mention the book to my fellow alumni, they let me write a short, fun list of beer recommendations to help shine a light on Alberta craft brewers.

So, just like my mom, I was also pretty excited to see the book mentioned. I’m a big fan of the magazine, too, and have been for years. If you haven’t seen New Trail recently, please find a copy, even if you’re not a grad. It stands alongside Canada’s best publications, and does so while telling stories about the amazing things post-secondary institutes do for a community, and for a province – things that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Like ultimately playing a role in the creation of a book about Alberta craft beer, which documents a business that boomed in this province despite having nothing to do with oil and gas! So, mom’s right about New Trail. For all kinds of reasons, it’s pretty special.