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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
First just let me say, if you ever have a chance to be interviewed by Russell Bowers, just say yes. He is one nice dude. Whatever you have to say, he’ll make you feel like it’s the most interesting thing he’s ever heard.
Maybe one day I’ll get over my aversion to hear myself when I don’t have to (listening to words come stumbling out of my mouth in real time is bad enough), but that day is not today – not even with a dude as nice as Bowers!
But my publicist tells me it’s pretty good, and actually think she’d tell me if it wasn’t. So thanks, Russell!
If you like, you can read it online, where the entire issue is posted. The review is on page 48. It’s short but sweet, and kindly recognizes that the book is about more than just some dude trying to pass off brewery-hopping as research. Not that I didn’t. Just not for 300-plus pages. Maybe only 30 pages.
In any case, I am very grateful that the editors made space for me in the issue, and that they enjoyed the book.
Award offers readers a chance to learn about beer writing from around the world
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. (My wife, a librarian, points out that roughly 10,000 books are published in Canada each year. Odds are that more than one is about beer.)
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 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.
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.
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 went 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.
“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.
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.”