Exit interview: Neil Herbst’s long goodbye from Alley Kat comes to an end

An Alberta craft beer pioneer looks back on a rewarding but rarely easy career

Things change quickly in Alberta’s craft beer industry – or, it just takes a while to put together a book on the subject.

When I visited Edmonton’s Alley Kat Brewing on a frigid Friday afternoon in October 2018, Neil Herbst went to the bar in the busy taproom, grabbed two pints of double IPA and led me to the adjoining boardroom. We closed the door on the chatter and he sat down and started into his story to help me with research for my book, Tapping the West. It was a story he’d told a few times before, but he told it in a way that made you feel he hadn’t, patiently and openly.

Near the end, I asked him about his future plans. Retirement age might have been on the horizon but, at the time, he felt that change wasn’t. He sent me on my way with a couple of bombers from the beer cooler (those big bottles were still a thing at Alley Kat then), ignoring my half-hearted refusal. “I’ve given beer to worse people!” he joked.

By the time my book came out, in May 2020, Herbst no longer owned Alley Kat. In February 2019, he was approached by Zane Christensen and Cameron French, two young local entrepreneurs. By Feb 2020, the deal was done (though Herbst would stay on for about a year longer to help with the transition). An era had ended, in which the Hopfather, as Herbst has been known, spent 25 years building Edmonton’s most widely known craft brand.

For a story I have coming out this summer about Christensen and French taking it from there, I had a chance to talk with Herbst again. Just as he was about to officially step away from the brewery (not before brewing a smoked porter as a farewell), he looked back on Alley Kat through a different lens, telling me about things like why the time had come to move on, the beer that should never have been released, and his feelings about the mark his life’s work made on Alberta craft beer.

Messenger: When we spoke in 2018 you still owned Alley Kat. What happened and why?

Herbst: Lavonne [my wife and business partner] had retired. She was still involved but didn’t have an active day-to-day role in the brewery and was asking me to slow down. At our age, we needed an exit strategy, and we had none. And it just happened that these guys, Zane and Cam, came along. They were pretty persistent.

They first contacted us in February 2019 and then just kept at it. The deal didn’t close until February 2020, so it was a full 12 months to do it.

We were happy because they were local and had similar views to us about where to take the company, and we were at the point where [growing] it at that stage of our lives and career just didn’t make a lot of sense. Zane and Cam are pretty young. That gives them a great opportunity.

tapping the west book by scott messenger with alley kat dragon series double ipa

What do you feel is the nature of the company you were handing over to them?

They have a company that’s very well known. I think they have a brand that’s well respected. We were always very careful about protecting that, making sure we had really high-quality beers coming out. I can think of only one time that we put out a beer that we shouldn’t have.

What was that beer?

Oh dear. It was a fruited barrel-aged beer. It was … not good. It was something we thought would improve in the bottle and unfortunately it didn’t. That would have been 10 or 15 years ago.

It’s a different industry than when you started. Can you compare the times for me?

I think the market is much more mature now. In fact, just for a giggle I homebrewed the original wheat beer that we had. People just couldn’t get their heads around it. It was a very light beer in terms of flavour profile but it was, for the times, quite cloudy.

So when I rebrewed it recently, Lavonne and I were like, “Well it had to have been more cloudy than that.” It barely had a haze. But people were appalled and bars would send it back because there must be something wrong because it’s not crystal clear.

We had to create the market for craft.

We had to kind of create the market for craft. Alberta at that time still had lots of imports, but we were kind of stuck in a zone that people weren’t familiar with because we weren’t an import and we weren’t really a domestic, because domestics were Molson and Labatt, essentially. So we had to work to create that niche. I think we were reasonably successful but it took awhile.

There were a bunch of us that started at the same time: us, Bow Valley, Banff Brewing, Brewsters at roughly the same time, Wildrose shortly after, there was Taps brewpub here in town and [another] brewpub in Calgary. And Flanagan and Sons, of course [in Edmonton]. It was tough for everybody. Basically there were four of us that survived. It was a tough slog.

There’s more acceptance from consumers but also a lot more competition.

There’s a lot more competition but I think there’s still room in the market. If you look at the numbers, the imports are struggling a little bit now, and I think it’s because people are accepting the fact that local beer is good.

That’s one of the things that we ran into, and most of the other breweries. When you said [beer] was locally made, it was like, ‘Eww.’ I don’t think people realized that Molson and Labatt’s were locally made. It was like, ‘Where do you make it? In your basement?’ I got asked that question so many times it was unbelievable. It didn’t have a good connotation.

The taproom is a relatively new development at Alley Kat. And an opportunity for Zane and Cam?

We got the patio approved in 2019. So we had it open for one summer [before the pandemic]. We were slow getting into it, to a large degree because of AGLC regulations.

[Initially,] we were uncomfortable with where the [AGLC was] going with it because they didn’t seem to have a good idea of what we could and couldn’t do. We’d ask if we could do x, y and z and they would say, “Sure.” And then you’d say, “Well if we can do x, y and z, that means that a and b also work.” And they would say, “Oh no, no, not that.” So we waited for clear direction, because we’d been burned by the AGLC a few times.

For instance, Alley Kat is located where it is because we were told there was absolutely no opportunity of ever having a taproom. That was a nonstarter and would never change. And within two years they let Big Rock open a taproom. We just wanted to make sure that we didn’t invest a whole bunch into something that wasn’t going to go.

[Now,] there’s an immense amount of room for growth in that area and it should help out with the wholesale side as well.

alley kat brewing smoked porter

Tell me more about the opportunities for growth at Alley Kat in the next couple years.

I still think the wholesale side is huge, and selling packaged. But I think the taproom has a huge amount of opportunity, too. So I think there’s twin opportunities.

I think there’s some opportunities for export now that Alberta beer has a little more traction – people understand now that there’s actually good beer coming out of Alberta. I think for a long time we were just seen as a place to sell beer into.

Cam was telling me there was beer going to Sweden?

Yeah, a little test of the Swedish market. I think there’s a lot of opportunities like that. The problem is now that I think most markets across Canada are getting saturated and there’s more of an interest in local as well.

What are the new owners’ strengths going into this?

I think a lot of times people get into the brewing industry thinking it’s a cash cow, but really it’s a nickel-and-dime business. Maybe a penny-and-nickel business! So you have to be really conscientious about costs and maintaining margins and they certainly understand that.

It’s a nickel-and-dime business. Maybe a penny-and-nickel business!

I think they have a really great team at Alley Kat that will help them along in any area that they aren’t well versed in. They don’t have brewing backgrounds but they have some great folks in production that can help them along.

When Lavonne and I started this, I homebrewed but I certainly hadn’t run a production brewery. I’d never done sales in my life. My background isn’t in brewing and we did quite well, I think. My background was in political science.

Is there any mistake you made that you would like them not to make?

Certainly, we made tons of mistakes. But you learn from your mistakes. If you’re not making mistakes you’re probably not going to grow. I guess as long as the mistake doesn’t kill you, it’s all good.

alley kat smoked porter, neil herbst

How are you feeling about it being done?

I feel good because Zane and Cam are a couple of good guys. I think they’ll run the brewery similarly to the way Lavonne and I did. We tried to be good corporate citizens and tried to help the industry along as much as we could. I think that they will be similarly inclined.

You’ve been essential to growing this industry. What does it mean to you to look back on that work?

We probably had an impact largely because we were early in. I think one of the legacies that we will have is trying to create craft brewing associations.

Alberta Small Brewers Association is the second one we started. We had the Alberta Craft Brewers Guild that we started in ’95 or ’96. It worked to get a tiered markup system. It was reasonably successful. It wasn’t a great tiered system but it was better than what it had been. Big Rock worked on that separately from us. But we worked very closely on it with [Brewsters founder] Mike Lanigan.

And then ASBA, [former Big Rock president and CEO] Bob Sartor and I got that going initially. [Former Big Rock CFO] Barb Feit was instrumental in that. And of course we were super lucky to bring in [Blind Enthusiasm founder] Greg Zeschuk.

He just showed up at Alley Kat one day and said, “Is there any opportunity to get involved in Alberta brewing?” And I said, “As a matter of fact there is!” I told him that as long as he was happy to work for free he was hired.

greg zeschuk, blind enthusiasm founder and owner

What do you feel Alberta craft beer has given to you? What has it meant to your life up to this point?

So much. I’ve met and become friends with so many great people – those who were and are part of building the industry and those who are consumers. It has given me a lot of satisfaction to know that Lavonne and I were early into the industry and so we got to make our own path, and to some small extent [blaze] the path of craft beer in Alberta.

We saw the whole scope of brewing, all the way from creating recipes to selling the resulting beer to working with others in the industry and government to make Alberta a friendly place for craft beer. It has been a great industry to be part of.

Are you going to keep homebrewing?

Oh yeah, for sure. I’m just renovating the basement right now to get back to homebrewing in a bigger way.

That’s a lovely bit of irony, given that people used to ask you if you made your beer in your basement, and how that wasn’t good.

Yup. Started in my basement and I’m ending in my basement. The big difference is that I started homebrewing because there just wasn’t much variety available [in Alberta]. Brewing soon became a passion and then the beginning of an idea for a business that would provide Albertans with a wider variety of interesting beers.

Now I’m brewing in my basement purely for the passion.

neil herbst, alley kat founder, instagram post

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.

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.

Thank you Russell Bowers, CBC Daybreak Alberta, for the interview about my book, Tapping the West!

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.

Next let me say that I’ve never listened to this interview he did about my book, Tapping the West: How Alberta’s Craft Beer Industry Bubbled Out of an Economy Gone Flat, and about an award it won.

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!

Thank you Culinaire magazine for kind words about my new book, Tapping the West

The July/August issue of Culinaire, a respected Alberta food and drink magazine, came with a snack-size review of my new book, Tapping the West: How Alberta’s Craft Beer Industry Bubbled Out of an Economy Gone Flat.

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.

Thank you, Doug Dirks! Tapping the West hits the Homestretch on CBC radio, Calgary

After getting word that my book, Tapping the West: How Alberta’s Craft Beer Industry Bubbled Out of an Economy Gone Flat, was the recent recipient of a national writing award, Doug Dirks was kind enough to have me on CBC’s The Homestretch.

This was the book’s first radio appearance in Calgary, where Alberta craft beer was born (and now absolutely thrives). Doug was fantastic and enthusiastic, and I’m grateful for the coverage.

That said, I still can’t bear the thought of listening to my own voice so that I can give you a sense of what I said, so feel free to have a listen by clicking the image above!

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. (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 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 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.