The Writer’s Craft

A short story about short stories on beer cans

Here’s a secret: What I really wanted to be in life was a short story writer. I love the form, the way its masters can say so much in so few words. It is a profoundly compact space in the world of fiction, and I would have loved to be among its inhabitants.

But, you know, life. Writing about short stories, though, is all right too — especially when they’re on the sides of cans of awesome craft beer.

Many thanks to Edify magazine for letting me contribute a short article to the March 2022 issue about an amazing partnership between Edmonton writer and editor Jason Lee Norman and Lacombe’s Blindman Brewing that is getting local writing into the community in a unique (and tasty) way.

To explain much more here would run counter to my past ambitions to keep things short but impactful. A guy can still hope, right?

7 albums from 2021 paired with 7 awesome Alberta craft beers

A year of listening, sipping and ignoring bad news

For me, beer and music are two forms of the same thing. When they’re good, both can take you away from whatever you’re thinking or doing, shake you by the collar and say, “Look! This is what’s important right now! This moment!”

It’s not distraction, or escapism. It’s an entirely different and enriching engagement.

What’s more, beer and music go together perfectly. Remember the old days, when there were these things called “concerts?” Hundreds, even thousands, of people gathered side by sweaty side to enjoy songs played by real live musicians. Didn’t a great beer make the music seem that much better? And, in retrospect, wasn’t that beer all the more tasty because of the music?

“Look! This is what’s important right now! This moment!”

Anyway, that’s my case made for another installment of my annual Alberta craft beer and music pairings – two of my absolute passions, and I love taking a moment to look back on both.

Give me your pairings on the social mediums where you found this mess. After all, sharing my thoughts with you and hearing yours are two forms of the same thing for me: a great big pile of fun. Until then, here are 7 albums and 7 beers.

Album: Ignorance, by The Weather Station
Beer: Landlock Ale, by Craft Beer Commonwealth

This Toronto “folk rock” outfit took a decidedly unfolky direction with Ignorance, its fourth record. It might also be their best. Lead singer Tamara Lindeman talked of becoming obsessed with rhythm during the writing and it shows, as Ignorance feels like a 40-minute groove. It’s catchy, inventive and elegant.

Landlock from Craft Beer Commonwealth is the same. There are some pretty complicated hop expressions and interactions going on here, with citrus fronting the band, but they’re as intriguing as the hooks on this standout track, Atlantic.

Album: This Room/This Battlefield, by Our Next Movement
Beer: Hoppy Hefe, by Fahr Brauerei

I am of an age, and perhaps of a personality, where I do not set out to discover much new music anymore. Some of the bands that defined my youth still make albums, and good ones at that. And if they’re not, I can just listen to all the good ones that they made back when I was young. They’re a comfort during unpredictable times.

But 2021, where every day seemed like a highlight reel of the worst moments of the last, demanded newness. Spotify kicked this instrumental album, by a post-rock quartet from Valencia, Spain, into my mix and I’ve welcomed the punky surprises, the layers, the quirks, the freshness of it ever since. Sharks Always Come at Five is a nice, dancey example.

Same goes for Fahr’s Hoppy Hefe, a summer beer I’m now hoarding, and which is now proving useful in breaking up a stretch of -30 C with brightness and brilliance every time I crack one.

Album: I Don’t Live Here Anymore, by The War on Drugs
Beer: Dark Mild, by Sturgeon Brewing

This was, in some circles, the most anticipated album of the year, following up the band’s previous and amazing A Deeper Understanding, from 2017. Is it amazing? Yes, but without the same pop sensibilities. It is wistful, and dense with a generic but still poignant nostalgia. Yikes – what beer wants to be paired with that, huh?

But hold on, there. I Don’t Live Here Anymore is also the kind of record that wants to sit you down for some quality thinking time. A lot of that will be about the past, but that always informs the present in a way that shapes the future, no? Yes! Sturgeon’s low ABV Dark Mild, rich and roasty, puts you in that perfect mood without clouding your thoughts. It’s a luxury.

Treat yourself to a whole howler (heck, maybe even a growler) and get down to some thinkin’ with a track like the ender, Occasional Rain.

Album: Collections from the Whiteout
Beer: Lloyd Christmas Flanders Red, by Troubled Monk

Here’s a confession: I find describing a beer quite hard. I bet there are people who have read my stuff who will not be surprised by this, and that there are others who can relate. There are two contributing factors. One, not having had any training, I often wonder what my palate is telling me. Two, good beer words are hard to come by. Drinkable and crushable are not good beer words.

But when you like a beer, you like a beer, even if you can’t quite figure it out. Maybe you don’t need to.

Same for some albums. With Collections from the Whiteout, English singer-songwriter Ben Howard’s pop-folk tendencies get much looser, dreamier, fuzzier. It’s like the coalescence of reckoning with past success, artistic exploration and pandemic existentialism. You need to find your own way in but when you do you find an expansive, inviting sonic space. Like Far Out, for example.

So let’s go with Troubled Monk‘s Lloyd Christmas Flanders Red. Foeder aged for three years, it is also a coalescence of many influences. It’s dry, tart, rich … and I’m going to leave it at that. But I do know that it’s not crushable. And that it’s good.

Album: Piecework, by Kowloon Walled City
Beer: Lone Bison, by Ribstone Creek Brewery

One of my favourite Alberta beer trends of 2021 was the return of the West Coast IPA. The haze craze did not abate, and that’s OK, but it was nice to see things a little more clearly again, as newer breweries took up a time-tested style. It was also good to see how old standards held up, like Ribstone Creek’s Lone Bison, one of my go-tos.

This is a no-nonsense IPA, heavy on the caramel and pine, only the faintest hints of the tropical stuff, and well balanced despite the 70 IBUs. Big, bold, a bit of a brute – true to its name. So it goes well with Piecework. This is a beautiful, lumbering barrage of orchestrated noise from Oakland’s Kowloon Walled City, one of the heaviest but still listenable bands I’ve encountered in years.

These are an album and beer with an assertive brand of presence, but they’re thoughtfully nuanced. Give Oxygen Tent a shot. Share it with a bison.

Album: Hushed and Grim, by Mastodon
Beer: Barrel-aged Brett 24-2 Stock Ale, by Blindman Brewing

I’ve been reserving the use of the word complex until now. I’m afraid I do have to use it. Let’s apply it to the music first.

For the unfamiliar, Mastodon is a heavy metal act from Atlanta that treats every song as if it’s an album unto itself, packing them with parts, ideas, sonic twists and turns, layers of vocals, and riff upon riff. In the hands of a lesser band, the complexity of Hushed and Grim would verge on chaos. Instead, it’s the work of a band that always shocks you by getting better.

Blindman‘s 24-2 Stock Ale is the work of a brewery that does the same. It’s a pleasantly busy beer, with the richness of the dark malts overlaid with some brett funkiness, offering much to hold your attention. It’s one of my favourites of 2021, just like Hushed and Grim. Speaking of funkiness, have a listen to Sickle and Peace.

Album: As the Love Continues, by Mogwai
Beer: Anything by The Establishment, but Tangerine Trees in particular

2021 was a big year for some. Glasgow, Scotland’s Mogwai landed its first number 1 album in the U.K. with its 10th and mostly instrumental As the Love Continues. I’ve loved this band for the sophistication of its slow builds and trance-dance toe-tappers from the start, which was 25 years ago. What a treat to see them get well-deserved recognition in such a terrible year.

It took The Establishment far less than a quarter-century to get the recognition it also deserved. In 2021, less than three years after pouring its first pint, the brewery was named the best in Canada and the province at the Canadian Brewing Awards and the Alberta Beer Awards.

Compare the sophistication of brewery and band by matching the unforgettable imperial sour Tangerine Trees with Ritchie Sacramento, one of Mogwai’s best songs to date.

But you could just as easily raise a glass of anything by the Establishment to the fact that, as difficult a year as 2021, it did little to curb creativity.

A very small but really fun Calgary Beer photo gallery from research for Tapping the West

Images from the Glenbow Archives and … someone’s basement

I never set out to write a history of Alberta beer with my book Tapping the West. But you can’t talk about why things are the way they are without talking about the way they once were, so a bit got in there. (I’ve heard that there may be a comprehensive history in the works, and I might nudge the potential author to get on with writing, because that’s a book I’d like to read.)

Part of what got in there was about the Calgary Brewing and Malting Company, or let’s just say Calgary Beer for short.

I was reminded of this aspect of the book (I’ve forgotten much of what’s in there, actually, because I am old) by the recent revival of the iconic brand by Village Brewery, just in time for the 2021 Calgary Stampede. Then I also remembered that I have pictures sitting sad and unseen in a dark corner of the cloud.

So, here, for the first time ever, I reveal those pictures!

OK – there aren’t a lot and they aren’t spectacular, but I do think they say something about the path that beer would take in Alberta over the decades to come, and how something like Calgary Beer would ultimately shape the craft beer community we know and love today.

Thank you to the Glenbow Museum for sharing their archives with me (they would with anyone, of course) and Spencer Wheaton, who allowed me to see his amazing personal collection of historical Calgary Beer artifacts (he’d probably do that for anyone as well because he is one nice dude).

Oh, and what exactly is my take on the impact of Calgary Beer on craft beer today? It’s bound to shock and astonish you, but you’ll have to read the book to find out!

In the meantime, please enjoy these striking images for free.

Let’s start with my crummiest photo – complete with my reflection. Look closely at the date on this maltster’s license for A.E. Cross, founder of Calgary Brewing and Malting: 1892-93. This is likely the start of it all. The real deal.
This is my favourite shot from my visit with Wheaton. The bottle in front was found in a farmer’s barn, and is likely pre-1900. Notice how a lot of these styles – nearly absent in local brewing for much of the middle of the 20th century – resemble modern craft. Uncanny!
A draft of an annual report written by A.E. Cross for the 1900 fiscal year, in which he considers the potential impacts of prohibition and does not seem gravely concerned.
From Wheaton’s collection, this lithograph captures the state of the Calgary Beer facility circa 1910. It was done by Canadian illustrator A.H. Hider, who was know for his hyper-realistic style.
They weren’t called the “Control” board for nothing. I’m including this from the archives because I think it’s funny: Calgary Beer being reprimanded for not asking permission to change a label or whatnot. A different time.
All kinds of stuff – including old bombers on the left! I kinda miss those, actually.
One of several oddities in Wheaton’s collection is this award. I like the fact that Cross must have felt that his product was worth shipping across the ocean for judgement by what was likely a very discerning audience, rather than simply considering it a mass-produced lager adequate for the tastes of the local market and that’s that.
Stubbies! The bottle on the right has never been opened. The proof is a small whirlpool of sediment when the bottle is swirled. (Wheaton was kind enough to sell me the glass for my own collection.)
Preserved for all time. Calgary Brewing and Malting was eventually bought out by the big guys, and the originally brewery, Wheaton told me, has gone to “wrack and ruin.” But, just as Wheaton’s collection includes much more than beer and bottles, Calgary Beer is part of a bigger story of Alberta, one of innovation, determination and success. We can all raise a glass to that – and to the strangely unsettling image on this old bar calendar, which is probably also the work of A.H. Hider.

Tapping the West reviews

To those who are willing to read a book and offer several paragraphs of their thoughts on it, thank you

High-profile book reviews are harder to get than they used to be. I don’t believe it was always this way. I remember an entire section in the weekend Globe and Mail, like a little magazine, devoted entirely to long-form reviews and essays about books and writing. It was glorious.

The Edmonton Journal, my hometown daily, used to make a big deal about reviews, too. In fact, I got my start in freelance writing by doing them for that paper (thank you, editor Marc Horton, for tolerating me). There were pages of them in there more than a decade ago. Every Sunday. Now there’s not. There’s not even a Sunday edition anymore, come to think of it.

Blame the shrinking ad revenues that have led to shrinking page counts, for a start.

This is bad, because reviews in publications like these encourage reading among a broader spectrum of the population, which has to be better for us than scrolling through Instagram posts for hours. It’s bad for authors too, of course, who can always use more exposure. More importantly, though, reviews improve writing. Authors read reviews. Or at least they should. Those with open minds will use intelligent, fair criticism to make their next books better.

Authors read reviews. Or at least they should.

Happily, reviews still turn up in magazines, and bloggers have recognized that there’s a void to fill in providing thoughtful commentary on books. Arguably, their reach might be even better than the newspapers, more targeted to the communities that care about a particular topic. Also happily, a few of those magazines and bloggers have offered their own thoughtful commentary on Tapping the West. And, yet again happily, most of it is positive.

Here are those who kindly dedicated space and mental energy to my book. I am grateful (even, and maybe especially, for the constructive criticism).

brutal reality digest logo

Brutal Reality Digest. This zine is devoted to building culture, creativity and community of all sorts, primarily in central Alberta (home, incidentally, to more craft breweries per capita than anywhere else in Alberta). The producers even have a podcast, on which I had the privilege to appear. The review is courtesy of Josh Hauta.

onbeer.org. Does Jason Foster need an introduction? To craft beer lovers in Alberta, at least, no. Foster was the first beer blogger in the province that mattered, if not the first one of all. That story is actually part of Tapping the West (somewhere in the middle or so), which he also reviewed, favourably but for a few catches (I agree with most of them, but not all). He also recommended the book as a Christmas gift idea in 2020 during one of his spots as a beer columnist on CBC radio, which was very thoughtful of him.

Poured Canada. This magazine offers an industry-centric perspective for makers of beer, wine and spirits across Canada, and includes news, profiles and the odd book review. I was grateful to see the book, and the kind words from Lindsay Risto, in the pages of the winter 2021 issue.

whatsbrewing.ca. If you’re after real insight into B.C. craft beer, this site and magazine – named one of the world’s 10 best – is the place to get it. Ted Child offered a review of Tapping the West, in which he appreciated its potential to open the eyes of B.C. drinkers to Alberta beer. He also asked why I ever referenced the Fraser Institute, a right-leaning think tank, (it’s somewhere in the middle or so) in a book about craft beer.

Great point. See? It’s true: You really can learn something for next time by reading these things.

Tapping the West podcasts

I always knew I had a face for radio!

No, don’t worry: I am not starting a craft beer podcast to go with my book, Tapping the West. For one thing, there are all kinds of people doing a really good job of beer podcasts already. For another, technology and I aren’t exactly like oil and water, but we’re certainly not like hops and barley either.

But I do enjoy being a guest on podcasts, where someone much more capable is doing the driving (and recording and editing). Even though I know I’ve said some wild and crazy stuff in longform interviews, it’s always a nice change from the five-questions-and-cut-to-commercial format of most radio spots these days. Not that I don’t like radio – podcasts just feel a little less transactional.

I’ve been lucky to have been invited onto great shows, and interviewed by smart, inquisitive hosts. So now that I’ve been on more than two, why not catalogue them here so that friends, family and total strangers alike might listen and say, “I can’t believe he just said that.”

Thank you to all the hosts for taking the time to include me in their work, as I can imagine it’s not easy (that is, making a podcast and talking to me). Here are the shows and who’s behind them.

brutal reality digest logo

Brutal Reality Digest is my kind of zine, and not just because staffers Josh Hauta and Stuart Old put me on their podcast, but because it’s dedicated to promoting “interesting weirdos.” I’ve got the latter part of that down pat; I’m working hard on the former. The publication (web and print!) focuses on central Alberta and is packed with stories about the arts, entrepreneurs and more. The podcast episode I appeared on launched Sept. 2, 2020. It’s tagged as #Comedy. I like that.

booktruck chronicles podcast logo

The Booktruck Chronicles is one of the vehicles that Brandi Morpurgo uses to promote local literary culture. The other is the Daisy Chain Book Co., her bookstore just west of downtown Edmonton. This is the bricks-and-mortar successor of the book truck she started with, and she’s determined to use the place in a way that builds community among readers and authors. The podcast is part of that. Check it out, along with Chapter 34, when I had the pleasure of speaking with Morpurgo (who has also been a great supporter of my book). It was posted March 8, 2021.

let's meet for a beer podcast logo

Let’s Meet for a Beer is an extension of what Mark Kondrat does for the Alberta beer community, which is to endlessly shift the spotlight from one member to the next. As the CEO of Alberta Beer Festivals, Kondrat knows these people well (far better than I do) and it shows in the informed, thoughtful questions he asks on his show. I attempted to answer some of those in Episode 6, posted on Jan. 26, 2021.

Do you have a podcast that needs an episode featuring a guy who wrote a book about Alberta craft beer and is given to saying wild and crazy stuff? Who doesn’t! My email is somewhere on this site, last I checked.

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.