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?
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.
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.
Here’s a thing people say: “Putting a book out during a pandemic – that must have sucked.” They don’t say it quite like that, but they might as well. Truth is, it hasn’t been nearly as bad as I expected. Some publishing houses held back their spring 2020 books. Mine, Touchwood Editions, didn’t, and I’m grateful. Everything has gone all right, at least from my perspective as a know-nothing first-time author.
I’d like to take a moment to celebrate that, and to look at the unexpected highlights of an absolutely horrible year. Thanks to a lot of great people, some decent stuff came out about the book, or happened because of it. In fact, that list is reassuringly long. I’ll spare you – I’ve made a short version below.
Before we get to that, however, thank you to everyone who put the time, and possibly money, into reading the book. That means a lot to me. One day, hopefully sooner than later, I’ll get the chance to clink frothy mugs of fancy beer with some of you, rather than raising a glass from afar, all by my lonesome. Cheers, just the same.
1. Virtual launch, thanks to Edmonton Public Library
2020 was the year that having beers online became a thing, but who knew I’d get to have one with Ben Rix of Bent Stick, Greg Zeschuk of Blind Enthusiasm and a few dozen friends and strangers? This lovely conversation was facilitated by Katherine Gibson at Edmonton Public Library. And now it’s preserved forever on the YouTube for your enjoyment.
2. Review in What’s Brewing
There were a handful of kind (and constructive) reviews for Tapping the West and I am grateful for them all. One that stands out to me, however, appeared on whatsbrewing.ca, a lauded B.C. beer magazine. That the book, as reviewer Ted Child suggested, had the potential to bring the amazing story of Alberta beer to craft lovers from out of province made me think, “Hey, maybe all those summer Saturdays of locking myself in a study room and tapping away in the local library were worth it after all!”
3. Pairing the book with the beers
My book was never meant to be a guide. Alberta has a guide and needs no other. That said, the book is all about Canada’s best beer, so why not showcase the product a little?
That’s why I created this addendum, matching some of my favourite Alberta beers with the people who make them, page by page. I wouldn’t suggest anyone read my book more than once (it ain’t no work of fine literature, after all), but even I could be tempted to go back to this handy, well, guide.
4. Appearance on the Ryan Jespersen Show
Don’t bother trying to click on that image – Ryan Jespersen has been stricken from every obelisk, it would seem, on the webpages of Corus radio, or more specifically 630 CHED, from which he was fired in September 2020. I did a fair bit of radio for Tapping the West, but my interview with Jespersen stands out for his thoughtful questions and roaring enthusiasm (to be fair, this chat with the funny and genial Russel Bowers of CBC Radio runs a close second).
“It sounded like he was yelling at you!” a friend commented after the Jespersen interview. I like that. We should be shouting from the Rocky mountaintops about Alberta beer, shouldn’t we?
5. Gourmand Award for best beer book in English in Canada
I’ve said many times and will say it again here: writing awards are the outcome of the rolling of the dice. If there’s a cosmic alignment of right product, right time, right judges, you win. Change any one of those and yer out, sucker.
Now that I’ve said that, I have to say thank you. Because writing awards, regardless of how you feel about them, do two important things. One: they can attract media, and that’s helpful for someone trying to sell books. Two: they notify you of your worthy co-nominees, whom you should learn from, which I enjoyed doing in this previous post. So, thanks Gourmand – and thank you, lucky stars!
6. Appearance on the Daisy Chain Book Co. podcast
A few very kind people hosted me on their podcasts to talk about the book and I loved it every time. It’s such a pleasure to be able to have a conversation, as opposed to a five-point conventional media interview, with someone who’s willing to devote the time and energy to this mode of longform storytelling.
My chat with Brandi Morpurgo, owner of Edmonton’s Daisy Chain Book Co., stands out because it veered away from beer every so slightly to talk about writing, which is a thing I love to talk about almost as much as craft beer. It’s worth a listen if only to tap into Morpurgo’s passion for supporting the writing community.
7. Learning to make vegan Irish stew
I am a terrible cook. There. I said it so my lovely wife doesn’t have to. (My kids already do.) So when Karen Anderson of Alberta Food Tours challenged me to make a dish for St. Patrick’s Day using an Alberta beer, I though it was about time I tried to make something someone would like, food or otherwise.
This vegan Irish stew, flavoured with Sea Change Brewing’s Irish red ale, shocked everyone in the house. There may be hope for me, and my family, yet.
8. The Christmas marketing campaign
What do you do when you have no cash for some flashy ads to boost Christmas sales? You make your kid work for their holiday loot with an unpaid acting gig, that’s what! This might seem like an unlikely highlight to include in my list, but this “commercial” makes me laugh every time I watch it.
I think you will too. If you don’t, you’ve got a heart like the Grinch, long before it grew. (That was one take, by the way. I think there’s a future there, don’t you?)
9. Exit interview with Neil Herbst
Here’s a thing that wasn’t in the book. Soon after Tapping the West came out, Neil and Lavonne Herbst closed the deal on Alley Kat, their Edmonton brewery of 25 years, selling to local entrepreneurs Zane Christensen and Cameron French.
As part of a story I have coming out on that sale, I re-interviewed Neil. For me, this closed a key chapter in the history of Alberta craft beer. The interview marked the end of his long goodbye to a life’s work, and perhaps in a way my own goodbye to him. Where’s a beer for me to cry into? Can it be a Full Moon pale ale?
10. Planning for the next round
Ah, who am I kidding? I’m not about to let Neil Herbst off the hook that easy. I’m pretty sure that if COVID doesn’t stop me (because as we all know it’s getting in the way of f-ing everything) there’s another book about beer in me yet, for which I’ll need his help once again. It’s been fun to start planning.
For the past couple of years – including the research and writing of the book and the, well, nothing of note that followed – it has been such a pleasure to immerse myself in the world of local craft beer and get to know the people behind it. Like I said in the book, it’s bigger than beer. At least, I think I said that. Somewhere near the back. It’s probably a quote out of context.
In any case, that world, and the privilege of writing about it, is hard to get enough of. So, yes, please, another round (assuming my publisher doesn’t cut me off and send me home).
Getting the craft beer story outside the craft beer bubble
I think craft beer is an amazing story in Alberta. I wouldn’t have written a book on the subject if I didn’t.
I has it all: passionate Albertans, entrepreneurship, local ingredients, creativity, growth, risk, national and international acclaim.
This is why I try to get that story into a wide variety of forums, rather than just craft beer media outlets. (I know I’m not the only one doing this; just look at Jason van Rassel’s work in Edify every month.) I really believe that the makings of our craft beer industry show a new way forward in this province. Just sayin’.
I was very pleased, then, to be able to tell that story in the spring 2021 issue of AMA Insider. In addition to editor Craig Moy, I owe thanks to
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. 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.
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 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.
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 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.
One of the great discoveries for me in writing Tapping the West, my book about the rise of Alberta craft beer, was the close connection between the industry and local agriculture.
Everyone knows that the main ingredient in most beers is barley. What might be a surprise to the majority of Albertans is that that ingredient comes from right here: we produce more barley than any other province in Canada, and more than all of the U.S. And it’s world-class stuff, used in some of the best beers on the continent (including Alberta craft beers, of course) and around the world.
How nice was it, then, that Ian Doig of GrainsWest came calling one day to chat about the book. Ian is a thoughtful interviewer and we had a great conversation about everything from the growing popularity of craft in rural Alberta to beer as a cultural commodity. Thanks again, Ian!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.