10 highlights from 1 year of Tapping the West

May 5, 2021 marks the first anniversary of publication of my book about Alberta craft beer

Wow – time sure flies when you’re waiting out a pandemic, doesn’t it? Oddly, it kind of does. Since the publication of my first book, Tapping the West: How Alberta’s Craft Beer Industry Bubbled Out of an Economy Gone Flat, an entire year has disappeared about as quickly as the head on one of my crummy homebrews.

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).

Let’s see what else is brewing.

Recipe: Vegan Irish Stew with Sea Change Irish Red Ale

Easy and tasty – if I can make this, anyone can

I am not much of a cook. Instead, I think of myself as more of a “food preparer.” A microwave is involved far too often. Sounds appetizing, doesn’t it?

This isn’t by choice. I just don’t really know how ingredients work. I do try now and then, when motivated. I was very pleased, then when Karen Anderson, founder and president of Alberta Food Tours, asked me to provide a recipe for St. Patrick’s Day. She thought it would be a fun way to help promote my book about Alberta craft beer, Tapping the West. I agreed! (Thank you, Karen.)

It turned out to be a tasty way, too. A friend of mine pointed out a recipe for a lentil and root vegetable stew he liked, and I modified it a touch, most importantly by trading the recommended wine addition for a local Irish brew. And it worked! Maybe there’s hope for me yet! But I’ll let you be the judge. Here’s the recipe from Karen’s Instagram post on St. Paddy’s Day 2021. Enjoy!

*

Vegan Irish Stew with Red Irish Ale

This recipe for a Vegan Irish Stew incorporates Irish Red Ale from Edmonton’s @seachangebrewingco. “It’s a malty, mostly dry beer but for a hint of caramel sweetness to counter a mild roastiness,” says Scott. He recommends cracking another open for dinner because It pairs “marvelously” with the finished product.

Time: 60 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Equipment: knife, cutting board, measuring cups and spoons, large pot

Ingredients:

* 2 Tablespoons canola oil
* 1 large carrot, washed but not peeled, sliced thinly
* 1 large parsnip, washed but not peeled, sliced thinly
* 1 large leek, roots and green parts removed, halved, washed and thinly sliced
* 2-4 cloves garlic, minced (or to taste)
* 1 teaspoon salt
* 1 Tablespoon dried parsley
* 1 teaspoon dried thyme
* Cracked pepper – to taste
* 1 Tablespoon Maggi sauce
* 2 (540 mL – 19-ounce) cans of dark-coloured lentils (drained, rinsed and set aside)
* 4 cups vegetable stock (Tip: you can also, use 2 vegetable bouillon cubes and 4 cups boiling water)
* ½ cup Sea Change Irish Red Ale (or other Alberta dark, malty ale)

Directions:

1. Heat the canola oil in a large heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat.
2. Add the prepared carrot, parsnip and leek and cook until softened – 5 to 10 minutes.
3. Add the garlic and cook until aromatic – around 30 seconds before stirring in the parsley, thyme, salt and pepper.
4. Add the beer and vegetable stock and bring to a simmer before stirring in the lentils and Maggi sauce.
5. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 15 minutes, covered.
6. Simmer uncovered for additional 10-15 minutes to your desired stew-like consistency.
7. Enjoy in big bowls with thick slices of crusty bread and more cold Alberta dark, malty ale.

Inside craft beer with AMA Insider

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

for helping to tell the tale and spread the word about one of the most exciting industries to hit Alberta in decades: barley refining.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Thank you, Ryan Jespersen: Tapping the West and the Alberta craft beer boom

“He kind of sounded like he was shouting at you,” said one friend who listened to this recent interview. He was joking, but the observation speaks to the enthusiasm with which Ryan Jespersen approaches pretty much any topic he covers – including Alberta craft beer. I think it’s great.

Many thanks to him for having me on the show in early May to talk about my book, Tapping the West, and about some of the factors that went into making the province’s craft beer industry possible. And awesome.

Definitely something worth shouting about, I’d say.

Thank you, Avenue Edmonton: An interview about Tapping the West

If someone’s willing to think of me as an artist for having a written a book about beer, I’ll take it! Thanks to Avenue Edmonton and writer Cory Schachtel for this interview in the May issue of the magazine.

“The book is about the beer scene, but it’s also about business diversification in Alberta. And to me, that’s something that the craft beer industry represents.”