No doubt all of us stuck at home in 2020 are dreaming about our next major road trip. Beer tourism is essential travel, isn’t it?
Good news: Touchwood Editions has published Scott Messenger’s first book, Tapping the West: How Alberta’s Craft Beer Industry Bubbled Out of an Economy Gone Flat. This great little book passes the first, and maybe highest hurdle for BC readers: to get snobby West Coast beer drinkers to dream about a trip to (gasp!) Alberta to taste craft beer. For a regionally based beer book, what would be a greater mark of a job well done?
Tapping the West is not a regional beer guide like we’ve seen so many times before, and the subtitle gives some indication in the author’s different tack. Messenger avoids profiling all 100+ Alberta craft breweries and only does quick tasting notes on a few beers in passing. Instead, he tells the story of beer in Alberta, including a good look at pre and post prohibition brewing history. He utilizes a more personable style of journalism, including himself and his responses in his interviews and explorations. Messenger’s style is affable and affective. He digresses in a way that many beer fans will relate to, as he describes the unique personality of those he interviews and the experiences he had while researching the book.
By not profiling every single brewery, Messenger is able to focus on the breweries that most represent the themes he is following—the main one being craft beer’s relationship to Alberta’s boom and bust economy. It’s refreshing to see a writer take a wider view of beer, including regional politics, culture, and economics. Since he isn’t just interviewing owners and brewers, Messenger also has a chance to take solid looks at the periphery of the business, including college brewing programs, Alberta’s incredible barley, and the small but significant industries of hop growing and small-scale malting.
Knowledgeable BC beer fans will note many similarities, but also significant differences, in the history of craft beer amongst the two provinces. As with BC, 2013 was a big year for craft beer in Alberta, specifically when the government threw out a moldy piece of legislation which required breweries to have a 500,000 litre annual minimum capacity—undoubtedly the work of Big Beer lobbyists. The change allowed for much smaller breweries to exist and thrive, particularly when utilizing Alberta’s world-class barley. So while BC has had a huge uptick in craft breweries since 2013, so has Alberta, meaning mainly one thing: great beer. BC beer nerds should rejoice that their neighbouring province has so many great breweries right now.
Which brings us to a small criticism that is largely political in nature. Throughout the book, Messenger refers to the Alberta legislation change as ‘deregulation’, a term that will invoke heavy political undertones for many. If a government scraps an outdated law (in this case, one of those many prohibition hangovers that continually plague North American liquor law), is it correct to call it that? After all, Alberta still maintains other liquor laws, e.g. minimum age, quality assurance and so on (it’s not the Wild West for brewers in Alberta!). BC also reformed some outdated liquor laws in 2012 and 2013, but no one refers to this as ‘deregulation’.
Another point: quoting the right-wing think tank Fraser Institute as a data source for a discussion on the age of entrepreneurs may seem odd to some readers. Ultimately, these are personal political qualms with an otherwise wonderful book.
There is no book on BC beer that is the equivalent of Tapping the West and what it represents for Alberta beer journalism. Joe Wiebe’s classic, Craft Beer Revolution, is quite a few years old now and is more of a traditional beer guide. Island Craft by Jon C. Stott might be closer to the style and tone of Messenger’s book, but it only deals with Vancouver Island and profiles every brewery there. It would be great to see a widely scoped book about BC beer in a similar vein to Tapping the West. Hopefully, someone is busy working on it as we speak.
Nevertheless, Messenger will have you scanning the liquor store shelves for more Alberta beer. Additionally, you will know exactly what breweries you want to hit the next time you’re in our neighbouring province. As previously noted, what higher praise could a BC beer snob give?
Tapping the West: How Alberta’s Craft Beer Industry Bubbled Out of an Economy Gone Flat
Print Length: 312 pages
Publisher: Touchwood Editions
Publication Date: May 5, 2020