In 2016, Scott Messenger took on the tasty challenge of only drinking Alberta-made beer for an entire year, and blogging about it. Hiss boozy expedition exposed him to Alberta’s burgeoning beer scene, which led to his first book, Tapping the West: How Alberta’s Craft Beer Industry Bubbled Out of an Economy Gone Flat (Touchwood Editions), out this month.
How did you go from a blog about beers to a book about the Alberta beer scene?
The point of the blog was to try all the craft breweries that were in existence at the time. I didn’t manage them all, but it was really fun. What interested me was that this industry seemed to be coming out almost out of nowhere and just suddenly growing. And I got thinking maybe there’s a way to take a deeper dive into it.
What did you learn about how the scene emerged?
One of the earliest seeds for Alberta was in the early ‘90s, when they deregulated the liquor stores and the government no longer decided what liquor could come into the province. All of a sudden, we went from being able to get your Molson Canadian or your Pilsner to getting an IPA from places like Vancouver or California. So the market was then predisposed to trying new flavours.
Another regulation, which was removed in 2013, said you had to be able to brew 500,000 litres a year, which is a lot of beer. This opened the door for anybody to open a brewery as small as they wanted.
And the local food movement prepared us when restaurants started advertising locally sourced, in-season ingredients on menus. That trained us to be aware that there’s this local market that we can support.
What’s the brewing community like?
There’s more than one story of friends getting together over pints sitting down and saying, I think we can do this. In the early days, these weren’t business people, for the most part. They were just people who had a passion for craft beer, and knew the industry in various capacities. Bent Stick Brewing is one of those stories, and there are others that have seen success.
What could Alberta industries at large learn from the craft brewing community?
Something that came up repeatedly was that there was a lot of cooperation in the industry, in ways that are probably different from most other industries in that businesses were helping each other. For instance, in Calgary there were small breweries who would take their kegs to bigger breweries that had been established earlier, so they could wash them. And the bigger breweries would say go for it.
Shane Groendahl, from Blindman Brewing, is one of the guys behind Beer Geeks Anonymous, and they hold events where they invite all this competition and say to consumers: Try everybody’s beer.
So 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. I wanted to try to capture that to just say we did this, and maybe it can be done in other places and other industries.