Jason Lee Norman spreads the word about local authors, one beer can at a time.
By Scott Messenger | March 16, 2022
None of this would have happened without a fertilizer plant north of Edmonton. That’s where writer Jason Lee Norman and future craft-beer company cofounder Kirk Zembal met 15 or 20 years ago, when they were students working summers. “We were doing goofy stuff like jackhammering out phosphoric acid residue and we would just chat,” recalls Zembal. They kept in touch, and, when Norman had the seed of an idea to print stories and poetry on beer cans, Zembal, now marketing head of Blindman Brewing, was keen to bring it to fruition.
“It was one of those coincidences where I knew some-one on the inside, so to speak,” says Norman.
It was also an extension of the Edmonton-based writer’s ongoing quest to get literature literally into people’s hands, building on a previous project. In 2014, Norman partnered with several Edmonton cafes to use coffee-sleeves to convey the work of Alberta-based authors and poets.
The cans are a step up, size-wise. Distribution too. Starting in summer 2019, Norman curated and edited the work of 24 Alberta-based writers, found through his network and social media, for publication on Blindman’s batch of Super Session, a hoppy, low-alcohol pale ale sold in towering, 568-millilitre cans (a true Canadian pint, Zembal points out). The extra height allows for around 200 words of concise storytelling or all the esoteric spacing and line breaks of short poetry. The project continued in summer 2020 with 16 writers, then added a winter edition, with a dark ale (the latest iteration is the roasty but refreshing Super Coffee Stout). Now, some 30,000 cans go across the prairies and British Columbia, a reach that would be the envy of most Canadian literary magazines. (What’s more, the project has spilled over onto radio. For four seasons now, CKUA has hosted Blindman’s authors to discuss and read their work live on air.)
“There’s a lot of eyes on it,” says Zembal. “You’d be surprised by the amount of people who might be reading, and hearing.”
And reacting. As one stout drinker posted on Instagram after reading Janice MacDonald’s “Lists,” about a personal awakening brought on by the minutiae of daily life, “Sometimes you have a good beer and you read the can and say ‘Oh hey, that’s cool.’ Then sometimes…you read the can and say, ‘This is me!! This is my fucking life!’”
This is the connection Norman hopes for in sharing work by the likes of MacDonald — or Conni Massing, Ann Sutherland and dozens more. He wants literature to be considered an accessible artform, as much at home on the side of a beer can as on the shelves of a library. Well, not just on any can. Norman sees Alberta-made craft beer as ideal for his project.
“This is homegrown literature in the same way that you’d have locally grown ingredients for beer,” he says. “[The beer] is coming from a farm, and the land. And very near your house, on a lot of occasions. That’s what these writers are. These writers are from your community.”
Once this winter’s instalment has been read and recycled into new cans, Zembal looks forward to refilling them with fresh beer and more stories and poems. As a frequent supporter of festivals, community events and the arts, Blindman appreciates Norman’s desire to get the work of local writers to local readers. And Zembal knows that, sometimes, all someone needs is fertile ground to help get a good idea to take root.
“I say this all the time,” Zembal says. “Cool shit doesn’t happen unless you support the people doing it. Our world is less without those folks.”
This article appears in the March 2022 issue of Edify