When one thinks of Canadian beer, the big brewery names are usually the first ones to come to mind — Labatt, Molson, Sleeman. Dive in a little further and you can normally identify the smaller, yet still impressive breweries based on their regional reach: Moosehead, Alexander Keith’s, Steam Whistle, Grizzly Paw, or perhaps Okanagan Springs. When I think of beer from Alberta, one name comes to mind for me, and that is Big Rock Brewery.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I was first introduced to Big Rock by my Calgary travel companion, Gary, during one of our first outings. He suggested a pint of their Warthog Ale, and it immediately became a new favourite.
I will be the first to admit that I am a lover of most beer. Pale ales, lagers, pilsners, stouts, what have you, I will try it. One thing I particularly love is the culinary side to the beer-making process. Recipes interest me; I’m always trying to figure out how something is made and what ingredients were used to create the end product. I had never been on a brewery tour before, but I had always wanted to do one to experience the “behind the scenes” process of producing beer. So when I remembered that the Big Rock Brewery was in Calgary, I jumped at the chance to get us in for a tour.
Founded in 1985 by Ed McNally, a Calgary-based lawyer and businessman, Big Rock has earned the distinction of being the oldest independent brewery in Canada. Ed has been at the helm since the beginning, starting the business when he was already sixty years old. Basing their beer production on the Reinheitsgrebot (The Bavarian Law of Purity of 1516), which states that only barley, hops and water are to be used as ingredients, Ed has established his products as fine contenders amongst the many beers on the market. To me, they’re examples of Canadian craft beer at its best. The brewery even has their own bee hive to collect honey for some flavours.
This past August, Big Rock lost their founding father when Mr. McNally passed away at the age of 89. Taking my first steps into the brewery, I couldn’t help but be impressed at what he’s achieved in the twenty-nine years since he began his new venture. The building is modern, yet comfortable, and every person we met was welcoming. From what I’ve learned about Ed, he was warm and friendly, and those characteristics seem to permeate throughout the brewery.
The first part of the tour consisted of a beer tasting, during which we were invited to try any of the fourteen beers they had on tap in their lounge. With names like Rhine Stone Cowboy, Scottish Style Heavy Ale, The Anarchist, and Grasshopper Wheat Ale, I was intrigued enough to try a little bit of every style. Even their Rock Creek cider was a hit!
After getting substantially imbibed, our tour guide then provided us with hairnets and safety glasses and proceeded to lead us to the production facility. In order to participate in the tour, you must be wearing these items as well as closed-toe shoes (but don’t worry if you forget — Big Rock has rubber boots you can borrow, just in case).
In one room we were shown the different ingredients that are used in the brewing process, then we were escorted through adjoining areas dedicated to the brewing, fermentation and filtration stages.
There are actually three breweries here: the main brewery, the smaller Kaspar Schulz (a German brewing system made of copper) where new brews are created, and a Nano Brewery, for small brew batches (some local restaurants even create their own brews here). The brewery was not in production during our tour as we visited on a Saturday, so we even had the opportunity to look into some of the holding containers.
Once the tour was done the group returned to the tasting lounge where we were allowed to try some more draughts. We were then given a Big Rock pint glass from the gift shop to take home as a souvenir.
Overall the tour was interesting and educational. Our tour leader was friendly and personable, allowing ample time for any questions or comments from the group. I had a great time with my friends here, and I look forward to returning one day to visit their restaurant.
I could think of no better way to pay my respects to Ed McNally than to visit his brewery and celebrate the legacy he’s created. Starting a new business venture when you’re already near retirement age is a ballsy move, but from what I’ve learned about the man, this move was true to his strong, entrepreneurial spirit.
If you’re going to be visiting Calgary, make sure to check out the brewery for a taste of Canadian beer at its best. Also, make sure you ask about the history of its logo while you’re there 😉
Cheers to you, Ed, and the entire Big Rock family. Thanks for a memorable visit!