An auspicious anniversary passed us by last month, nearly unnoticed due to the doom and gloom in the news. That’s right gentle reader, this year marks the 35th year of Alberta’s best-known craft-ish brewery, the inimitable Big Rock!
I was too young to imbibe Big Rock’s inaugural brews back in 1985, and there were a few shameful years in college that my undeveloped palate favoured Molson Dry. Luckily, I was able to put the disgrace of that youthful indiscretion behind me, and was knocking back bottles of Traditional and Grasshopper by the early 1990s.
It’s all thanks to a spunky Lethbridge lad named Ed McNally. While he started his career as a lawyer, I think the beer-related happiness he’s brought all of us more than makes up for that youthful indiscretion. It was during a legal battle representing a group of barley growers against the Alberta Wheat board that Ed learned Alberta grows some of the world’s best malting barley. Seeing an opportunity, Ed traded in his fancy lawyer suit and became a farmer.
Like many farmers, Ed enjoyed a good beer at the end of a hard day. Unfortunately, in the 1980s, the market was dominated by big-name breweries from eastern Canada. Ed found these mainstream beers too bland for his taste, and preferred the more flavourful imported beers.
Always the entrepreneur, Ed wondered why Alberta was blessed with world-class malting barley and clean hard water from the Rockies, but still didn’t have a local beer. In 1985, our prayers were answered when he founded the Big Rock Brewery, named after a glacial erratic boulder near Okotoks.
It was a fortuitous accident for the small upstart brewery that the summer of 1985 saw simultaneous strikes of the workers at both Molson and Labatt, meaning that Big Rock was the only beer available in Calgary during the hottest days of summer.
Ed himself rallied the troops to rise to the occasion, with the entire staff working 24 hours a day to meet demand – even Ed McNally himself was on the production line day and night. Sales skyrocketed overnight, and Big Rock was now seen as a serious contender in the marketplace.
From those humble beginnings, Big Rock has grown from a scrappy upstart to a grizzled veteran of the Alberta beer scene and beyond, expanding to a new brewery in Vancouver in 2015 to keep up with demand in the BC market, and just a few years later, expanding into Toronto with both a production brewery to serve the Ontario market, and an upscale brew pub with a small pilot brewery system for seasonal and experimental brews.
Ed McNally was at the helm until 2012, when he finally retired as the Big Rock CEO at the age of 87, in order to devote more time to his philanthropic endeavours, and sadly passed away a few years later, but his legacy lives on.
A humble man at heart, Ed McNally also quietly donated vast sums to the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, the Calgary Women’s Shelter, the United Way, and many other worthy causes, which made him one of Calgary’s most beloved philanthropists.
The business world recognized his success as well, making him a Laureate of the Calgary Business Hall of Fame, and his community involvement led him to receive the Order of Canada in 2005, as well as a long list of awards too numerous to mention here.
True to Ed’s original vision, Big Rock continues to produce full-flavoured craft beer, a shining bulwark of resistance to the tides of bland lagers pumped out by the megabreweries.
Indeed, the current brewmaster at Big Rock, only the third to bear the sacred responsibility of shepherding the brand through the ages, has made great strides in returning the brewery to its crafty roots, with an ever-changing rotation of small-batch seasonal and experimental brews that can be found where beer nerds tend to congregate.
The Big Rock Traditional Ale remains my favourite to this day, with its rich malty backbone providing notes of toasted grains, with a slightly sweet and nutty flavour from the caramelized malts, making it a shining example of the English Brown Ale style that many have imitated. With 10 different styles available, Big Rock is sure to have a brew to whet your whistle, so pick up a case at your local booze merchant today!