Alberta’s Beer King Changed an Industry
Ed McNally, founder of Big Rock and Alberta Venture's Marketer of the Year in 2000, brought taste to our mugs
Tim Querengesser is senior editor with Alberta Venture. Email Tim
by Tim Querengesser
When Ed McNally started Big Rock Brewery in Calgary in 1985 Canada’s beer industry was an oligopoly. Three companies dominated nearly the entire market – Molson, Labatt and Carling O’Keefe. Their products were often based off two or three base brews – a lager, an ale – with varying amounts of water (and preservatives) added to create different labels. But worse, for some, was that this beer domination was clustered in eastern Canada, or old Canada: Molson was from Montreal; Labatt and Carling O’Keefe were from Ontario.
When Ed McNally died last week, at 89, he left behind a Canadian beer industry that he had helped reshape. His insistence on brewing the full-flavored, traditional European-style beers that he enjoyed, rather than worrying about market popularity, was a catalyst for the craft-beer movement that is changing the industry. His first brewmaster was a German from the Heineken empire. His first products, Traditional Ale (or, as most Albertans now know it, “Trad,”) Bitter and Porter were magnitudes more flavorful than their mass-produced competitors. Traditional was a market success and remains a solid seller to this day.
As an entrepreneur, McNally was late to the party. He was a successful lawyer and barley farmer before becoming a brewery owner at the age of 60. The brewery that he formed in Calgary grew quickly, though. By 1996, Big Rock outgrew its original location and moved into its current brewing digs in Calgary, one that has the capacity to produce 200 hectolitres of beer per year. In 2013, with McNally now playing a supporting role rather than running the company (he retired in 2012, turning over the reins to Bob Sartor), Big Rock announced its intention to build a brewery in British Columbia.
McNally was as much a philanthropist as businessman. He started the Big Rock Eddies and is also a member of the Order of Canada in recognition for this work. In 2009, he was also inducted into Calgary’s Business Hall of Fame.
By pushing back against a perceived dominating force, and by injecting Canada’s beer industry with Western pride, McNally won support of the everyman in Alberta. That’s not only in pubs and bars. Farmers outside Calgary have long stacked hay bales in their fields to look like beer cans in support of McNally and his company.
In 2000, Alberta Venture named McNally our marketer of the year. Read our profile of Ed McNally from that issue here