One scarcely expects to see a tiny piece of Calgary brewing history touted throughout the
world. Yet there, on the lower left-hand corner of the cover of The New World Guide to Beer by
international beer expert Michael Jackson, sits a bottle of McNallys Extra Ale, a world-class example of
The McNally in question is one Ed McNally, a Calgary lawyer who in 1984 conceived Big
Rock Brewery, the first successful microbrewery to emerge in Alberta. McNallys Extra Ale, a sweet aromatic
dark brew of 7 percent alcohol is a mainstay of the Big Rock line. That it shares cover space with
established names like Pilsner Urquel from the Czech Republic, Guinness from Ireland, and Anchor Steam
from the United States would be considered a grand achievement for a large brewery with a long,
But McNally knew from the beginning that he would be offering something new to
drinkers more used to beers mass-producedand predictably flavoured for the massesby a chain brewer
of long standing. His first three beers were more akin to highly flavoured English ales, and included
a bitter, a porter and a traditional ale.
Sales were slow, and it was not until McNallys Extra Ale was produced as a Christmas
beer in 1986 that Big Rock clearly established itself, and began introducing new beers.
As it turned out, Michael Jacksons take on McNallys Extra Ale was more than polite.
"Strong, full-bodied, smooth. As proud an Irish Ale as can be found anywhere," he wrote in his guide,
which has been continually updated and is available around the world. Thus, "the little brewing company
that could" is known worldwide, though its products are available only in North America.
On taste alone, the company was able to expand to the United States, first to enclaves
where brewing history and beer flavour were the richest: California and the Pacific Northwest. And though
provincial regulations in the brewerys early days did not allow its beer to be shipped outside Calgary
owing to the cottage-industry nature of the microbrewery, Big Rock is now available across Canada with
one notable exception. Quebec, a province with a unique microbrewing history that often borrows from
Belgian techniques, has not opened its borders to the upstart from Alberta.
As for Ed McNally, in May 2005, he received an honorary doctor of laws degree from
the University of Lethbridgea somewhat fitting gift from his home town.
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