THE FORMIDABLY TALENTED ED MCNALLY CHANGED THE FACE (AND TASTE) OF BEER
BY JEFF DAVIS
A few decades ago, before Big Rock Brewery became the behemoth it is today, barley farmer Richard Nordstrom took a tour of the updated Canada Malting factory in Calgary. He was pleased to see his good-humoured friend Ed McNally was on the same tour.
Seeing some malt packed up and ready for shipment, Nordstrom did a little wisecracking.
“I jokingly said, ‘This must be Big Rock’s,’ just sort of kidding. But when we walked over, the invoice on the batch said ‘Going to Big Rock Brewery.’
“You should have seen the Irish glint that came into old Ed’s eye,” Nordstrom said with a chuckle.
Ed McNally passed away at the ripe old age of 89 in August of 2014, following a life that defies concise description. He was a journalist, a prominent Calgary lawyer, a breeder of exotic cattle, and a tireless opponent of the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly on grain.
And this was all before he launched the pioneering Big Rock Brewery at age 60, sparking the craft brewing craze that has swept the country.
Nordstrom, a retired farmer and past president of the Western Barley Growers Association, first met McNally in 1984. He had just joined the association’s board of directors, to which Ed also belonged.
“He was just a real good, hardworking, ordinary guy who genuinely had concern for the farmer,” said Nordstrom. “And that was why he was on the board: to do his best to help with the issue of the Canadian Wheat Board having a monopoly, and the farmer not being able to sell his malt barley directly to a maltster.
“He was concerned about the Wheat Board fiddling and fooling with the domestic and export prices, and saw a lot of injustice there,” Nordstrom went on. “He was a real free marketeer.”
It was around that boardroom table that Nordstrom first heard McNally mention beer.
“More than once, Ed had said, ‘You just can’t get good beer in this country,’” Nordstrom said. “And he was mad, saying he would start up his own brewery, but we all just kind of laughed at him. He was 60 at the time.” But had the room known a little more of old Ed’s story, this ambition may not have seemed so unlikely.
Ed’s father was born in Ontario, and was a gifted surgeon who attained his medical degree at age 20. He served in the First World War, during which he met his love—a Scottish nurse—and took her back to Canada. There, Dr. McNally was dispatched westward by the Canadian government. He was assigned to set up three First Nations’ hospitals in Alberta, and settled in Lethbridge.
Among Dr. McNally’s patients was the well-known Sick family, owners of the Lethbridge Brewing and Malting Company. Founded by German émigré Fritz Sick, the brewery produced a much-loved beer called Alberta’s Pride, known as “the beer without peer.”
During his boyhood years, Ed became fast friends with Kim Sick, heir apparent to the Sick brewing empire. The two remained lifelong friends, and McNally was distraught when Kim told him of his plans to sell the brewery to Molson in 1958.
“Ed was just appalled,” said his wife, Linda McNally. “He said, ‘You just can’t do that, it’s awful!’”
The sale of the brewery was a major blow to the people of Lethbridge, Linda said, explaining that Ed never forgot the disappointment in the community as Alberta’s Pride was taken off the market and replaced with Molson Canadian.
“It was something all the Lethbridge people were so proud of,” she added. “There was a real sense of pride, and suddenly it was taken over by a very large eastern company.”
The disappointment Ed and the broader community felt stuck with him for the next 25 years, resurfacing thanks to a German friend named Otto Leverkus. Leverkus had a passion for the Canadian West, but would always lament how he missed the fine-quality food and drink of Europe. “He used to say, ‘Oh, I love Canada, but the beer! And the cheese!’” Linda said. “Otto used to just shake his head.”
It was 1984 and Leverkus complained the big brands were bland, watery and, for the most part, all the same. Plus, they were full of strange ingredients and chemicals that violated the Reinheitsgebot—the 1516 Bavarian Purity Law, much beloved by German beer drinkers. The Reinheitsgebot stipulates only four ingredients may be used in beer: water, hops, barley and yeast.
Ed was 60 at the time, and had been retired from practising law for the better part of a decade. In fact, he had already transitioned careers yet again, this time into breeding exotic cattle at his ranch. “We had breeds like Simmental and Maine-Anjou,” Linda said. “They were brought over to give hybrid vigour to the Hereford and Black Angus.”
Ed decided to put this breeding on the back burner, and make his dream of good beer a reality. Leverkus helped him “import” a German brewmaster named Bernd Pieper, and brewing began in 1985. Staying true to German tradition (hence the now-ubiquitous Big Rock Traditional Ale), all the beers were pure malt, unpasteurized and preservative-free.
As for the brewery’s name, it came straight from the field.
“On his farm near Okotoks, there was this big rock—a huge rock—on it,” Nordstrom recalled. “And I remember him saying if he ever got this brewery going it was going to be Big Rock Breweries. “He had a lot of things figured out, old Ed.”
The last time Nordstrom had the pleasure of seeing Ed was a few years ago at the Western Barley Growers Association annual convention, where Nordstrom presented him with a lifetime appreciation award.
“We apologized to him for laughing at him back in 1984 when he told us he was going to start the brewery,” said Nordstrom. “And he had that twinkle in his eye again. “We called him elderly back then, but he was just getting started.”
The late Ed McNally stands as a shining example of decency, hope and charity for Albertans. In 2005, when he was inducted into the Order of Canada, he was described as “an inspiration to other freethinking entrepreneurs.”
By his family, he is remembered fondly for his kindness and his lovely singing voice.
“He really had curiosity, a lot of energy, and he loved challenges,” Linda said. “Life was really very interesting to him, and he really didn’t see any reason why he couldn’t achieve anything he desired. He always saw how things could be better.”