Foothills: Big Rock Brewery founder passed away at age 89

By: Don Patterson

  |  Posted: Sunday, Aug 24, 2014 06:00 am

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For many, he will be remembered for setting off a revolution in Canada’s beer industry when he founded Big Rock Brewery.

Friends, family and Albertans are remembering Ed McNally’s legacy after he died on Aug. 20 at the age of 89. For those who knew the rancher, lawyer, entrepreneur and philanthropist, Ed McNally loved life, the arts, a good debate and a good challenge.

For Okotoks resident and Big Rock Board chairman John Hartley, McNally was a true maverick.

“I don’t think he ever saw a situation that he thought could be changed that was too big to scare him,” he said.

Born in Lethbridge in 1925, McNally was a lawyer, rancher and journalist. And, in 1985 He changed the nature of the beer industry in Alberta and western Canada when he founded the Big Rock Brewery at the age of 60.

At the time, the Canadian beer market was dominated by three companies.

Undaunted, McNally pushed on to build the company in the face of mammoth competition and brew quality, craft beer – something that was relatively unknown to Canadians at the time.

“He recognized that we grow some of the best malt barley in the world, we have some of the best water in the world and yet he couldn’t find a beer here he wanted to drink,” he said. “If you look at that with a little bit of clarity at the time in 1985, it was almost unthinkable and yet that didn’t daunt him at all.”

Hartley said the company’s success is due to McNally. He said McNally had a knack for identifying talented “unconventional” people and he surrounded himself with people who helped him build the company to what it is today.

As McNally built the brewery he helped put Okotoks on the map in the process, said long-time friend Brian Rowland.

McNally lived on his Rio Frio Ranch, just east of Okotoks.

According to Rowland, Big Rock’s facility manager, McNally looked at locating his brewery in Okotoks, before eventually settling on a location in Calgary.

Still, he named his the brewery after the Big Rock, glacial erratic just west of Okotoks.

Rowland said McNally lamented the lack of good beer in Canada and he forged a new path for other small, craft brewers to follow.

“For a little, small company that started when he was 60 years old, he did a masterful job,” he said.

Rowland first met McNally before the brewery was founded. He was in the fuel and fertilizer business and McNally was a farmer and lawyer.

In 1991 McNally approached Rowland about helping out at the brewery “a few days a week,” and he has worked there ever since.

Beyond Big Rock, McNally was a philanthropist and strong supporter of the arts.

He said McNally felt it was important to support art groups, whether it was as a season ticket holder for the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra or with ‘The Eddies’ awards each year.

McNally also leaves a legacy of entrepreneurialism in Alberta’s business community, said friend Tom Walter.

“He had a spirited character to take on challenges, to do things that haven’t been done,” said Walter, who first met McNally more than 16 years ago.

Walter remembers McNally as a man with a quick wit and a sense of humour who loved a good debate.

“He was always stirring the pot, to get a real good discussion going on politics, or business,” he said. “He was a character that you really enjoyed sitting down with.”

Ultimately, whether it was his business, his love of gardening or his wife and family, Walter said McNally was driven by his enthusiastic love of life.

“He loved life, he loved knowledge, he was avant-garde in lots of ways, way out front in lots of ways,” he said.


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