“What’s your lightest beer?”
“What do you have that tastes like beer?”
“What do you have that’s like [Labatt/Keith’s/Bud Light/Oland’s/Corona]?”
These are the most common questions we get when we sample our beer in an area outside of our usual patronage, as we did at Moo Nay Farms this weekend. (As an aside, when these new subjects try our beer, the most common feedback we get is eyes wincing, tongue sticking out, head shaking, and a general look of disgust.)
Ironically, these same patrons happily crowded the grill next to us to try a locally made, farm-fresh, preservative-free sausage. They care about their food quality. So why is beer any different?
A little Canadian beer history…
Much like the US, Canada was ripe with beer at the turn of the 20th century – about 118 breweries with a population less than 7M. After Prohibition ended in 1930, the brewery total declined to about 69 breweries, which survived by brewing beer for consumption outside Canada. (Prohibition was even more devastating for the US, with over 4k breweries dwindling to about 500, which further declined to about 40 through to the 1970s.)
After Prohibition, beer control fell in the hands of publicly owned stores and liquor boards, who imposed heavy, often ridiculous restrictions on alcohol. Many breweries consolidated, the most famous of which was E.P. Taylor’s merger of 30 Canadian breweries into one conglomerate later known as Carling O’Keefe. By 1980, Molson, Labatt, and Carling O’Keefe controlled well over 90% of the beer market.
Then, a series of fortunate events unfurled. In 1971, a group of passionate British drinkers formed the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), which sought to educate the public about traditional, flavourful beers fermented in casks. Michael Jackson (no, not him) published The World Guide to Beer in 1977, which sparked international interest in beer. One year later, the United States legalized homebrewing, sparking a sudden resurgence of small breweries and brewpubs, while a disgruntled Carling O’Keefe employee decried the state of Canadian beer in a popular magazine article. British Columbia minister Peter Hyndman deregulated beer pricing in 1981 to increase competition between breweries, but the Big 3 all increased their price to the same amount. Hyndman then began handing licences to “cottage breweries” to aid in the competition. Craft brewing in Canada was born.
So, there you have it. The “lightest beer” – the beer that “tastes like beer”, like a Blue or an Oland’s or a Schooner, is a pale lager, a style ubiquitous in our nation since 1930, a style the big conglomerates brewed solely because they knew it sold. Your parents drank it. Their parents drank it. And chances are, you’ve drank it. Craft beer isn’t a new style of beer. It’s mostly a reemergence of old styles that were prominent before conglomerates took the stage. Craft beer is what your great-great-grandfather may have drank. It’s in your blood. Though hopefully below 0.08.