When Canada turned 150 earlier this year, many Canadians celebrated by raising a glass of their favourite beer. Maybe it was a Molson Canadian, or a Labatt “150” — as the beer was recently rebranded to commemorate Canada’s birthday – or maybe it was one of the hundreds of craft beers that are now brewed in Canadian towns and cities from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Victoria, British Columbia. Whatever it was, by toasting the nation in this way, Canadians were participating in a tradition of beer drinking that goes back much further than Confederation.
Canadians love their beer. Today, we drink twice as much beer as wine and hard liquor combined. Last year, we produced over 22.3 million hectoliters of suds. And more than ten million Canadians enjoyed a glass at home or in a public place. Beer is to Canada what wine is to France. It is our alcoholic beverage of choice, a marker of the national identity, and a symbol of our “Canadian-ness.”
So what makes beer so “Canadian”? In part, it is the fact that we can make it here, from the land. And we do it well. Our vast northern territory has all of the natural ingredients to manufacture a perfect pint. When Jean Talon, the first Intendant (i.e. governor) of New France, arrived at Quebec City in 1670, he sent out scouts to search for grapes to make wine. Upon their return, they informed Talon that while the Canadian climate was not well suited for grape growing, it was ideal for cultivating barley and hops. In addition, Canada had plenty of fresh water. As Talon discovered in the process of founding Canada’s first commercial brewery, Canada was rich by nature when it came to brewing.
But as today’s brewers well know, it takes entrepreneurial spirit to turn nature’s gifts into a brew that satisfies the senses. In the period between the Conquest of Quebec in 1759 and Rebellions of 1837, brewers like Thomas Dunn, Thomas Dawes and Alexander Keith established breweries that within a few generations became dynasties. The most successful of these colonial brewers was John Molson. The brewery that he founded in 1786 would go on to be the longest-lived family firm in Canadian history. Indeed, of all the business firms of eighteenth-century Montreal, only Molson (now in the form of Molson-Coors Brewing Company) and Gazette newspaper (est. 1775) still exist today.
Like the craft beer makers of today, Canada’s first brewers established themselves where a strong local demand for their product existed. During the 18th and 19th century this often meant being close to where the military was stationed. Beer had long been part of the soldier’s life. During the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), the Commander of the British Forces, the Duke of Marlborough, proclaimed, “No soldier can fight unless he is properly fed on beef and beer.” British authorities accepted Marlborough’s statement as gospel, and in the years that followed soldiers were given enough “beer money” to purchase five pints of beer a day. This gave an immediate incentive to anyone in British North America (now Canada) looking to capitalize on their knowledge of the art of brewing.
So important was the military to the initial success of John and Susannah Oland’s brewery in the Maritimes that for a while it was named the Army and Navy Brewery —before it became Moosehead. Likewise, it is doubtful that the breweries of Thomas Carling and John Labatt would have survived the early years if it was not for the strong military presence in and around London, Ontario. While all of these breweries would go on to be successful mega operations, they started off small, producing high-quality brews for the local population. They were, in essence, Canada’s first micro-breweries.
In the years after 1850, the industry was transformed by the advent of the railway. With its relative speed and power, the railroad overcame the seasonal difficulties of muddy roads and ice-packed waterways, and thus it was far superior to traditional modes of transportation (e.g. stagecoaches and ships) at getting beer to market. The railroad allowed Canadian brewers to burst out of their local confines and to transport their beer to distant places with speed, regularity and convenience. The railway thus transformed the business of brewing from a locally oriented cottage industry to a modern industrial enterprise.
In the years following Confederation in 1867 and before the onset of WWI, brewing emerged as a significant industry. Nevertheless, beer was not yet Canada’s alcoholic beverage of choice. That distinction went to hard liquor. But prohibition changed everything.
Beginning in 1916, one province after another went “dry.” And by 1918, Canada was “dry” from coast-to-coast. Prohibition had a devastating effect on the Canadian brewing industry, cutting the number of breweries in half. The breweries that survived sometimes did so by bootlegging booze to the United States, which experienced its own prohibition between 1920 and 1933. The “noble experiment”, however, was not the panacea for all of society’s ills that the prohibitionists had promised. And as a result, it had ended in most provinces by 1930.
It was then that the brewers launched a propaganda campaign to convince Canadians that their product was the perfect “temperance drink” — “a moderate drink for a moderate people,” as one advertisement put it. If Canadians drank beer moderately and responsibly, the brewers argued, the nation would be a much better place. The message resonated with the majority of Canadians, who did not want to return to the pre-prohibition world of the 24/7 working class salon with its heavy liquor drinking and its attendant vices of drunkenness, gambling and prostitution. Today many Canadians still think of beer in these positive terms. That is why politicians like Justin Trudeau tweet about the stuff and athletes like Jon Montgomery celebrate their victories with it.
The years following WWII witnessed the emergence of a national brewing oligopoly as Labatt, Molson and Canadian Breweries Limited came to control over ninety-five percent of the market. The “big three” — as they were known — produced a few flagship brands and marketed them from coast to coast.
Historically, Canada had been regionally divided when it came to beer: While Western Canadians preferred lager, Eastern Canadians liked ale. As a result, Molson promoted Export ale and Canadian lager, while Labatt pushed “50” and “Blue.” During the 1950s, 60s and 70s the brands of the big three began to taste very similar, to the point that many taste testers could not tell them apart. They were bland concoctions, designed to appeal to as many drinkers as possible. With little to distinguish the brands of the big three in terms of what was inside of the bottle, Canada’s biggest brewers spent millions of dollars each year to promote the image of their products.
But by the late 1970s some Canadians had had enough. “Like tasteless white bread and the universal cardboard hamburger,” one of the pioneers of the craft beer movement, Frank Appleton, wrote, “the new beer [of the big three] is produced for the tasteless common dominator. It must not offend anyone, anywhere.” Appleton’s 1978 article was a call-to-arms for would-be craft brewers. For the first time in decades, new breweries started to appear on the Canadian landscape. These craft brewers were motivated to brew high-quality, unique tasting beers for a local clientele, the way the first brewers had been so many centuries ago. Canadian brewing has thus truly come full circle.
Brewing is profoundly Canadian. We do it well, and we have done so for centuries. So the next time you raise a glass, make a toast to our ability to brew. Cheers! Here’s to 150+ years of brewing.