A HISTORY OF BEER : Light Beer Comes to Canada

By Matthew Bellamy

miller-lite-original-can_slideOn 31 January 1977, C.A. Stock wrote to his colleague at the Labatt Brewery in London, Ontario stating that, “It seems very possible that the times are right for a reduced calorie beer.” Stock‘s comments were stimulated by the rise of “light beer” south of the border, particularly Miller Lite, whose introduction to the American public in 1975 helped propel Miller Brewery Co. of Milwaukee from fifth to second place in the business of brewing.

Before Miller Lite’s stunning success, U.S. brewers had experimented unprofitably with low-calorie beers. The first light brew, Gablinger’s Diet Beer, was a complete flop. Introduced to the dieting public in 1967, the beer was the invention of the biochemist James Owandes, who discovered a way to isolate an enzyme that could break down high-calorie starches and make them easier for the brewer’s yeast to consume. The result was a lighter-bodied, lower-calorie brew with 4.6% alcohol by volume. Unfortunately, the company’s television commercials, which featured a man with the girth of a sumo wrestler shoveling spaghetti into his mouth while downing Gablinger’s Diet Beer, did little to help the brand’s popularity.

That same year, Meister Brau of Chicago developed a new product and launched it to the local market as “Meister Brau Lite.” Like Gablinger’s, it was a failure, primarily because it lacked flavour and was marketed to women and the diet conscious – two groups that didn’t drink much beer. Meister Brau became so disenchanted with its product that it sold the trade name – Lite – to Miller Brewing Co. in 1972.

The problem that the first light beer brewers could not overcome was that, in reducing the amount of malt in order to cut calories (and, subsequently, lower the alcohol), the resulting beer tasted, as one industry insider put it at the time, “like dishwater.”

Unlike its predecessors, Miller Lite tasted more like regular beer. This was because Miller had managed to develop a new process using starch-removing enzymes that kept calories at the diet level (about 96 calories per 12-ounce U.S. bottle, compared with 150 for regular brews) while maintaining both the taste and the approximate alcohol content (3.6 to 4.2 per cent alcohol versus 4.8 for standard U.S. beer). This allowed the company to market the product not simply as a beverage for the diet conscious, but as a tasty, low-starch beer that enabled beer drinkers to consume more without feeling bloated.

Miller promoted the product with one of the most innovative advertising campaigns in the history of brewing. When reviewing Meister Brau Lite’s history, Miller discovered that the brand sold well in the blue-collar town of Anderson, Indiana. This suggested that light beer could appeal to regular beer drinkers. But instead of pitching it as a diet beer, Miller decided to promote it as a great tasting premium brew that was less filling. As the memorable inaugural campaign put it, Miller Lite was, “Everything you wanted in a beer… And less.”

6ece8b8fb2d66f62d4b655214e87127eThe pitch was perfect for the 1970s when consumers were becoming more health-conscious. In its commercials, Miller used legendary sports figures, like Matt Snell, Billy Martin, John Madden, and Bubba Smith, who joked about their playing days and argued about the merits of drinking Miller Lite. Some insisted it “tastes great”, while others argued it was “less filling.” Miller sold more than five million barrels of Lite in the first year. Company sales rose 43 percent in 1976, while other U.S. brands experienced marginal increases or outright losses. Miller’s competitors quickly took note, and by 1978 there were more than 20 brands of light beer on the U.S. market.

Canadians got their first taste of American-styled light beers in 1973 when Labatt began test marketing Cool Springs Lager in British Columbia and Alberta, before taking it to Ontario two years later. Cool Spring had 3.9% alcohol by volume and about ten percent fewer calories than regular strength beer. Compared to the Miller Lite campaign, however, Cool Spring’s promotional efforts were unimaginative. “Who’s going to drink it?” asked one ad, followed by the passive proposition, “Maybe it’s for you.” Shortly thereafter Molson launched a low-calorie beer called Crown Lager, and Carling O’Keefe introduced Alta and Cascade.

The problem for Canadian brewers was the fact that, unlike their American counterparts, they could not label these new brews as “light.”  Under the terms of the federal government’s Food and Drugs Act, “light” beer had to contain between 1.2 and 2.5 per cent alcohol by volume. Only then could they be labelled as “light.” The federal regulations were drafted to ensure that “light” beer would be significantly different from traditional suds and that all the brands would use similar formulas.

The federal law baffled the brewers. “As it now stands,” Labatt’s Director of Corporate Affairs, Hugh Segal, stated in 1977, “we can’t advertise or label Labatt’s Cool Spring brand as a light beer because it, like the other three low alcohol beers on the market, contains 3.9% alcohol by volume, and 2.5% alcohol is the limit.” Nor could low alcohol beers be promoted as low-calorie alternatives, because they contained more than the permissible 50% of the calories of regular beer. Hugh Segal and others at Labatt felt the laws were unfair and out of step with the times. As a result, Labatt sought to challenge the law.

Despite the ban, Labatt brazenly introduced “Special Lite“ to beer drinkers in Ontario and British Columbia in December 1977. Unlike its U.S. rivals, Special Lite’s brewing process did not use enzymes, but a natural yeast action that the brewery kept under wraps. The resulting brew contained 99 calories and 4.0% alcohol by volume. Unfortunately for Labatt, the federal government took issue with the use of the word “Lite” and ordered Labatt to halt production after only one day. “The whole situation is a little bewildering,” stated the president of Labatt’s Ontario Breweries, Bruce Elliot, on 2 January 1978. “It was our understanding that the Health and Welfare Ministry was keen on the beer industry introducing a good-tasting but lighter alternative to regular beer. Now that we have, we find that we have to contend with roadblocks.”

…the foundation had been laid for a revolution in Canadian brewing.

As Labatt and the federal government fought it out in the courts, Molson launched “Molson Light.” In the commercials that appeared during the 1978 NHL playoffs, Canadians were informed that Molson Light was a golden lager with 4.5% alcohol. “You’ve got to have heart,” Molson Light commercial watchers were directed, before being asked: “Had one yet?”

That same year, Carling O’Keefe introduced “Highlight” to the beer drinkers in B.C., Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario. The brand was promoted as “the light beer that you have been waiting for.” Unfortunately for Carling O’Keefe, Miller Brewing Co. took issue with the brand’s name and filed suit against the Canadian brewer for trademark infringement. Carling O’Keefe vowed that it was not trying to capitalize on Miller High Life’s success south of the border. Indeed, the Canadian brewer insisted that any American association would be detrimental to the brewer because Canadians believed that American beers were too watery. Nevertheless, in September 1978, Carling O’Keefe changed the brand’s name to “Trilight” and re-launched the beer using the same label and packaging.

With all the big brewers having a reduced calorie, low-alcohol beer on the market by the summer of 1978, they all had something to lose if the federal government got its way in court and they weren’t allowed to use the word light. “If the government wins the case,” stated Donald Thompson, the communications director for Molson’s Ontario breweries, “the light beer market is dead.”

Fortunately for the brewers of the nation, in December 1979, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled six-to-three in favour of Labatt and found that all of the Food and Drugs Act’s regulations concerning the brewing of beer were invalid. Besides wiping out the regulations, the court struck down Section 6 of the Act in its application to malt liquors (i.e. beer). It also ruled that the federal cabinet had no authority to prescribe standards of composition, strength, potency, purity, quality or other property of any article of food, drug, cosmetic or device insofar as beer was concerned.

The ruling meant that light beer was here to stay. And while many Canadians didn’t like this first batch of light brews, the foundation had been laid for a revolution in Canadian brewing.