Before microbreweries sprang up all over the land, “beer” in Canada meant something made by either Labatt’s, Molson, or Carling-O’Keefe. Or so goes the view from central Canada. Outside of Ontario and Quebec, regional breweries and brands ruled. Oddly enough, it was interprovincial trade barriers that played the biggest role in the diversification of beer brewing across the country.
Essentially, it was against the law to transport beer across provincial borders. Going way, way, back before the railroads or the Trans-Canada highway linked two of our three coasts, regional breweries worked hard to pump out the suds that were in high demand among working people in local markets across the land. Back then, beer drinking was considered to be a healthy endeavor. In fact, there was some truth in this. In Montreal in the early 19th century, for example, the water system was very unhygienic, drawing directly from the polluted St. Lawrence river. Typhoid and Cholera were common. Beer, however, was made from water that was boiled, which killed the germs. As a result, those who drank beer instead of water were actually healthier — prompting the army of the day to decree that every soldier should drink a minimum of six pints of beer per day.
As transportation technologies improved, the larger central-Canadian breweries (Molson, Labatt, Carling-O’Keefe, and Dow) started shipping their beer outwards, challenging the sovereignty of the smaller regional brands. Somewhere along the way, the government — in the interests of the regional breweries — introduced the interprovincial barriers, to prevent the central-Canadian breweries from putting the smaller regional ones out of business.
It worked to some extent. Over time, however, the trend was for the larger breweries to simply buy the smaller ones. This worked well for the big breweries because it meant they were serving markets from east to west, and it worked for the locals because it meant the local breweries did not shut down and throw all those people out of work (they simply changed owners).
These trade barriers still exist, although they have been relaxed somewhat. They are something of a thorn in the side of the big breweries, because they would rather follow the American model, where gigantic central breweries brew up suds and then truck it to consumers all over, crossing state lines without a whisper. After all, one massive brewery is more efficient than six or seven smaller ones.
The breweries are now using branding to fight the trade barriers. The big name Molson and Labatt brands are available coast-to-coast, although they are brewed in the region in which they are chugged. In other words, that Molson Ex you sipped in Saskatoon didn’t come from the same brewery as the one that you shotgunned in Chicoutimi. But the central branding idea is to get you hooked on Ex, or Canadian, or Blue, so when the day comes that the trade barriers come down, they can shut the local breweries and centralize, since the brand loyalty is already established.
Oddly, the reverse is also happening. For example, Alexander Keith’s India Pale Ale — the Nova Scotian beer — has been available in Ontario since about 1997, and here in Quebec since about 2000. The Keith’s we find here is indeed brewed in Nova Scotia (Halifax, specifically). And you should believe the ads — Keith’s really has been brewed in Nova Scotia for almost 200 years. I grew up there, and I can testify to the fact that only oddballs drank anything else. I never laid eyes upon a Molson Ex until I took a trip to Ontario when I was 20.
Anyone who has stood on the west-bound platform of the green line at the Berri/UQAM Metro station over the past couple of weeks has seen the enormous ads advertising the arrival of Kokanee to Quebec. Kokanee, as the ad suggests, is a regional beer from British Columbia. Like Keith’s in Nova Scotia, Kokanee has a long history in it’s home province, the brewery having been founded in the mountainous interior of B.C. back in the late 19th century. It made it’s name brewing fresh lager from crystal clear mountain glacier water. Mmmmm, refreshing!
Now for the bad news. Although Keith’s India Pale Ale is still brewed in Nova Scotia, it has been owned by Oland Breweries since longer than I can remember, and Oland has been a partner of Labatt’s since 1971. Kokanee, which conquered Ontario in 1997, is not only owned by Labatt’s, but the “fresh taste of B.C. glaciers” we can now enjoy in Quebec comes straight from the Kokanee brewery in — London Ontario.
Here on the Plateau in Montreal we’re pretty spoiled. There’s an abundance of really excellent microbrews available at every depanneur and in every bar. Heck, I don’t think you can even get a Labatt’s Blue at Else’s. Downtown, however (and some would say in the rest of the country) is virtually owned by the big breweries. (Try to find a St. Ambroise or a Boreal Rousse on Crescent Street.)
That’s fine with me, as I don’t hang out in downtown bars anyway, and if I do need refreshment in that part of town I’ll repair to Hurley’s or McKibbins, where I’m assured of a properly drawn Guinness or some other notable import. Just don’t give me one of those fake Kokanees, because you know, the glaciers in London Ontario just aren’t up to par.