What Would John Do?

Legendary brewmasters demanded better beer than this dreck

by Jason Foster

labatt

pintsYou wouldn’t know it from the taste of their products today, but at one time the names behind many great global beer brands were brewers who truly cared about the products they sold. The likes of Alexander Keith, John Labatt, Augustus Busch, Arthur Guinness and others brewed at a time when breweries made real, unadulterated beer — no corn syrup-laden alco-pops back then.

Those were the days when you could tell a brewer’s product by its taste rather than its advertising.

Most of the grandfathers of modern brewing would roll over in their graves if they tasted their namesake beer today — and what beer lover could blame them? So I got to wondering: if the pioneers of brewing were alive today, what beers would they drink?

Sadly, almost all of them wouldn’t be able to stand the beers that still bear their names. Today those products are the result of a half-century of homogenization and degradation in the name of mass production, and resemble almost nothing of their origins.

Take Alexander Keith and his (now) woefully misnamed India Pale Ale. Today it’s just an average pale lager, but in his day it was a real IPA. A high-profile Haligonian, proud Scot and a bit of an iconoclast, Mr. Keith was known for his commitment to local community — which makes me think that if he lived in Halifax today, he’d choose Propeller IPA. It’s not (yet) available in Saskatchewan, but it’s an excellent example of a British-style IPA, with some rich toffee and biscuit malt flavours, and an earthy hop character that doesn’t overpower.

On the other hand, if Keith lived in Saskatchewan, I’m pretty confident he’d be just fine with Paddock Wood’s 606 IPA. It’s a bit sharper and more modern, but it retains a significant British influence.

And what about the founder of Canada’s oldest brewery, John Molson? We know that the England-born Montreal tycoon’s initial beers were highly influenced by his home country, which means that today he might go for Hobgoblin before picking up anything made by his descendants. This traditional Extra Special Bitter (ESB) screams old England. With rich malts, soft hops and a nicely balanced profile, the dark copper beer harkens back to what British ales might have tasted like in the 1700s.

The patriarch of Canada’s second-leading brewing family, John Labatt, was a staunch Irishman (which only furthered the beginning of what’s become centuries of antagonism between the two companies), which means he would have wanted nothing to do with those fruity English ales. In fact, one of Labatt’s first big beers was a porter: a dark, malty relative of stout (let’s just glide over the irony that porter was a style created in London). So I bet he’d happily quaff a pint or two of Harviestoun’s Old Engine Oil. This enigmatic beer is darker and more roast-y than most porters, but I think Mr. Labatt would warm to its rich flavour and slight coffee finish. Plus, he’d be pleased that Harviestoun is a Scottish brewery, rather than an English one.

Then there’s John Sleeman, the third member of Canada’s former beer troika, as all three companies are now foreign-owned. (Did you have to be named John to be allowed to pick up a mash paddle in those days? Just sayin’.) Sleeman was an Englishman as well, and his first beers were also British-influenced. His brewery was called Silver Creek Brewery and specialized in British-style ales, much like Molson. So for Mr. Sleeman, Old Speckled Hen may taste more like home. It’s not the best English-style pale ale available, but the combo of the name and its long history would likely appeal to Sleeman.

The same goes for some of the other global beer namesakes. Augustus Busch was a German immigrant who tried to replicate Eastern European lagers, and his grand creation — Budweiser — was originally his interpretation of a Bohemian pilsner. Today he’d have a lot more time for Paddock Wood’s Czech Mate than what’s become of the beer he created.

Arthur Guinness might be okay with his trademark stout today, but I think he’d prefer the roastier, fuller St. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout by Montreal brewery McAuslan. Somehow it seems more loyal to his original beer than the quieter, nitrogen-infused version we get today. (No one used nitrogen in the 1700s, obviously.)

While beer geeks often rail at the weak, watery, uninteresting liquids the big brewers put out these days, it’s important to remember that the founders of these breweries had a passion for beer and a deep knowledge of its traditions. What we taste from their companies now has little to do with what they originally made, which is why I suspect that today they’d opt for more craft beer options if given the choice.

2014-07-10