Indistinctly Canuck

Canada doesn’t have a true national beer style yet. Will it?

Pints | by Jason Foster

pints

I’m starting to see the word “Canadian” used to describe a style of a beer — for example, Canadian pale ale, Canadian ale or Canadian IPA. I realize this is mostly a marketing strategy, but it did get me thinking — is there such a thing as a Canadian style of beer, something we can call our own?

Most styles are hundreds of years old. For example, India pale ale originated in England, pilsner in (what is now) Czech Republic and witbier in Belgium. Those countries can legitimately claim to be the home of those styles even though they’re now brewed around the world.

More recently we can trace the origin of newer styles to particular regions. Dark IPA, properly called a Cascadian dark ale, originated in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. Similarly, countries can alter a traditional style and make it their own. German pils is a response to the original drier, sharper Czech version. American IPAs have become so far removed from their English sister as to be a different style entirely.

Can Canada make any such claim?

Maybe.

From Prohibition To Ice Wars

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Canadian brewers likely developed Canadian interpretations. They would’ve been influenced mostly by German and British brewing traditions, but used local ingredients. The resulting beer likely had distinct flavour profiles, which had more in common with other Canadian beer than it did with its European parents.

Alas, prohibition and post-war corporate homogenization means all of those beers are now lost to history. There are some historical recipes around but it’s almost impossible to know what the original beer tasted like.

More recently, Canada can legitimately claim one style that was born here. Alas, it is ice beer. The 1990s fad originated in Canada with a war between Molson and Labatt, and spread across North America. The mass popularity of ice beer —basically standard pale lager put through a process of ice distillation where frozen water was removed, increasing alcohol content and flavour intensity — quickly died off. The ice beer does remain, inexplicably, available in North America — mostly as a high-octane discount swill consumed for its buzz rather than its flavour.

Some people argue that cream ale might be considered a Canadian style. For a period after prohibition, it was popular for its dry finish and light body. Yet cream ale was born in the U.S. and only adopted by Canadian brewers. Since U.S. prohibition lasted longer than Canada’s, cream ale worked its way back into U.S. consciousness from the Canadian breweries. As a result, many see the style as Canadian. It isn’t.

In general, Canadian breweries offer interpretations of styles originated elsewhere and their tweaks are not distinct enough to warrant a national designation. Canada’s craft brewers in particular are highly influenced by the U.S. and other brewing nations.

So, when someone calls a beer a Canadian ale, it really is just about marketing.

There is, however, a broader interpretation that might permit some degree of Canadianization.

For Canucks, By Canucks

If we look at the beer world, we often see places develop a regional twist to an existing style. Take American IPAs, for example. They’re assertive, aggressively hopped and have a citrusy, piney, new world hop flavour. Many U.S. IPAs tend to be drier and lighter in body and colour, so the term West Coast IPA has emerged to describe the difference. Still very American, but a clear signature distinguishes it.

Is there a similar Canadian signature? Maybe.

Canadian brewers — and I fully acknowledge I’m outrageously over-simplifying here — seem to tend more toward balance than their American counterparts, in particular around pale ales and IPAs. Canadian versions bring out a bit more toasty, biscuit malt character to complement the hop bitterness, yet they retain the IBUs of American IPAs, distinguishing them from British interpretations.

Is it enough of a difference to proclaim a Canadian pale ale or IPA? Likely not. But I do think there’s a subtle effect at play.

Canadian brewers are making beer for Canadians, so they’re always trying to tailor their beverages to our palates. That will naturally lead to gentle tweaks that result in a beer that tastes different than one made elsewhere. Partly this is a byproduct of Canada’s relatively less developed craft beer culture, but it’s also reflective of the flavours Canadians look for.

Of course, a major hurdle to the creation of true national styles is that Canada is huge and it’s beer scene is highly regionalized — and each region has wildly different tendencies, meaning it may be more accurate to look for regional Canadian styles (for example, BC IPA).

While there may not be a Canadian style, I humbly suggest that Canada is slowly developing its own approach to craft beer.

Maybe, over time, that will work its way into a full-fledged, bona fide style.