Revisionist History

Don’t believe the regional beer hype

by Jason Foster

pil

Before World War I, Western Canada had an impressive roster of breweries, with dozens of them supplying their surrounding counties with regionally specific beers. Most were quite small, so it was rare for a resident of Saskatchewan to drink an Alberta beer and vice versa. The result was that a large number of local brands developed, and local beer lovers developed a strong loyalty to “their” particular brand.

Many of these breweries died out long ago: victims of prohibition, changing markets or corporate consolidation. But even after World War II, a number of independent, regionally focused breweries were both surviving and thriving. They built brands that local drinkers could connect with — beers that they could call their own.

Regional beer supported almost exclusively by the local community is one of the grand traditions of Canadian brewing. Here in the Prairies, we developed a strong attachment to a few of these brands, including Lethbridge Pils, Calgary Beer, Bohemian Lager and others.

The truth is that most of the brands our grandparents drank have long died out to the point where we’ve probably never even heard of them. A few survive, in name at least, which might seem like a nostalgic reason to support them — the little underdogs making it through all these decades, and so on.

And 50 years ago, they really were our beers — local, independently owned and created, and sold only among the dust-covered residents of the Prairies.

These days? Not so much.

Bummer.

The so-called regional brands that still exist aren’t at all what they used to be — or what their current makers market them to be. The same thing has happened across the country: every province has beer brands sold exclusively there and nowhere else. Most have a name with a long history in the area, but the beer is no longer the same, in a couple of ways.

First, even though it may have the same name, the recipe has been altered and adulterated to meet modern tastes and accountants’ penny-pinching. We have no idea what Lethbridge Pils, for example, tasted like in 1932.

Second, ALL of those historic regional brands are now owned by some of the largest beer corporations on the planet. They won’t tell you that. But it’s true.

Lethbridge Old Style Pilsner (known mostly these days as just “Pil”) was obviously an Alberta beer, but it also became a Saskatchewan favourite, affectionately dubbed “Saskatchewan Champagne.” First brewed in 1926 by Sicks Brewing in their Lethbridge brewery (named after the owner, Fritz Sicks), it quickly became known for its sharp, almost acidic taste. It also had the most fascinating label, which remains unchanged  today (one of the few things it can claim is still authentic).

Their sponsorship of the Roughriders may have convinced you it’s still a local beer, but Sicks was bought out by Molson long ago, and today Pil is brewed in Molson’s Vancouver plant. The beer itself is nothing like what it was, if historical reports are to be believed: the hop character is a shadow of its former self, and the famous sharpness is gone. Today it’s just another corn-sugar-laden, cheap lager. Not that they want you to know this.

The story of Bohemian Lager, a mainstay Saskie beer in the 1920s, is much the same. Historical reports say the beer, brewed in a Czech pilsner tradition, was crisp, slightly bitter and refreshing. It was an independent brewery for decades, but eventually succumbed to the corporates. It, too, is now owned by Molson and brewed in Vancouver. To be honest, I need to be convinced that it isn’t the exact same beer as Lethbridge Pils now: their tastes are very similar these days, mostly corn adjuncts and cheap malt.

Believe it or not, Calgary Beer is only available in Saskatchewan these days. Our province is the only one that has continually sold this beer since the late 1800s (prohibition excepted, of course). It was born in Calgary in 1892 by A.E. Cross’ Calgary Brewing and Malting Company, and quickly spread to Saskatchewan. It was a regional mainstay and was eventually bought by what became Carling O’Keefe — who, in turn, were swallowed by Molson (them again!). After decades of consolidation and penny-pinching, they still feel like it’s worth it to keep producing Calgary Beer, but let’s be clear: this is yet another cheap, corn-filled Molson product.

If you want a truly local beer these days, you need to look at newcomers. In Saskatoon it’s Paddock Wood, in Regina it’s Bushwakker (and let’s give Great Western some credit as well, even though they sell into other provinces). The rest are just imposters riding some historic link while selling mass-produced pap. Don’t fall for it.

Drinking local now means drinking young. The old brands your granddaddy drank are hollow shells of their former selves — no matter how cool the labels are.

2013-05-30