The Beer Guy: Celebrating Canada’s craft beer in Canada’s 150th year

“If I wanted water, I would have asked for water,” said the early-90s ads for Labatt Blue Light.

It was a clever way to play on the cherished national myth that Canadian beer is stronger than American beer. Clever, but ineffective, a quarter-century later those watery American light beers are among the most popular beers in Canada.

Is beer patriotism dead? Possibly.

Canada’s brewing history dates back long before Confederation. According to Ian Coutts in his entertaining book, Brew North: How Canadians Made Beer and Beer Made Canada, it was the settlers of New France in the 17th century who first brewed beer in Canada. Jean Talon, the first administrator of New France, established a brewery, La Brasserie du Roi, at Quebec in 1667. He planted 6,000 hop plants on his own seigneury. You can visit the cellars of Talon’s brewery in Quebec City today.

In spite of Talon’s foothold, it wasn’t really until after the British conquest in 1759 and the influx of British settlers that brewing took hold. An ambitious young English immigrant, John Molson, took over a small Montreal brewery in 1786, and with that, Canadian brewing accelerated. Molson was followed in 1820 by Scottish immigrant Alexander Keith in Halifax; in 1836 by John Sleeman near Niagara Falls; in 1840 by Thomas Carling and in 1847 by Irish immigrant John Labatt, both in London, Ontario. By Confederation in 1867, a Canadian brewing industry was well-established in central and eastern Canada, focused on the British tradition of hearty ales and porters.

This tradition contrasted with the beer across the border in the U.S., where lighter German and Czech lagers had taken hold by the 1870s, led by German immigrant Adolphus Busch and his popular Budweiser lager. Another German immigrant to the U.S., Fritz Sick, found his way to Lethbridge, Alberta, where he founded Lethbridge Brewing and Malting in 1901. Sick’s first beer, Alberta Pride, a lager, was followed by the beer that would establish his brewery across western Canada, Old Style Pilsner. Other German heritage brewers joined Sick in the west, and lager became the beer of western Canada.

Today, the rich history and regional diversity of Canada are reflected in craft beer. The English-style malty ales of the Maritimes. The distinct and varied Belgian and continental heritage beers of Quebec. The hearty British pale ales and multicultural flavourings of Ontario. The Germanic pilsners and lagers of the Prairies. The hoppy American-influenced Pacific Northwest IPAs of British Columbia.

Some of my most cherished travel memories are around Canadian craft beer. The sun-dappled patio of Canoe Brewpub in Victoria with my family, Matt Phillips of Phillips Brewing at the next table.

My first-ever growler, from Gahan House Brewing in Charlottetown, P.E.I, enjoyed with potatoes dug from the field outside the door.

Convincing my pals to take the ferry across the St. Lawrence from Quebec City to Levis and stumbling upon the delightful Corsaire Microbrasserie.

Watching a Saturday night Maple Leafs game on TV at Bar Hop on King Street in Toronto, with an amazing Ontario IPA in hand, the snow piling up outside.

Banging on the door of Le Cheval Blanc in Montreal until the bartender came and opened up so that my friends and I could watch Euro Cup soccer.

In fact, I’ve enjoyed great Canadian craft beer in every province except Newfoundland—but this Canada 150 summer I’m righting that wrong, heading to the legendary pubs of St. John’s in July. Pray for me.

Canada 150 six-pack

This summer, head out on a Canada 150 craft beer road trip. Or closer to home, on the Sippin’ Alberta Craft Beverage Culinary Trail. Or plan a staycation with the Red Racer Across the Nation Collaboration 12-pack, beers brewed to celebrate Canada 150 by Central City Brewing in collaboration with a craft brewer from every province plus the Yukon and NWT. Or go DIY with the suggestions below for a cross-Canada six-pack from Canada’s six major regions.

Click images to zoom

Garrison Brewing Imperial IPA
Imperial IPA

Garrison Brewing Imperial IPA, Atlantic

Located on the harbour in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Garrison Brewing is just 600 metres from Alexander Keith’s Brewery. Keith’s was founded in 1820, Garrison in 1997, yet it’s the new kids on the block who brew truer to what Alexander Keith was brewing two hundred years ago. Garrison’s Unfiltered Imperial IPA is a big, intense, bitter west-coast style IPA made well on the east coast.

Le Trou du Diable La Buteuse
Le Trou du Diable

Le Trou du Diable La Buteuse, Quebec

Le Trou du Diable, or the Devil’s Hole, is a craft brewery in Shawinigan, Quebec named after a whirlpool below Shawinigan Falls that local legend says is a bottomless hole that leads straight to hell. La Buteuse is a Belgian-style tripel, a big, complex ale with a touch of sweetness and spice. Named in tribute to Jesuit missionary Jacques Buteux who died in the Trou du Diable in 1652.

The Tom Green Beer
The Tom Green Beer

Beau’s Brewing The Tom Green Beer, Ontario

Ottawa’s favourite craft brewery (located an hour outside the city in VanKleek Hill) and Ottawa’s favourite comedy son teamed up to create a delicious milk stout. Adding lactose (milk sugar) adds sweetness and added oats brings out a silky-smooth mouth-feel. The aroma is of roasted malt with notes of coffee and chocolate, the taste of malt and caramel.

White Raven IPA
White Raven IPA

Bench Creek White Raven IPA, Prairies

Head off Highway 16 at Edson into the thick black spruce woods north of town. Hacked out of the forest you’ll find Bench Creek Brewing. Check for bears before you open your door, then head to the tasting room for some great Alberta craft beers. White Raven IPA is a hoppy but quaffable American IPA with a piney citrus nose and a light fruity taste.


Four Winds Nectarous, Pacific

Delta BC’s Four Winds Brewing has made a name for itself with its stylish and adventurous beers. Nectarous, a dry-hopped sour beer, was named Beer of the Year at the 2016 Canadian Brewing Awards. This fabulous beer is all about the fruit – aromas of peach and mango, tastes of tart lemon and grapefruit with peach and tropical fruits.

Cranberry Wheat
Cranberry Wheat

Yukon Deadman Creek Cranberry Wheat, North

The North Whitehorse’s Yukon Brewing is celebrating Canada’s 150th anniversary and Yukon Brewing’s 20th anniversary by releasing 12 special beers, some new, some old favourites, one for each month in 2017. June’s release is a classic fruit beer first produced in the nineties using local low bush cranberries.

Peter Bailey just can’t wait to get on the road again. He’s @Libarbarian on Twitter and Instagram.