When I was a young lass the North American beer scene was a very different animal. Dominated by big breweries producing the only most basic of beers, you did not even consider ordering a beer by style rather you ordered by naming one of the two big brands – I will have a “Canadian” or a “Blue”. Amid this sea of bland lager there was one underlying truism that we as Canadians could cling to, a platitude that kept us warm in the evening and made us feel ever so slightly superior – our beers were made of stronger stuff than the brews coming from our American cousins.
Flash forward to the weekend and I am out and about looking for a patio to drink at. Using some random foodie app I check out Yaletown Brewing Company (YBC) to see what people thought when I came across a review by an American tourist sampling the beer line-up. They prefaced their review by saying they passed over the “Canadian piss beers” and moved straight onto the IPA, which they went on to favourably compare with some of the US microbrewers.
Now hold on just one second, when did Canadian craft beer become piss beer? Has the resurgence of craft beer resulted in a geographical role reversal? Are Canadian microbreweries brewing blasé beers? Are we now brewing the Old Milwaukee of the craft beer scene? Maybe the answers lie in looking at our brewing pedigrees.
From the destitute landscape that was the beer reality of the 1970’s, Anchor Brewing in San Francisco, one of the last remaining microbrewers, was purchased by a good soul dedicated to preserving authentic beer. At roughly the same time, the counter culture movement had begun altering people’s perceptions about how we live in the world. Home brewing, embracing local economies and travel to Europe opened people’s eyes to just what beer could and should be and as they say they rest is history. Craft breweries were steadily popping up throughout the US in the 70’s and 80’s, and by the 1990’s the craft beer industry was growing at 45 percent per year (Mosher 2009). This means American craft brewers have been hard at work for over forty years perfecting their art.
In Canada, we were a little late to the craft beer party, seriously getting on the bandwagon in the 1980’s with microbreweries like Upper Canada Brewing Company in Ontario and St. Ambroise in Montreal. Growth in the craft beer industry has been equally impressive in Canada with British Columbians buying craft beers 12.7% of the time in the early 2000’s (www.cbc.ca). So are these regional differences real or imagined? Perhaps Canadian craft brewers are still testing the waters so to speak, carving out a niche for what will come to define our new national beer identity.
Coming full circle back to YBC, I am sipping lager and my partner brown ale and we both feel the same way; these beers are fine, they are drinkable, but I am not wowed and I want to be wowed. Obviously the challenge for the craft brewer is to keep the customer interested and coming back, which for a growing mass of educated beers geeks means putting out new and challenging product while maintaining a high standards of quality. In many ways I feel like we play it a little too safe here. Call it cultural differences, but American craft brews are assertive, quirky and most definitely challenging while our beers are …well …nice. One of the reasons I often turn to the US craft brewers for my staple beers is that many brewers seem to have found what works for them, they have created a beer identity, and they do not necessarily brew one of every beer style in the guide.
I wonder, what does the “I am Canadian” rant sound like now that we are a nation of craft beer drinkers?
*Thanks to VanCity Love and Barley Mowat for the photos