Sunday, February 20, 2011

Matt's Beer Den Book Review! - "Brew North" by Ian Coutts

Ian Coutts. Brew North: How Canadians made Beer and Beer made Canada. Toronto: Greystone Books, 2010.

In many Ontario bookstore shelves, one can see what amounts to a microcosm of the public’s perception of beer as it compares to its classier and more socially respectable brother, wine. Somewhere between “Barbecuing” and “Cocktails”, one will invariably find the alcoholic beverages section, which amounts to a few shelves at best. Aside from highly technical home-brewing manuals and silly one-off volumes of “Top 100 Beers to Try Before You Leave this Mortal Coil”, there really aren’t that many books on beer to be found, unless one knows where to look. By contrast, there are literally dozens of wine companions, wine guides, wine histories and so forth, which provide that extra bit of class that so fits in with the Chapters/Indigo middle-class barista and home decor ethos. Now, I will check myself at this point and resist the temptation to enter ‘rant mode’ regarding our (changing) cultural bias that favours wine over beer (one theory, proposed by Garrett Oliver, suggests that wine has become the drink of respectable society in part because, linguistically, the word ‘wine’ is originally from the divine language of Latin; the more proletarian ‘ale’, however, is a product of the lowly and less-refined Old English/Germanic tongue). I mention this only to make a point that, if one wants to explore the rich and fascinating history of beer, one must do some serious hunting, whether it is on Amazon, beer websites, university collections, or from bookstores that sell more esoteric fare. Public perceptions of beer have really only changed for the better in the last thirty years or so, so there hasn’t really been much time for the literature to come along for the ride. But books on beer are out there, and if you happen across one, they can truly be fascinating reads. Like this one, by Canadian author (and fellow Kingstonian) Ian Coutts. Coutts is a bit of a journeyman in the literary world, having written or co-written volumes on the Titanic (with Robert Ballard, discoverer of the wreck in 1985), on North American birds (with wildlife painter Robert Bateman), as well as books on science, food and nature geared at younger audiences.

However, when first picking up Brew North, I was both concerned and intrigued by the cover design, to the point where I questioned picking the book up at all. I wasn’t too impressed with the toque-sporting beer-swilling beaver on the front, which I felt was yet another hokey appeal to the kind of ‘Canadiana’ one finds at cheesy gift shops. I half expected this book to be packaged alongside little bottles of maple syrup and “Moose Droppings” candy. My eyebrows also rose slightly at the phrase “...and how beer made Canada.” Now, as I’ve ranted about before, Canadians like to spend an great deal of time boasting about our nation’s affinity for beer (compared to the Belgians, Germans, Czechs and even the Americans, though, we are lightweights), and thus I was worried that Coutts would fall into the trap of overstating Canada’s brewing achievements and its relationship to our history, and would merely play into the Don Cherry/”My Name is Joe”/Canadian, Eh? monomyth. Fortunately, this was not the case. Brew North does an excellent job of linking this wonderful beverage to the development of Canada as a nation, thus validating the wording of the book’s rather bold title. Brew North proved to be a great little read and a wonderful introduction to the history of brewing in Canada and its role in shaping the culture of our country.

Coutts’ history begins, like so many other histories of Canada do, with the indigenous First Nations peoples; however, this particular side of the story is surprisingly brief. Unlike the peoples of Mesoamerica, the original inhabitants of Canada did not independently develop their own alcoholic...
beverages - an anthropological rarity. Thus the first real Canadian imbibers were the habitants of New France who enjoyed the tastes of the imported brandies and wines of home, which proved to be extremely costly for France to transport overseas. A much cheaper solution was for the colony to provide its own alcoholic beverages, yet this proved to be a lacklustre affair. Even the efforts of first Intendant Jean Talon (the man responsible for the population-increasing filles du roi stratagem) to jump start a domestic brewery did not last. As Coutts suggests, the history of Canadian beer truly began with the British conquest of Quebec in 1759, a dark time for French Canadians, but “a great day for beer and beer drinking, [for] the land that would someday be Canada was firmly in the hands of Britain, one of the world’s foremost beer-making nations.” Early entrepreneurs from the British Isles, like John Labatt, Alexander Keith, Thomas Carling, and most importantly John Molson, brought the ale brewing tradition to Canada, much to the enthusiasm of a growing populace of settlers, soldiers and Loyalists from the United States.

Once Canadians truly began to brew beer in the early 19th century, both the beer and its brewers became an important chapter in the grand narrative of Canada. With their early successes, brewers like John Molson became entrepreneurs and capitalists by diversifying their revenue into financial institutions, shipping and transportation projects, hotels and entertainment venues, and later, the Canadian-Pacific Railway. Their beer was sold in the taverns of small-town Canada; these venues became civic institutions in and of themselves, often functioning as courthouses and town halls. Once the country began to develop and grow, taverns lost their civic importance, but retained their role as the place to consume alcohol, particularly in the form of beer (drinking alone at home was discouraged, and bottling for personal use was in its infancy). It’s a cliché to refer to beer as the great “social lubricant”, but as Coutts shows, it truly was. In the late 19th century, both industrialization and scientific breakthroughs contributed to the growth of the Canadian beer industry. Breweries could produce more beer and deliver it further than ever before, and had the capital to market their beer through giveaways and promo material that was adorned in pubs across the country. Canadian breweries added new styles of beer, like the famous India Pale Ale and the German lager, to their repertoire, giving the consumers a great deal of drinking options. With the exception of the west, however, Canada at this point remained ‘ale country.’

For most of the twentieth century, Molson was
Canada's largest brewery.  Though it remains so, it
has been foreign owned since 2008. 

This golden era of Canadian beer would not last, as the spectre of Temperance - and eventually Prohibition - dealt the industry a serious blow from which it would barely recover. Coutts explains that, although Canadians were increasingly enamoured with the idea of prohibiting alcohol, it was the First World War that finally drove liquor underground. After deeming the product ‘non-essential’ for the war effort (which I think was probably fair), every Canadian province enacted prohibitive laws at some point during the war. Partially due to pressure from thirsty returning veterans, however, prohibition was repealed in the years following Armistice, but as Coutts explains, the damage had been done, as Prohibitionists had successfully altered public perceptions to now “stigmatize drinking, to put the fellow who enjoyed his beer, and the formerly respectable worthy who made it, on the defensive.” The focus now was on the concept of ‘liquor control’: all the elements that made the saloon appealing were gradually removed, leaving the stingy, charmless, heavily regulated “beer parlour” in its wake. In the meantime, Canadian businessmen – E.P. Taylor most famously – began the process of consolidating the industry, buying up breweries across the country and either closing them down or moving production elsewhere. Thus, by the beginning of the Second World War, the Canadian beer industry shrunk dramatically, leaving only a few major players left in the field.

As society gradually became more accustomed to beer and less tolerant of the pre-war prohibitive mindset, the big breweries were finally able to utilize their financial clout and begin advertising their product again. Thus, in another example of “how beer made Canada”, the beer companies began to enter the popular consciousness through catchy advertisements, radio and television spots, and sports franchise ownerships starting in the 1950s. At the same time, consolidation, mass marketing and the birth of the ‘ad-man’ with his retail surveys and understanding of consumer trends affected the beer itself. Customers had grown accustomed to sweeter fare like soft drinks and ‘near-beer’ during Prohibition/Depression, and thus the beer became sweeter, blander, and less offensive in every way. Pale lagers became the nation’s official beverage; ales, even pale ales, were gradually phased out.

A sample lineup from Granville Island Brewery
in Vancouver, one of Canada's first brewpubs.

Truly, there wasn’t much separating the big brands from one another in terms of flavour, and many Canadians knew it. Starting in the late 1970s, as the brewing titans began their process of foreign ownership and merging (known in the 1990s as the “Beer Wars”), a very small change began to take place: the founding of the first ‘cottage breweries’ – microbreweries and brew pubs. (check the link for a 1985 CBC special on the new phenomenon) Eschewing the Molson-Labatt-Carling preference for adjunct-heavy light lagers, these breweries instead offered hopped pilsners, CAMRA-approved English pale ales, and even wheat beers – the likes of which had not been brewed in Canada in decades. As more Canadians become introduced to these flavourful, interesting brews, their perceptions of beer as a product have changed. Now, it is increasingly common to see bars and restaurants offering craft beer and foreign fare, and for Canadians to explore different styles of beer. After becoming bland, corporate and national, the beer industry – thanks to the microbreweries – has become more “regional”, with brews and breweries offering products that reflect the local environment, culture and history. Even the big breweries have attempted to meet the trend, offering porters, stouts and wheat beers – with varying successes. There is still a long way to go – Budweiser and Coors, two foreign corporate brews, are our nation’s biggest sellers – but, as Coutts believes, a sea change is on the horizon: “We loved [beer] with all our heart and soul; [during the consolidation and mass production years] it acted as if we didn’t exist. With the birth of micros, Canadian beer started to love us back.”

Coutts’ book is a far better effort than I could have hoped for, and proved to be immensely enjoyable and informative read. Coutts’ writing is full of humour, and demonstrates a genuine love for beer, as well as a disdain for “mean-spirited” Prohibitionists and bland, flavourless corporate lagers. His chapter on Prohibition in particular was very humorous, though hardly unbiased (but really, with temperance movements, it’s hard not to take cheap shots). I also was very happy with Coutts’ take on the microbrewing movement and its efforts to reinvigorate the Canadian beer scene to something more akin to the pre-Prohibition days. Although the book is quite brief, clocking in at just under 200 pages, Brew North is jam-packed with interesting tidbits about this grand history of brewing. I’ve always wondered why photographs and paintings are so poorly integrated into history books and theses; if there happen to be photographs, they always seem to be clumped together in one section the middle of the book, far away from where they are mentioned in the text, which forces the reader to constantly flip back and forth. Coutts’ volume, by contrast, is splendidly integrated with wonderful images of brewing history, including photographs, paintings, beer labels, promotional material and advertisements (my personal favourite: a turn of the century beer label for “Carling’s Stout For Invalids”, which features the image of a man in a wheelchair happily reaching for a pint that has been brought to him by a pretty nurse – today’s health industry could learn a thing or two from this beer label!). Beer is, after all, an immensely visual product, both the beer itself and the culture that surrounds it.

A glance through the bibliography and photo credits reveals that Coutts certainly did his research in developing this book. Now, the historian in me would have preferred more easily identifiable on-page references, not because I question Coutts’ research and methodology, though, but rather for my own desire to read more about these fascinating topics (I find bibliographies a challenge because it can be so difficult to find what I’m looking for; footnotes are much better in this regard). I know I’m asking too much here. I recognize that this is a popular history, but at least it’s a damned good one. Indeed, Coutts has done an admirable job in fostering my interest in the history of brewing in Canada, as I hope it will for you.

Don’t let the cover fool you – this is a great little book.

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