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The Geek at the End of the Bar Vol 1.1
The Great Canadian Ripoff
August 31, 2006
Written by Oakes
It started with a brief mention…of a beer called Labatt Winchester. I’d never heard of this beer, and I’ve heard of all the old man beers around here. I’ve had all the old man beers around here. But I was in Calgary so I thought that must be why it slipped under my radar. Well, I had to have it. I dragged Presario and Poperinge to the dive bar they’d mentioned just so I could try a pint of this glorious swill.
Old man beers are sometimes actually pretty good, among the more flavourful products a macro makes. I’m told that is not the case with Winchester. Fair enough. At the bar, it turned out they were out of Winchester that night. The owner suggested maybe I should drink better beer and recommended an Erdinger. OK, Erdinger isn’t very good but I’m sure it’s better than Winchester. All the same, that’s not what I came for.
But to me, even if Winchester isn’t a very good beer, it’s at least cheap. It’s the old college argument that Americans make all the time. But it holds. And it points to a major problem in the Canadian beer market. We get ripped off more badly by our big brewers than any other country on Earth.
There is a long-standing cliché that Canadian beers are better than American beers. Beer geeks point to the fact that this cliché comes from the pre-microbrew era to make the case that it’s hopelessly outdated. They’re right, of course, to a point, although it’s more a case of jurisdiction than nation when it comes to beer quality (some provinces destroy certain states and vice versa). I’d suggest, though, that when it comes to both quality and value American macrobrews are superior to Canadian ones. Simply put, not only are our macrobrews amongst the worst on the planet but we’re paying far too much for them.
The old English comment about American beer being like making love in a canoe is not inaccurate. BMC beers are really, really watery. That is a flaw, because to evaluate balance in a beer you must consider all the ingredients, not just the malt and hops. American macrobrews are grossly unbalanced. But by and large, they are clean. There are some exceptions, and certainly malt liquor must be ignored for this argument to hold, but the major American macro brands, balance issues notwithstanding, are fairly clean and inoffensive.
I’ve been re-rating some of the major Canadian brands and found a far greater proportion of those to not only suffer the same balance issues of American brews (something by all accounts they did not back in the 60s and 70s when our beery smugness was born) but are not even remotely clean. Gasoline, creamed corn, grains abound in many of our macros. Molson Canadian is a travesty of brewing – syrupy, full of corn, with gasoline notes. I recently re-tested Alexander Keiths and found it to be one of the worst beers I’ve ever tasted, riddled from everything from acetaldehyde to garbagey notes to fusels. A truly horrific beverage. I tasted a heretofore unrated malt liquor called Extra Old Stock Strong...I drank the entire damn forty...and it finished up ranked seventh out of forty Molson beers rated by me (behind four stealth micros, one superpremium and an old man beer). A malt liquor amongst the finest products you brew isn’t really something to be proud of, to say the least.
And here’s the best part – you pay through the teeth for these things. For decades, Canada’s big brewers ramped up the prices on their flagship brands for no apparent reason other than to make lots of money. They created a product positioning matrix with budget, premium and superpremium on one side and light, regular and strong on the other. The budget brands are no prizes – a collection of old man brews and bargain basement brands like Carling and Wildcat, none of which receive any promotion and few of which I’d drink twice. The superpremium end started slowly with Carlsberg, John Labatt Classic, etc and has now become serious business with stuff like Rickard’s and Alexander Keith’s. The latter has got to be the worst. In its homeland of Atlantic Canada, it fits into the regular premium part of the matrix with corresponding price points but elsewhere it’s been slotted into regular superpremium. We can thank Corona for that – getting people to pay more for a product that doesn’t actually offer more.
In Ontario, the discount beers are offered at $26.40 per case. Molson’s regular products, of the same quality as the discount brands, are offered at $30.95 per case. Labatt’s is selling Blue and Bud for a whopping $35.95 per case. That’s right. Blue and Bud for $1.50 a single 11.5 oz bottle. And that’s if you buy it by the case. In bottles. Cans are more. What does a case of Bud cost in the US?
Are there taxes that go into it? Yes. Those discount brands are selling more or less at the floor. But Labatt’s is going ten bucks a case over the floor with beer that, in my professional estimation, is just as bad if not worse than the budget brands (I’d take a Lucky over a Keith’s any day).
Enter the discounters. Lakeport in Ontario has experienced a revival with its discount brews as more and more people realize that the beer is just as bad but five to ten dollars less in price. Why pay more? A contract brewing outfit in the Prairies has had similar success with discount beers.
I look around the world at the contenders for worst macrobrew. England has some atrocious lagers but also has a whole slew of macrobrew ales that, while not worth of a beer geek’s attention, offer a higher level of quality than Canadian brew. India makes some pretty bad beer, and puts way too much focus on high-test lagers, but you won’t pay six bucks for a pint of Indian brew anywhere in India.
Korean beer is exceedingly bland, but I haven’t found the same quality control issues with Korean lagers that I’ve found with Canadian ones. Chinese macro sucks but is $0.30 for a 650ml bottle.
Most European standard lagers aren’t half bad compared with Canadian ones, even if they compare poorly to more traditional products (Canadian macros fair poorly in comparison with our micros, too, don’t forget). African lagers (Castle excepted), and many SE Asian lagers, are produced to a much higher standard than our macros.
Indeed, it’s only other similar colonies like Australia and possibly South Africa where you find such dismal macros and similarly exorbitant prices (once you take into account our Scandinavianesque tax rates).
I sincerely hope that for the years of ripping off Canadians, our macros continue to lose market share. They are among the worst in the world.
I sincerely hope the sheep that makes up the majority of Canadian beer buyers snap the hell out of it and either buys discount beer or moves on to microbrew. This ripoff needs to end as soon as possible.
Thank you for listening to this rant.
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when it comes to both quality and value American macrobrews are superior to Canadian ones. Simply put, not only our are macrobrews amongst the worst on the planet but we’re paying far too much for them.
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