I cringed as she took a hard right from Notre-Dame onto the 720, curving back left and down into the tunnel, jolting me about in the passenger seat. Her driving was fast, reckless and aggressive – she was very Quebecois.
As she drove me home to the northeastern corner of the Plateau, we talked about traditional music. She, a fiddler in the Acadian style, and I, a mandolinist in the Celtic style, were coming from a rehearsal with the now-defunct Custom Outfit in St. Henri, which for all intents and purposes was the opposite corner of the city as I then knew it.
“You should really go to the session on Tuesdays at Vices et Versa,” she was saying, “I think you’d love it. A lot of Irish tunes.” I had never heard of it. It was located further north on St. Laurent than my knowledge of the city yet extended. Later, when I moved into my sixth apartment in Montreal, each one further north than the previous as I was washed out by the tide of gentrification, Vices et Versa became my local.
I couldn’t believe it took me so long to find this place. 30+ beers on tap (and the occasional cask) all of them local and for the most part among the best of the best of Quebecois beers. Knowledgeable staff. Irish music on Tuesdays and good music most other days. Good food, good terrace, good crowd. Great bar.
“London Ruby Mild,” I ordered. The name itself caught my eye. Montreal is flooded with shit red ales, and it’s hard to find a “mild” anywhere, but as a fan of good reds and English-style beers, which are generally neglected by Quebecois breweries, I decided to take a chance. The beer, from Brasseur de Montreal, which I wasn’t familiar with, was a really full-bodied sessionable red ale, with a dominant toasty character.
A few days later, I bought a bottle of it from Paradis de la Biere and took it home, putting on a record while it chilled in the fridge and then pouring it into a tasting glass. I knew something was wrong when I smelled it. It smelled like unfermented wort, and it tasted even worse.
I told this to Mike, one of the staff, the next time I saw him at Vices et Versa. “You know,” he said, “The same thing happened to me with another beer. Have you had MacTavish?” He was referring to MacTavish in Memoriam from Le Trou du Diable, a pale ale which I had recently tried and enjoyed. “We had it here and I thought it was great, so I picked up a bottle on the way home from work and it tasted like shit. I mean that literally; it actually tasted like shit.”
In my case the fault was with the shop where I bought the beer. It’s too hot in there and they carry something around 200 beers; who knows how long it had sat on the shelf? In Mike’s case, the brewery was to blame. They shipped an obviously infected beer.
But even if stuff like this wasn’t as common, you still can’t really walk into a beer store in Quebec and pick up something at random. Most of it is shit. This may come as a surprise to anybody outside of Quebec, producers of world famous beers from Dieu du Ciel, McAuslan, Unibroue, etc. These breweries, among others, can easily out-brew most of Ontario’s top contenders. So what is it that makes these two neighbouring beer cultures so different?
The Ontario Alcohol Duopoly
I used to hate the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO). The idea of a government monopoly on liquor sales struck me as all kinds of wrong. When I moved to Montreal, it seemed like a mecca of liberal ideals in comparison – a lower drinking age, cheaper alcohol, beer and wine for sale in every corner store, and parks full of picnickers bottle in hand.
Montreal is the beer capital of Canada, behind only Denver and Portland in breweries per-capita in North America, but it turns out the grass isn’t all that much greener. Like the LCBO in Canada, Quebec has a liquor control board of its own, the SAQ, a government monopoly and the sole importer for the province. And compared to the SAQ, the LCBO actually serves the discerning beer drinker pretty well, with a growing amount of shelf-space given over to quality local and international beer.
In Ontario, there is only one place you can buy beer other than the LCBO: The Beer Store. The only private beer retailer in the province is owned by three of the world’s largest brewers: AB-InBev (Budweiser), based in Belgium, and American-owned Molson-Coors each hold a 49% share, with the remaining 2% owned by Sapporo of Japan.
This means that the owners of The Beer Store are in direct competition with local, independently-owned breweries. They don’t want them in their store. Some have argued that The Beer Store, which is responsible for 80% of beer sales in Ontario, constitutes a foreign-owned monopoly on Ontario’s beer market, and studies have shown that their market domination brings the price of beer up by as much as $10 per case compared to Quebec.
The Ontario Craft Brewers Association, which represents 30-odd breweries and counting, has appealed for the right to open their own retail store and has been denied. Why three foreign-owned multi-national breweries are allowed the exclusive right to privately sell beer in Ontario will never make sense to me.
Ontario’s craft breweries could sell in The Beer Store and some do, but it costs them a listing fee of $23,870 per brand per package size. This fee is designed to stunt the growth of the craft beer market, and it has succeeded. Looking at Quebec can give you an idea of where Ontario’s beer culture could be by now if it wasn’t for The Beer Store.
That brings us back to the question of Quebec. The interesting (read: infuriating) thing about Canada is that there are a lot of archaic laws left over from Prohibition, mostly dealing with the importing/exporting of alcohol both internationally and interprovincially. The regulations are so strict that it’s technically illegal for to drive across a provincial border with a bottle of something in the trunk.
Because of this, the craft beer culture of each province developed more-or-less in isolation. It is only in the last couple of years that craft beer has gone global and larger breweries have been able to afford the costs of expanding beyond their home province.
Ontario sports the oldest independently-owned brewery in Canada, Wellington Brewery of Guelph, a perfect example of how Ontario is strongly influence by the English brewing tradition. Founded in 1985, Wellington was the first modern producer of cask-conditioned “Real Ale” in North America and offers a range of excellent true-to-style English beers.
Even though McAuslan, the first craft brewery in Montreal, didn’t open until four years later, Quebec has since gone on to develop a mature culture of local brewing, stylistically influenced by mainland Europe, mainly Belgium (Unibroue and Dieu du Ciel, sought after around the world, are most directly influenced by Belgian beer styles). While Ontario’s population is 50% larger, Quebec has more than twice as many breweries and sports the highest per-capita beer sales of any Canadian province.
The Quebecois buy-local culture has also helped the brewing industry. Many brewers successfully make imitations of the Bud/Miller/Coors style of pale lager, such as Tremblay, the side-effect being that even non-craft drinkers in Quebec are still drinking local beer.
But there’s a flipside to this. Though Beau’s All Natural Brewing Company of Vankleek Hill, Ontario is located only 15km away from Quebec and 30 minutes from the island of Montreal, none of the 300 cases of beer they ship each week cross the border into Quebec.
Similarly, Mill St. Brewery, 3-time Canadian Brewery of the Year, has a brewpub located in Ottawa literally underneath the bridge to Gatineau, and you can buy their beer from Victoria, BC to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Standing in Quebec, you can hit the brewpub with a frisbee, but you can’t buy their beer.
Though many of Quebec’s best beers are available in Ontario and around the world, it’s extremely difficult for any brewer from any other part of Canada to sell their beer in Quebec, and the meagre selection of international beers available at the SAQ hardly qualifies. The Quebecois beer culture, in many ways, has developed in a vacuum.
Unhealthy Lack of Competition
So there are two things that set up Quebec to become the beer scene it is today. The first is that, because breweries can sell their beer directly to retailers, pretty much anybody can make beer and get it into the store. The second is that, since the SAQ allows only a miniscule amount of decent beer into the province (most of it from Belgium), these fledging brewers have very little competition in a massive, thirsty market.
The first of these, I believe, is a good thing. In Ontario, breweries have to jump through hoops just to be able to sell beer, and if they have any plans to expand beyond their own doorstep they only have the LCBO with its red tape or The Beer Store with its predatory listing prices. So I think it’s good that in Quebec any old brewer can put their product out there and see how it does. It has indeed resulted in some truly incredible beers from Dieu du Ciel and Les Trois Mousquetaires.
This only becomes a problem when paired with my second point: lack of competition. Early brewers had no standard of quality to live up to, and thirsty punters gobbled up whatever was available. The market became flooded with poor brewers very quickly, and those that took their time to hone their craft found that big chunks of the market had already been claimed. Because so much frankly shitty beer that nevertheless looks like (or still is) “craft beer” lines the shelves, the reputation of craft beer among the beer drinking public is not very flattering.
I like to think that this is changing. Young breweries like Dunham and Charlevoix are chipping the marketshare away from the imitation-craft based on the sheer quality of their products and the increase in the amount of pubs, like Vices et Versa, which take pride in showcasing the best beers in Quebec.
But, to be honest, both beer scenes are still standing in the shadow of America. Many newer breweries in Quebec and Ontario are moving away from the Belgian and English heritage respectively and taking their influence from the US – IPAs, high-gravity beers and “extreme” beers. It would have happened a lot sooner if over-regulation wasn’t a country-wide problem. But the fact is that both the LCBO and the SAQ still avoid American craft beer.
I grew up across the river from Detroit, but I never had Michigan-brewed Founders until I came to Melbourne, Australia. 80% of beer sales in Ontario can be owned by three foreign “macro”-breweries, but craft beer brewed on the other side of the river can’t come across. It’s even harder to find American craft beer in Quebec. It’s no wonder there are still so many shit beers around – most beer drinkers, without access to the beers that inspired the craft beer industry, don’t know any better.
This was written as part of Boak and Bailey’s “Beery Longreads”. A few months ago they took to the blogosphere to encourage other beer writers to write something LONG. I contributed with my profile of Walkerville, the only craft brewery in my homestead of Windsor Ontario, originally published in the Windsor Independent.
This time, I was originally inspired by Ding’s “Session” topic in September: “USA vs. Old World Beer Culture”. It got me thinking about the two beer cultures I know the best: I grew up in Ontario and lived in Montreal, in the neighbouring province of Quebec, for nearly five years.
NB: This is not a research essay. While some factoids appear, most of the points I make are based on personal experiences for which I can offer no empirical evidence. My views about these two cultures are therefore entirely subjective generalizations.