Larry Sherk's label collection starts in 1871, with two beautifully preserved Dow Brewery labels from Montreal, and ends in the 1980s, with foil-faced labels from Carling O'Keefe. The labels make you want to drink beer, but they also make you want to remember where you came from.
That isn't just the Doppelbock talking: Human beings have been pouring beer down their throats for at least 4,600 years, and brewing has been a part of Canadian history since a Jesuit brother named Ambroise first brewed beer at Sillery in Quebec in 1642.
The history of brewing is the history of Canadian monopoly capitalism: An enterprising type starts a local brewery to such keen neighbourhood enthusiasm that he attracts competition. The competitors multiply or merge or push each other out of business until a few big brewers control the game, whereupon the quality of beer goes flat until a new generation takes on the dull monopolists.
John Molson started Canada's oldest extant brewery in Montreal in 1786. A hundred years later, there were more than 180 breweries in the land.
A hundred years after that, E.P. Taylor – the heir to Bradings Brewery near Ottawa – had consolidated the number to fewer than 10 independents, all in the name of economies of scale.
The new craft brewers represent the beginning of another cycle of enterprise. One reason Larry Sherk handed off his label collection was that he couldn't keep up with the start-ups. Thirty years ago, there were (arguably) three microbrewers. Today, even in Ontario, where the ghosts of Methodists still waft among the liquor laws, 70 craft brewers compete for $10.5-million in craft-beer sales, or about 5 per cent of the market. Sales of craft beer grew faster than any other category at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario.
Nearly 13 per cent of the beer sold in British Columbia is microbrew, where sales have doubled to $111-million in the past five years. Even Molson has announced plans to jump into the “craft” vat (which thrills the independents no end, I can tell you).
The more you look at Larry's labels, they more they tell you. The collection has a beery, Proustian- prost effect, summoning ancient brands still remembered passionately in one region but unheard of everywhere else: Kuntz in Waterloo, Kiewel White Seal in Saint Boniface, Adanac in Regina, Big Horn in Calgary, Northwestern in Edmonton, Uncle Ben's in B.C., Red Ball in New Brunswick. Blue Top! Haig Caribou! Swill! When Edmonton's Northwest Brewing Company introduced Bohemian Maid beer, anyone could stop at the brewery for a free one.
I switched to the Flying Monkeys Smashbomb Atomic IPA, from Barrie, Ont. It was like drinking something spicy off a pretty girl's skin.
I thought: Why is it when you love something local, it makes you love your country too?
That was a beer thought.
The way from beer to here
And why does Larry Sherk collect what he collects?
Here is one reason: because he can. “It all started 40 years ago,” he says over his second pint, a golden, V-shaped glass of Sawdust City's Ol' Woody Alt. It was 1972; he was 36 years old; he had a blank wall in his apartment. He discovered beer trays could cover the emptiness. He still owns 200 of them.
Beer trays led to beer labels, beer mats, beer-bottle caps (collectors call them crowns), beer matchbook covers, beer-related sports schedules, coasters, openers, catalogues, tap handles and cans. “The beer cans are a problem in my house,” Larry says; he has 4,000 of them, “plus or minus.”
Presumably, so are his 120 bubbas – a bubba being a five-litre can – which include 16 from the 18-can series from Unibrou printed with historic Quebec scenes. He owns 1,500 stand-up, brand-related table cards. He has lived in the same house for 38 years.