Back to Beer … And Hockey: The Story of Eric Molson
By Helen Antoniou
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 464 pages
Eric Molson, the great-great-great-grandson of John Molson, founder of the family’s brewing company, seems like the kind of guy you’d like to have a beer with. He’s smart – a brewmaster and trained chemist – and a good person, if a little reserved. As a lifetime employee of Molson, including serving as chairman of the company board from 1988 to 2005, he certainly has a few good stories to tell. In Back to Beer … And Hockey: The Story of Eric Molson, author Helen Antoniou, his daughter-in-law, does her best to recount every single one of those stories. But the book often seems to take the same strategy that Eric Molson did throughout his career: playing it safe for the long-term benefit of the family. Still, his dedication to beer is unmistakable, and much like his life, his biography can be summed up by comparison to Molson-Coors beers.
Eric Molson’s personality: Molson Canadian
Bland, dependable, it gets the job done, even if it is thoroughly lacking in personal flair. Is this an insult? Not to Eric Molson. “In fact,” Antoniou writes, “he often asserted [with some element of pride] ‘I am boring. I like boring.’ ” Completely averse to panache or fiery speeches, throughout the biography he so often sits back observing and hearing out others while drama swirls around him, threatening the future of his family’s company, that you want to scream at him. No doubt some of his family members did, too, over the years. “When to comment on management decisions and how much to intervene were questions Eric grappled with throughout his career,” Antoniou writes.
Finding his resolve: Molson XXX
It may be boring, but it delivers a knockout. If there’s a villain in this story, it’s Ian Molson, Eric’s third cousin once removed. Described by some family members as “disloyal and greedy,” Ian was a member of the Molson board who many, including Eric, thought one day would rise to become chairman. But after Ian works behind the scenes to try and divide the board and oust Eric, the older Molson finally summons the resolve to get rid of him. He convinces key family members to not support Ian in becoming chairman of the board. “It’s simple, Ian,” Eric says when confronted by his cousin. “It’s not going to work because I don’t trust you. I don’t trust you and my family doesn’t trust you.”
Simple ambitions: Molson Export
There’s nothing special about it, but it succeeds by sticking to the basics. For a time, the Molson company did not. For nearly 30 years it diversified to the point where it oversaw a wide range of businesses beyond brewing, including retail merchandising, chemical specialties and sports and entertainment. It was Eric’s goal for Molson to “get back to beer.” It took him years to accomplish and reading about the process can feel like just as long and tough of a slog. Antoniou is so determined to detail every deal Molson ever made during Eric’s time on the board that for long stretches, the book has all the excitement of reading a quarterly report.
The hockey story: Coors Light
It’s the weak subplot of beers. You can probably tell from that ellipsis in the book’s title that it’s there because it has to be, but it’s often treated as an afterthought. Still, Antoniou is determined to work it in to the family story. “Hockey is part of our culture,” Eric tells her at one point. “It’s very Canadian and it’s part of the Molson name, just like a good glass of beer.” Molson first bought the Montreal Canadiens in 1957. Over the years they would sell and regain the team multiple times, once even grabbing it when arch rival Labatt was looking to acquire the team. Unfortunately, whatever passion Eric Molson has for Les Habitants beyond a business proposition, it’s mostly lost here.
The biography in sum: Molson Dry
There’s a gripping story here about a feuding family, but who can blame Antoniou for not wanting to play up the family drama? She’s part of the family, after all, and she clearly admires Eric Molson. She wants to be thorough and fair, which are certainly virtues in a biographer. But much like her subject, she doesn’t want to create conflict. Anyone interested in every single detail of Eric Molson’s life will be well-served by this biography. Like the man himself, the book is thoroughly workmanlike and decent. But after reading it, with so many other wonderful summer temptations, I can’t agree more with Eric’s words: time to get back to beer.
Dave McGinn is a reporter with The Globe and Mail.