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Beer: Raise a glass to the great continental divider

Nicholas Pashley's new book, Cheers! An Intemperate History of Beer in Canada , started with a single statistic. The top two beers in Canada, he learned to his surprise a couple of years ago, are Budweiser and Coors Light, both American brands that have managed to displace once-dominant names such as Blue, Export and Canadian.

How did it happen? he wondered.

"I'm old enough to remember when Canadians routinely made fun of Americans for the crap beer that they drank," said Mr. Pashley, a writer and former bookseller. "Now we're drinking Budweiser and Coors Light. That was something of a test."

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To the pub-frequenting author, beer is not just a beverage, it's a continental divide. Americans can claim to be better than Canadians at many things, but beer isn't one of them, he says. Nor have they been as loyal to the beverage as we.

"The Americans kind of went off beer for a while," Mr. Pashley told me in an interview. "Most were drinking hard liquor [early in the republic's history]" It wasn't until a wave of mostly German settlers arrived in the mid 1800s - with names such as Anheuser, Busch and Pabst - that the United States became a true beer-drinking nation, he says.

Even then the stylistic templates were set. Americans took immediately to lighter lagers produced by Germans relying on newfangled recipes from what is now the Czech Republic. "Canadians were mostly ale drinkers," Mr. Pashley said, drawing the analogy between white wine (lager) and red (ale).

Though the book laments Canadians' changing tastes, and what Mr. Pashley views as a decline in big-brand quality, it reads more like a standup routine than a tragedy. Mr. Pashley, who lives in Toronto, has written comic material for Royal Canadian Air Farce star Dave Broadfoot and three governors-general. He clearly has a gift for one-liners, even if some lines strike below the Borscht Belt.

Then again, he didn't have to work hard to find absurd material in provincial alcohol laws, temperance propaganda (including a few howler pro-Prohibition editorials in the precursor to this newspaper, The Globe, I regret to report) and modern beer-marketing campaigns.

"In most of Canada, the rule of thumb has always been that, if you suspect something alcohol-related is illegal, you're absolutely right," Mr. Pashley writes.

In the early 1970s in Ontario, public drinkers were required to buy food on Sunday, for example. "This led to the famous Ontario cheese sandwich that circulated throughout taprooms on the holy day, dutifully ordered and delivered, but never eaten."

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Lest Westerners become too smug, the author reminds us that, until 1999, restaurants in British Columbia could not serve alcohol without a meal, period. Not a snack but a full-blown meal. "Two 'average-sized' people sharing a plate of nachos did not qualify," Mr. Pashley notes. Nor did one person ordering a plate of chicken wings, unless it was served with garlic bread and salad.

Despite those puritanical laws and the catastrophe of Prohibition (yes, it happened in Canada, too), Mr. Pashley argues that Canadian beer's big undoing came from within. First, there was the scourge of consolidation led by "Canada's beer villain," the late E.P. Taylor, who once controlled Carling. Though remembered today primarily for keeping race horses, Mr. Taylor was once known for another hobby: buying up and closing breweries to stifle competition. "We have reduced the number of brands from several hundred to only nine today," Mr. Pashley quotes Mr. Taylor as boasting in 1945.

Corporate concentration eventually paved the way for wide distribution of the big, bad U.S. brands to be brewed under licence here in Canada. But according to Mr. Pashley, the bigger and perhaps more insidious turning point for flavour came in 1975.

That's when American giant Miller unleashed a monster called Miller Lite, eventually prompting a tidal wave of light beers boasting a most unusual "asset" - less of what you enjoyed before for the same money. "By 1992, light beer was the most popular beer style in America, as drinkers decided that Budweiser, Coors and Miller High Life just had too much flavour."

The standard recipe book included injecting beer with nitrogen to make it smoother, extending fermentation to reduce flavour-imparting dextrins and drastically reducing hop content. That last move was designed to all but eradicate bitterness, a flavour generally prized by beer connoisseurs.

Oh, and there was the rise of corn syrup and rice in place of barley, beer's cornerstone ingredient. In researching Cheers! , Mr. Pashley was stunned to learn that the maker of Budweiser is the biggest buyer of rice in the United States. "You'd think it would be Uncle Ben's, but no."

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My favourite chapter in the book may be the one entitled "Beer vs. Wine," in which Mr. Pashley illustrates that beer snobbery is a lot more democratic and benign than class-laden wine snobbery. Even the finest craft-brewed beers tend to cost less than $25 for a six pack, whereas wine connoisseurship is much more closely associated with wealth because top-rated wines are priced insanely high by comparison - well into the hundreds and even in some cases thousands of dollars a bottle.

And here's a plausible statement he makes, which you're not likely to come across in a book about wine: "Despite everything you grew up believing, the perfect marriage for cheese is not wine, but beer." Unless one counts sweet wines such as port and Sauternes, I'm inclined to agree.

The rise of "light dry low-carb ice beer with no aftertaste" notwithstanding, Mr. Pashley's book ends, as its upbeat title suggests, on a cheery note. He undertakes a cross-country pub crawl and reports on a burgeoning craft-brew scene. "I think these are actually good times," he told me. "There's more choice than we've ever had. There's hardly any city of any size in Canada that doesn't have some craft brewery."

Craft brews even fit with the foodie zeitgeist, he observes. Though raw ingredients such as barley and hops tend to come from far away, beer can be brewed anywhere with local water. That means it generally comes with a smaller carbon footprint than wine.

And Mr. Pashley is happy to report that at least one small brewery, Yukon Brewing Co. in Whitehorse, is outselling megabrand Molson Canadian in its local market.

Now that, he says, is a refreshing statistic.

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