Molson’s Rice Beer

The history of branding and marketing shows how durable are well-established brands. Once a reputation is earned, the names can continue for a long time in the folk memory, even in decline and even when defunct.

Sometimes, only an event out of the blue can kill a brand. Instances abound. Dow Ale was fatally wounded in the mid-1960s by a scandal involving the deaths of a score or more heavy beer drinkers, thought to be done in by a foam-enhancing additive.

I probably get more views on my 2016 Dow Ale post than any other. People still remember, or know somehow, the name Dow even though the product hasn’t been sold since about 1990. Coca-Cola was almost fatally hurt when the flawed New Coke version was introduced, but white knight Coke Classic saved the day.

Schlitz beer, mentioned in the above ad, was later afflicted by a mistake in processing that changed the palate. Sales dropped and even though the error was fixed sales never recovered.

But when no unusual difficulty besets a popular commercial product it can live for 100 years and more.

Consider the drinks ad reproduced above (top left portion), obtained via New York State Historic Newspapers, here. Drutz Supermarket in Saranac Lake, NY placed it in 1955 in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise. Saranac Lake was and remains a well-frequented tourist and vacation destination in the Adirondack Mountains.

Of the 16 beers in that list 13 still exist and most do quite well in the market. Only Ruppert, an old name in New York City lager, Kingsbeer, a Canadian lager in the Dow family, and Fitzgerald’s beer have departed the market. Fitzgerald was a long-established brewery and soft drinks distributor in Troy, NY, a comparative hop and skip from Saranac Lake.

The Fitzgerald brewery lasted until 1963. The beer, or at least the one advertised, was what was known then as a “price” beer, not the most premium, that is. (For good background on Fitzgerald read Jay Brooks’ 2017 essay, here.).

But look at the other names, e.g., Carling, Guinness, Budweiser, Ballantine, Pabst, Miller High Life among others. All top end at the time. And then there is Crown & Lager Rice Beer. What’s that? It was the lager of Quebec-based Molson Brewery when it first expanded in Toronto (from Montreal), in 1954. Numerous sources state that this beer was rebranded in 1959 as Molson Canadian. Well, Molson Canadian needs no introduction to Canadians and indeed many beer drinkers beyond today.

But can good old “Canadian” really have rice in it? Malt adjunct, certainly but rice? Its predecessor, or predecessor in name, clearly did.

1950s brewing was a time when marketers could be ingenuous, and even vaunt such things with pride. No one told the public then – there were no consumer beer writers to do it – that rice in was an American innovation that arguably detracted from lager’s traditional palate. So why not trumpet it? Anheuser-Busch had done so, before WW I, trying to distinguish rice from corn adjunct, but after 1933 did not try the gambit again.

I don’t think the rice claim – rice lager – was so much turning a negative into a positive as  not realizing rice adjunct was not, in terms of traditional brewing, a point of pride, even in America where some form of adjunct characterized most brewing by 1900.

In fact, there seems to have been an attempt by Molson to create a fresh image in Ontario, almost to give the impression the (unit name only) “Crown and Anchor Rice Brewery” on the label was a new entrant in Canadian brewing. Maybe it was thought “Molson” had no particular resonance in Ontario, or was viewed negatively since Molson originated in Quebec. (The old Quebec-Ontario rivalry lives on).

Indeed the word Molson does not appear on the Crown & Anchor label. Today people knock big brewers for setting up “Potemkin” breweries, fake units dressed up in craft livery meant to gull the public. So it’s not really new, is it?

Be that as it may, Molson discarded the artifice after a few years, and discarded the rice claim, too. Perhaps it got letters from European brewmasters skiing in the Adirondacks saying, “Vy are you fellows advertising the use of rice? Vy is it in the brewery name?”.

So, yes, even Crown and Anchor Rice Beer still exists, only it’s called Molson Canadian lager beer.

Therefore, Crown & Anchor and Rice Lager were not destined for the ages. But the brewery that made it, the venerable Molson, still exists, as Molson-Coors, and Molson retains largely the magic it has had in Canada since the 1800s even though the main brands of Molson-Coors have no particular cachet in beer aware circles.

Note re images: The first image above was sourced from the news story linked in the text. The second, from Ebay, here. The third, from the Fitzgerald Brothers website (the bottling and distribution business still exists), here. All intellectual property in the sources belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.




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