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 reversed sales never recovered.

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

Consider the drinks advertisement above (top-left portion), obtained via New York State Historic Newspapers, here. In 1955, Drutz Supermarket in Saranac Lake, NY placed it 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 the 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 best quality, that is. For good background on Fitzgerald read Jay Brooks’ 2017 essay, here).

But look at the other names: Carling, Guinness, Budweiser, Ballantine, Pabst, Miller High Life, among others. All top end at the time. And then there is Crown & Lager Rice Beer. This was the lager of Quebec-based Molson Brewery when it first expanded into Toronto (from Montreal) in 1954. Numerous sources state the beer was rebranded in 1959 as Molson Canadian. Well, Molson Canadian needs no introduction to Canadians and, indeed, many reading outside Canada.

But can good old Molson Canadian “really have rice in it? Malt adjunct, no doubt, but specifically rice? Well, it did, at least at one time, and its predecessor certainly did.

In the 1950s mass marketers could still be ingenuous, and with pride. No one told the public then – there were no consumer beer writers to do it – that rice in beer arguably detracted from the traditional palate of beer. So why not trumpet it? It was probably felt the term sounded modern, or technically innovative. And being the opposite of old-fashioned was in style then.

In fact, there seems to have been an attempt by Molson to create a fresh image in Ontario, almost to give the impression the “Crown and Anchor Rice Brewery” 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). And trumpeting rice may have been part of the strategy.

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

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?”.

One way or another 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 still retains resonance in the Canadian beer landscape even if its brands hold no favour among the cognoscenti.

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.