Taking 5 For Fifty Ale

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A CANADIAN CLASSIC REVISITED

Pictured (foreground) is an old Canadian favourite, Labatt 50 Ale.

This beer dates from 1950, and represents a style of ale which used to be called Canadian sparkling ale. This meant it was fermented like an ale, at warm temperature with a top-cropping yeast, but aged cold with the full carbonation and expected clarity of a blonde lager. This type of beer was the commercial norm for ale in North America until craft ales were introduced which themselves represent an older stage in the history of top-fermented beers.

Labatt 50 seems to me to be better than 10 years ago and perhaps more like it was in the 70’s or even earlier. It had a very full estery (fruity) taste, lemon/pineapple-like, some decent, neutral-type bitterness, and a grainy, slightly astringent flavour.  The malt base seems clearly to be classic 6-row North American which has a famous “husky” quality. I’d guess there isn’t much or any adjunct in the current version either.

A very creditable pint and left to decarbonate 90% and warm for an hour, it could pass for an almost-still English bitter. The comparison sounds like a stretch but it isn’t. The fullness of taste may be due as well to no, or a lesser form of, pasteurization.

But back to how it normally was/is consumed, this vintage ’71 commercial says it all. The grooving crowd, hopefully all still with us, would be in their late 60’s now, I reckon. Got to get my head around that.

 

 

17 thoughts on “Taking 5 For Fifty Ale

  1. Gary,
    Between your original post, the link to the ’71 ad and the litany of informed discourse that has followed, ‘Taking 5 for 50’ packs considerable bang for the buck. Love it!

    BTW my beer of choice in the mid 80s was Carling Black Label – originally chosen among my cronies for its lack of popularity. Why? If you saw some punter necking it back at a house party, you knew he’d nicked yours from the fridge. That strategy proved futile as the beer grew in popularity by the late 80s, largely due to some stylized retro TV ads. What’s Black Label’s legacy today?
    Cheers.
    -Sean

    • Sean, interesting strategy viz selection of a beer! I recall when Black Ice had a certain cachet for example.Black Label has a storied history, will try to discuss later.

      Gary

  2. You’re absolutely right about the flavour impact of HGB. It’s why the macros need people with PhDs to deal with the enormously complex compounds they’re creating. Your point about the yeast change makes sense.

    Another significant factor is the change (sometimes with intermediate steps) from the old open swimming pool type fermenters where the yeast was skimmed from the top for repitching, to giant cylindroconical towers. For a multi-location brewer where these changes happened piecemeal, it must have called for a lot of brand relocation and blending. Maintaining continuity of palate must been a huge challenge.

    I do agree with your source. I always try to remind myself that memory is selective and the sense of taste is highly individual, fickle, and subjective. Gradual and subtle changes may elude those who taste the product on a daily basis, but be noticeable to the consumer who buys a case per month or has the occasional pint. I avoid blind tastings like the plague. Far too embarrassing.

  3. True, I hadn’t considered their smaller facilities.

    Lite beer was the best scam… Continue watering it down, but charge the same price!

  4. Further to the discussion of macro capabilities, Labatt is brewing Goose IPA. If they can produce that, they can brew anything.

    As for Molson, given the nationwide ubiquity of Creemore, I am doubtful it is all coming from a remote Ontario village.

    • The adoption of a different yeast must have had some impact. On high gravity, I would have thought you get different secondary constituents when brewing to a higher ABV. Indeed I’d guess the change in yeast was precisely to accommodate the adoption of HGB. Now, I am sure they took pains to ensure continuity of palate, but it’s always hard to know. Recently, a brewer familiar with large-scale production told me, “look, throw out your preconceptions: you think you can tell pasteurized from non-; or all-malt from adjunct; you can’t. If you do a blind taste test, you’ll get it all wrong”. Maybe. 🙂

      Gary

  5. Some of these comments make me feel like dropping in to The Pig’s Ear for a quart. I think I’ll pass on the pickled egg, though.

    Graham Stewart was Technical Director at Labatt for many years before becoming Director of the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling in Edinburgh. In 2011, he spoke to the MBAA Ontario Technical Conference about “High Gravity Brewing in Large and Small Breweries.”

    He said that high gravity brewing, the practice of making a strong (14-17 deg.P) wort and diluting it post fermentation (sometimes 2 or three times), should be embraced by craft brewers. Its efficiency can’t be denied, but Dr. Stewart also claimed that, essentially, the punters can’t taste the difference. He didn’t put it quite so bluntly.

    Well, this punter is sceptical.

    He used 50 as an example. In passing, he mentioned that in 1978, they switched from a multi-strain yeast to a purer single strain, then in 1983 introduced high gravity brewing. Of course Labatt’s tasting experts noticed no discernible change in flavour.

    I was intrigued, because it was around 1978 that I started drinking less 50 and around 1983 that I stopped drinking it altogether. Coincidence? Possibly. Back then, I really was a punter, I didn’t know hops from hostas. The history of brewing is filled with stories of once dominant brands declining alarmingly after the experts tinker with it, in the apparent belief that the great unwashed can’t taste the difference. They may not have Jacksonian or Beaumontian vocabularies, but they – we – can most assuredly taste the difference.

  6. Yes, I’d love to see our Macro’s bring back some classic recipes like Fuller’s did with their Past Masters. But I’m not sure how well they’d be received, I think we’re probably a small minority.

    Also, it may not be that easy for them. Their processing has really changed. They’ve been using corn syrup for at least a decade now (I’ve heard that their mash efficiency wasn’t consistent with all the modern varieties of corn), the malt has evolved to some extent, and I’d be surprised if they used any actual hops at a large production facility (which tend to rely on hop extract for year-round consistency).

    • But Derek if they want to they could.Molson Coors already has Creemore and other small facilities, and can add to them. If it makes Hops and Bolts, or that wheat beer that emerged from 6 Pints, it can make anything…

      Gary

  7. Derek, thanks, and for that Red Cap info. I’d love to detect some Cluster character in that beer! I’ll try to get it and some Stock. I think for Stock you have to buy 24 but I know some places that have it in the bottle and I’ve seen it on draft occasionally as well. Previous tastings have not been encouraging, and I’d rate the draft 50 I had the other day at Pilot far above those, but you never know. I have a feeling some of these beers are tweaked over time.

    Why AB In Bev/Labatt won’t re-introduce the Labatt IPA of the 1930’s, or 1900, is a mystery to me. At one time, it proudly advertised the year of its release (1862), and that its formulation was obtained from an English brewer working in the States. Molson too surely has similar beers in its archives covering this period. This is what they should do, IMHO, rather than promote U.S.-style craft beer brands or introducing craft beers of their own. It’s all in their history… I’ll revist all this soon.

    Gary

  8. Red Cap appears to be available:
    http://www.thebeerstore.ca/beers/red-cap

    It’s got a bit of that catty Cluster hop (the original C-hop!) flavour as well.

    If you don’t have Jamie Mackinnon’s old book, it might be worth grabbing a copy:
    http://www.amazon.com/Great-Lakes-Beer-Guide-Eastern/dp/1550462091/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1441214797&sr=1-1

    I think he said that “Canadian Ale” typically used less than 15% adjunct, which was lower than American Ales. Regardless, he has some excellent tasting notes and ingredients for a number of craft brews at that time (almost 20 years ago, when Ontario really started to experience a Renaissance).

  9. During the late 70’s and early 80’s, I made a number of trips to Ontario (from New Jersey) and always came back with a case of Labatt IPA and a case of Molson Stock Ale. They dad a rich flavor, but were thirst quenching. A history of either of these beers would be very welcome.

  10. The esters do make this more drinkable than most macro swill. It was always around London in late 90’s as a fallback. Some people frowned upon the Fitty, but it’s really SO much better than Blue and Canadian. Still a bit of adjunct to lighten the 6 row, but not nearly as much as the American counterparts.

    You should revisit Molson Stock Ale as well as Red Cap to get that full, husky, 6 row effect!

  11. Ah, Fifty! Who’d’a thought twenty years ago that Fifty would be hip again. I get the impression they’ve been pushing it as a Canuck PBR. It was my regular choice as a teenager. I drifted away from it, eventually settling on Molson Stock Ale (“The Original Blue”).

    Your six-row note is well spotted. In 1992-93, I had a supervisor who had been with Canada Malting. He told me one time that Molson ordered entirely two-row malt, while Labatt’s took a significant portion of six-row. 30% comes to mind, but I don’t remember precisely.

    Renowned brewing scientist Graham Stewart had a fair bit to say about 50 when he spoke at an MBAA technical conference a few years ago, but that’s a lengthy digression…

    As a transplanted Montrealer, Gary, you are well placed to address this question:
    A good few of us were convinced throughout the 80s that 50 in Quebec was “better” (i.e. more bitter) than its Ontario version. It was a Grand Prix weekend favourite long after I had given up on it at home. Did you ever have that impression? Maybe it was just the ambience of rue St-Denis…

    • Thanks Doug, very interesting. Now you’ve got me wondering what Graham Stewart said! Truth to tell, I felt Labatt was consistent from Quebec to Ontario. The reason, I always thought, was Montreal was the satellite: Labatt originated as we know in London, ON, so London ensured the taste would be the same. However, I always felt Molson Export was better in Quebec and recall doing a couple of taste tests which seemed to bear it out.

      Molson Export today, I regret to say, just isn’t the same at all. It used to have a characteristic earthy note and was quite complex – today it tastes thin and full of adjunct to me. 50 is superior and more what I recall from the old days. However, I feel 50 may have been “renewed” as Gary Hodder put it above, it seems better now than 10-15 years ago at least the draft I had (in exemplary condition at the Pilot).

      Gary

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