Canada’s Reinheitsgebot – Introduction
Under its excise tax rules between at least 1877 and 1952, Canada enforced in practical terms a regime of all-malt brewing. That is, almost all beer brewed here was all-malt, with an insignificant amount of “adjunct beer” made, or beer that used rice, corn, sugar or another substitute for part of the traditional malt.
The announced reasons were twofold: first, to protect the Canadian farmer, second, to preserve the integrity of the beer palate. Below, I explain how this occurred through highlighting certain stages in the government’s scheme.
The Divergence in Tax Treatment Over Time
A 1931 U.S. Congressional trade report, see p. 411, recorded that Canada taxed domestic malt, apparently as at 1929, at $0.03/lb. If beer was fermented from any materials other than malt in whole or part, the tax was $0.15 cents per (finished) gallon of beer. A rule of thumb of the Canadian government, as shown below, held that three pounds of malt made one gallon of beer. Hence, that gallon, if all-domestic malt was used gave rise to an excise of $0.09/lb. So, we have nine cents for all-malt beer vs. $0.15 for adjunct beer.
In 1944, as this U.S. Treasury study showed, the prevailing Canadian excise rate on all-malt vs. adjunct beer resulted in a calculated duty of (CDN) $8.68 vs. $11.62 per 31 wine gallon barrel, respectively. So again, a clear advantage accrued to the all-malt product.
Adjuncts like corn, rice, and especially invert sugar syrup are more fermentable than malt, but of course adjuncts only supplement a beer mash, are not used for 100%, that is. Neither corn nor rice at the time, or sugar cane, was raised commercially in Canada.
In 1922, Col. Herbert Molson stated in an article that year in the Journal of Institute of Brewing:
The system of taxation for excise purposes existing in Canada differs from that followed by Great Britain and the United States, in that the taxes are levied on the malt used and not on the beer brewed. Should a brewer in Canada desire to use any material other than barley malt, such as corn, rice, glucose, sugars, etc., special arrangements must be made with the Excise Department of the Government, in which case a duty of so much per gallon is placed on the beer brewed. This duty has been kept for many years at approximately double the duty which would be paid on the equivalent amount of malt required to produce the same amount of beer. This has acted as a natural deterrent to any use of other materials, and the amount of beer brewed in Canada from materials other than malt is infinitesimal.
A Canadian federal government report on the brewing industry issued in 1933 confirmed this practise. It showed, see p. 5, that corn and other adjuncts used in Canadian brewing represented a very small percentage of the malt used in brewing in Canada. I calculate about 3% for all the adjunct types, under 3,000,000 lbs, vs. about 87,000,000 lbs of malt.
In 1952, the then $0.45/gal. excise on beer brewed from an adjunct mash was lowered by $0.03, to $0.42. The government stated, per an April 9, 1952 Globe and Mail press story (paywall) on the budget that year, that this put the two types of beer on a parity of excise treatment, but revenues would not change much. I cannot confirm the revenue projection without a fuller study, but the ongoing consolidation of the Canadian beer industry spearheaded by Canadian Breweries Ltd. since the 1930s ensured the savings that did result would be maximized by economies of scale.
In the Comments below, see my two remarks which explain more specifically how the dovetailing of tax treatment was achieved.
Even in 1891 a divide in the excise rates existed that made brewing adjunct beer in Canada uneconomic. We can see this from an exchange that year in Parliament where House Member Foster (p. 4001 et. seq) stated that Canada wanted to protect its barley farmers, and also, “prevent the manufacture of poorer quality beer”. He argued that rather than ban substitutes like sugar, it was better to increase the tax burden on brewing with adjuncts.
Foster was Sir George Eulas Foster, Minister of Finance under Macdonald’s government. Here is some bio on him, it’s interesting to observe he was a temperance advocate.
Foster introduced a resolution to increase the per pound rate to $0.02 from $0.01, and hence proposed an increase in the adjunct beer rate, to $0.10 per gallon. Under a rule of thumb he used of 3 lbs malt to produce one gallon of beer, that meant $0.06/gal for all-malt vs. $0.10/gal for adjunct brewing.
I have not substantiated as yet that the change went through but clearly something similar did result that led to Canadian brewers continuing to brew from all-malt, or mostly.
In 1880 the change was legislated in Britain for taxing beer based on alcohol content, or more correctly, its original gravity. This levelled the playing field among fermentable materials and opened the door to use of economical, non-malt options. Canada’s course was different, of which palate protection was an asserted element, a notable factor.
Some National Breweries Limited annual reports in the 1940s, I cited them in earlier posts, mention barley malt as a key input but never mention corn, rice, sugar, or syrups. In this February 1944 issue of the company’s house magazine The Review, an article on the in-house laboratory stated, quoting the group operating manual, that only malt and hops were used. Hence, each brewery in the group followed this rule.
NBL was clearly promoting all-malt as a quality or “PR” measure, as many European brewers had who were trained in all-malt brewing. NBL’s head brewer in the 30s and 40s, surnamed Meyer, was of Danish extraction by my research. He perhaps trained at Carlsberg or a similar brewery, and likely viewed all-malt as superior beer.
In 1945, the first year Labatt Breweries went public, its annual report states that the beers were made with hops, malt, water, and yeast. No reference to adjuncts of any kind is made.
Col. Molson’s comments in 1922, considering too the full tenor of the article, suggest that Molson Brewery would have used adjuncts had it been able to economically. Probably NBL, and Labatt’s, were no different, but the option wasn’t there, as yet.
To be sure, some adjunct was used in Canadian brewing before 1952, before, that is, the rise of mass-marketed Canadian adjunct beers. After all, various adjuncts comprised the 3% figure I drew from the 1933 report. In their Ontario beer history, Alan McLeod and Jordan St. John showed that Carling Brewery was using rice in 1926 to make lager, not all of which was illicitly exported to Dry America.
Possibly this adjunct beer sold for more than standard beer to allow the brewer to recoup the extra duty paid, but in any case, very little such beer was brewed, as the references I’ve gathered make clear.
As long as the disparity of tax treatment continued, clearly all-malt brewing was the resort for most brewers, almost invariably. Some brewers, as noted above, made a point that their all-malt beer was superior. Were they making the best of a bad situation, bad from a cost standpoint? This is difficult to say, as a difference of opinion existed then and exists now viz. whether all-malt beer is superior.
Nonetheless there was a practical Reinheitsgebot in place in Canada until 1952 and/or ongoing brewing industry consolidation made any subsisting disparity acceptable.
When did the Taxation Disparity Start?
In 1877 (at least) the regime was in place. In that year, a statute was enacted that provided that the per pound malt rate was $0.02, or $0.06/gal under the rule of thumb, and the per gallon charge where adjuncts were used, $0.08. That represented a 33.3% difference even though the extra yield from cereal adjuncts was likely less than that percentage.
Further, as noted in the 1891 debates and reflected in the 1944 Treasury study which used 2.1 lb to obtain one gallon of beer, many brewers could brew a gallon of beer with less than three pounds of malt.
The Quality of Beer the Regime Encouraged
Considering the typical finishing gravities of beer in the 1930s, see A.L. Nugey’s 1930s brewhouse formulas including his chart at p. 42, the all-malt beers of the time had to be pretty good, judged by the standards of beer connoisseurship that is.
In contrast, from the 1950s onwards it is generally accepted that Canadian beers got ever lighter by using more adjunct, and lower final gravities. Hopping is also a factor here, as hop rates generally fell over the same period.
The onset of craft brewing in Canada from the mid-1980s returned things from a palate standpoint to the period 1877-1952. Craft brewing has, after all, to a large degree been based on the idea of all-malt brewing. The spur in the 1980s was not taxation as such but rather taste quality as exemplified in the mind of many by the German Pure Beer Law, or Reinheitsgebot.
A study (in French) of Boswell and NBL history by the Quebec scholar Nicole Dorion included a chart describing the manufacturing process, see Tableau 1 under Organisation du Travail. I am not clear if this was a document of NBL or Boswell Brewery, or was prepared by Ms. Dorion. It states when describing boiling with hops that “sucre” (sugar) is added to the kettle, Epsom salts as well. The date of the chart is not mentioned, if from NBL it appears to be from the late 40s or early 50s. Two brands are mentioned in the document, Dow and Boswell, clearly their ales.
According to this story in Le Soleil of Quebec City on June 3, 1952, Boswell’s brands were to be withdrawn from the market “in a few weeks” in favour only of Dow and Champlain Porter, in order that the business might produce only the most profitable brands. Canadian Breweries Ltd. probably had taken over by then, as the head office is referred to as Dow brewery in Montreal, which is the new name given NBL by Canadian Breweries Ltd.
I suspect sugar was employed late in NBL’s arc, perhaps 1950-1952, or Canadian Breweries ordered the change after the takeover earlier in 1952. True, in the first instance, the tax position had not yet changed, but NBL may have been able to save money depending e.g., on the price of sugar. Canadian Breweries Ltd. probably knew, if it ordered the change, that the excise reduction on adjunct beer was coming, indeed it is a fair assumption it helped lobby for it.