Canadian Super-Premiums


Beers of this class in Ontario and Quebec in the 70s and 80s included Molson Brador (a contraction for Brassée d’Or, wrote Michael Jackson, or perhaps Brassin d’Or), c. 6% abv; Labatt Classic, an all-malt lager; the Frankfurt-licensed Henninger in Hamilton, ON; Heidelberg, released by Carling O’Keefe in a grenade-shape bottle in the early 1970s; and Labatt IPA at least after it shed the previous “grocery store” design for a nifty, embossed clear bottle. All these were 5% abv except Brador.

The Heidelberg may have been all-malt, and seemingly oddly, was initially an ale, at least in Quebec and Ontario. Heidelberg’s proximate origins seem to lie in Washington State, where a brand before WW I was called Alt Heidelberg. Since the beer was an ale on release in Canada, perhaps it was originally an Alt Bier in Germany – top-fermented. Or maybe it was always a lager with “old” meaning, old country. Anyway, it was an ale here. When launched in western Canada it probably was a lager there, as the west was always lager-land.

Heidelberg shifted a fair amount of coin but after being forced to adopt the standard industry stubby bottle sales dropped and the brand left the market. I recall it being not that different from the Canadian lager norm. Carlsberg, brewed under license in Montreal from the early 70s, was kind of similar except its success was long-lasting, to this day in fact when the brand is now a true import.

Some might include as super-premiums the porters and stouts of the era although they weren’t marketed as such, or marketed at all: Molson Porter, say, which tasted rather like Yuengling Porter, or Champlain Porter from Labatt which had a sweet-liquorice note.

Perhaps Labatt Extra Stock, a strongish beer, would qualify too. The odd other beer could be viewed in similar terms, Labatt had a tawny Super-Bock that was pretty good but it was seasonal of course. Molson had something similar. Here is a video by some fellow Canadians reviewing the Labatt one a couple of years ago, a 30-year-old bottle (the taste part starts at 6:16).

None of these are available today as far as I know.

All were a cut above the regular issue, but weren’t really like imports either. They were our version of the “Third Taste” American brewers tried to convince an upscale demographic to buy: Andeker, Erlanger, Coors Herman Joseph or George Killian, Michelob, Augsburger, etc. Even in the 70s I recall lore around Montreal that Brador wasn’t what it had been, it was no longer an “ale”. Michael Jackson’s first Pocket Guide in 1982 states the beer was top-fermented though, so maybe it always remained an ale.

The last time I saw Brador around Toronto was about five years ago, and the beer seemed quite ordinary by then, certainly.

The super-premium route didn’t work in the U.S. or here in any way comparable to the bread and butter brands of the brewers. People either wanted real imports, or finally craft brews, the part of the market prepared to pay more for quality. It’s always a minority but not insignificant, as craft brewing proved over the last four decades.

The craft share in the U.S. is around 12% now by volume but I’d think will be closer to 15% by end of this year or next. In Canada, the craft beer segment enjoys approximately half that share based on the most recent figures I’ve seen. Every percentage point though means lots of money and market share by revenue is almost double the share by volume.

The bigger imports in North America really were and remain takes on the standard domestic taste. Corona, Budweiser when new here (brewed in Canada but considered imported in character initially), Miller, Coors Light, even Heineken, now Stella, are not considerably different to the domestic norm.

In the U.S., Corona, Dos Equis, Molson, Labatt, Heineken filled a similar bill in the 80s and 90s. Bear in mind even Heineken was an adjunct brew in the 80s, it switched to all-malt only in the next decade.

Hence, one can argue that, either side of the border, super-premiums – the Third Taste in which some brewers invested much hope – were bested by the import class. Imports have grown steadily since the early 1970s with barely a dip as the table in Beeronomics showed I referenced yesterday.

As the established brewers did not until recently offer the “Second Taste” – European-tasting blonde and dark lagers, pale ale, porter, wheat beer, etc. – the field was left to craft brewers. It’s been mantra since the 1970s that the domestic beer market in North America is flat, but the bright spots belonged to other players, not the big local brewers.

Due to ongoing consolidation internationally the import incursion is now considerably parried, factoring too distribution deals. Bud Light and Coors Light in Canada are part of Labatt and Molson, Stella Artois in the U.S. is now part of the old Anheuser-Busch…

But the craft advance was not addressed until large breweries started to buy crafts in earnest, which is relatively recently. And the current 12% + share of the crafts is out of their hands, excluding that is craft brands owned by the majors.

Even in 1922, a Molson scion confidently explained to English brewers that stock beers and other 1800s-style beer types were no longer produced. You can read his remarks here (see especially pp 537-538). He stated the new-style beers were lower in alcohol, chilled, and force-carbonated.

Canadian ales were all-malt before WW I but it wouldn’t be long before adjuncts were added, too; in fact Col. Molson implied they were in use by the date of his presentation.

Almost 100 years later, the large brewers still make most of their money in that space.

Why did Molson release Brador in 1969, a slightly more malty, higher-alcohol version of a Canadian ale, when it could have re-introduced highly-hopped Molson India Pale Ale or stock porter from an 1800s recipe? Is it that those beers were completely lost to the corporate memory by then? Or was Molson convinced no Canadian would ever drink such things again? If the latter, they were wrong. If the former, it shows how any industry once matured and on a path for many decades can lose touch with the origins.

Even after the craft era was well underway Molson and Labatt did not release beers in that style. And I do remember, if objection be made, the (brief) Molson Signature period: the products included a Cream Ale but were quite ordinary IMO. Yes, Molson bought Creemore Brewery some time ago, but that is one beer basically, one style.

A few years ago, Molson Coors did finally issue a creditable IPA from around 1908. It was brewed once and hasn’t been seen since. Now of course too, apart from Creemore, there is Granville Island, Batch in Toronto, Blue Moon. It’s something. As well the Mad and Noisy India Pale Lager, now available at The Beer Store and, IIRC, LCBO, is an excellent product.

But much more could have been done especially in earlier years IMO –  to help the bottom line, that is. As a consumer, I have nothing to complain about, but looking at the business side of it I see opportunities missed.

Note re image: above image was sourced from Kijiji, here. All intellectual property belongs solely to the lawful owner. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

7 thoughts on “Canadian Super-Premiums”

  1. Around 1969 or 1970 the Bradford liable read gauranteed greater than 10% by volume. It was our fluid of choice for hill side lunches on ski safaris as it never froze in the trunk or lunch bag. Smooth and strong. It would be a real blast -from the past if we could get it today.

    • Hi, thanks for the note. In Ontario certainly, it was available until about 10 years ago at 6% ABV. But it wasn’t that good and didn’t taste like I remember in Montreal around 1980.

      In Quebec, I’m not sure when they stopped selling it, it was a long time ago.

      The full story of Brador has never been told as far as I know. Even when I lived in Montreal, the “story” was it used to be an ale, then became a malt liquor, but I’m not sure if that’s true, maybe the inscription on the label changed because the legislation was modified at some point.

      I wish Molson-Coors would return the original formulation, Quebeckers would love this I think. Many in Ontario remember it too.


  2. I was just recently in Niagra Falls, Ontario, and could not find Molson Brador. When I returned state side, I sent a message to Molson and they sent one line message. They no longer brew Brador. thx

    I remember enjoying Brador decades ago, but there are so many excellent micro brews, and far superior to the corporate giants.


  3. It’s always an interesting conundrum why brewers have struggled to create premium beer brands when their equivalents in the spirits sector have done so very successfully.

    • Excellent point. In general spirits makers seem less conservative, eg. Southern Comfort was recently re-formulated, probably to be nearer its 1800s roots. Jack Daniels issued a rye whiskey, etc. etc. But brewers have tended when reaching a certain scale to focus on lighter taste. Why not reintroduce a “legacy Budweiser” for example? Brewers don’t seem to want to go there.

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