Canada’s oldest brewer Molson Coors is getting crafty in the way it makes and markets beer, launching the American craft import Belgian Moon and dusting off a century-old recipe for its 1908 Pale Ale.
As the craft beer movement continues to absorb market share from old core national brands — headlined in Canada by the steady decline of Molson Canadian and Labatt Blue — the big brewers are increasingly behaving like their smaller competition, developing a far more diverse portfolio of brews than at any time in living memory.
The overall beer market in Canada is “flat to shrinking,” said Will Meijer, manager of Molson’s craft beer division, Six Pints. But Six Pints sales are growing, led by its popular regional craft brewing properties Granville Island Brewing and Ontario’s Creemore Springs.
“Those brands require a different approach and a different style in the market,” he said.
Not to be outdone, global brewing giant AB InBev’s Canadian subsidiary Labatt recently purchased Toronto’s Mill Street Brewing to add to a craft portfolio that includes Seattle’s Elysian Brewing Company and New York’s Blue Point Brewery. Mill Street Brewery has reportedly sunk $10 million into production and packaging upgrades with an eye to national growth.
“Craft beer is going to continue to grow in Canada, we think there’s a lot more room there,” said Meijer. “Six Pints was created to explore new products and new styles, because consumer needs and tastes are changing.”
Belgian Moon is a subtly rebranded version of Blue Moon, the most popular wheat beer in the United States.
“The wheat segment is quickly growing and there’s no sign of it slowing down and since Blue Moon is a Molson property, we felt there was a big opportunity to bring the biggest wheat brand in the states into Canada,” he said.
After decades of dominance by the big national brands, the beer landscape was changed irrevocably by the opening of then-independent Granville Island Brewing and a handful of other craft brewers in B.C. around 1984. Molson launched Rickard’s Red — its first craft-like beer — just one year later.
“Molson has been around for hundreds of years and we’ve always been good at large national brands,” said Meijer. “Rickard’s Red was created by Gord Rickard, our brewmaster in Vancouver, to satisfy what he saw as a changing demand. Granville’s opening was a sign that things were changing.”
The recent release of the extensively titled John H.R. Molson Bros. 1908 Historic Pale Ale is a way for the venerable brewer to publicly reclaim its position as Canada’s original craft brewer, he said.
The company worked with barley growers and historians to recreate the beer’s original character, even using heirloom hop varieties from B.C., Oregon, Ontario and the United Kingdom. Marketing materials for 1908 emphasize tradition, honesty, history and authenticity.
“The great thing about the craft movement is that it has really started a beer renaissance in Canada and having people really engaged and intrigued by beer is really positive,” said Meijer.
Despite breakneck growth — about 10 new breweries open in B.C. every year — craft beer isn’t increasing the overall beer market. Rather, it is eating the market share of giants like Molson Coors, said beer writer Joe Wiebe, author of Craft Beer Revolution.
“In the past, big brewers have released craft-like beers in a way that makes it hard to tell that it’s a Molson product,” he said. “You would never know that Shock Top Belgian White beer is an (AB InBev) beer.”
That has changed.
“With 1908, it’s different, it’s like Molson saying here is something we can do that is more authentic, reaching back into our history,” he said.
Similarly, Alexander Keith’s recent series of highly hopped India Pale Ales were a clear attempt to woo craft drinkers by amping up a well-known Canadian brand, also owned by AB InBev.
“It might have earned them a tiny bit more cred with craft drinkers, but it still didn’t taste like an IPA,” Wiebe said.
Granville Island has done a nice job of maintaining its credibility in the craft beer scene, despite having graduated from the ranks of independent beer makers, said Wiebe.
Granville Island Brewing continues to brew specialty beers and seasonals on the island under the guidance of Kevin Emms, formerly of the small label Deep Cove Brewers and Distillers.
“There was some concern when former brewmaster Verne Lambourne left, but Emms has that independent background,” he said.
Granville’s core products occupy a middle ground between Canadian and Blue at one end of the scale and hardcore craft double IPAs at the other.
With nearly 100 craft breweries in B.C., the big brewers enjoy a target-rich environment, if they chose to simply buy their competition. Indeed a flurry of acquisitions in the United States has some craft purists in a tizzy.
“Even if the corporate owner doesn’t mess with the recipes, a lot of people would rather their beer dollar stayed local,” Wiebe said.
But such acquisitions remain relatively rare in B.C. where only a handful of independent brewers have graduated to regional status with the kind of market share that would make them an attractive acquisition.
“Acquisitions (of independent craft brewers) make sense if they fill a product gap or a geographical gap for us,” Meijer said. “It’s not just about buying market share, it needs to be complementary to our portfolio.”