Beyond Molson and Labatt 

When I attended the University of Michigan, my studies included Canadian Culture 101: watching Hockey Night in Canada; and drinking Molson Golden, which has just arrived in the local bars. This was during the Seventies, when most beers were either overpriced imports or watery domestic lagers. Given those sorry choices, drinking Molson wasn't just a novelty; it was a form of protest.

Today, most Americans still associate Canadian beer with Molson and rival brewing giant Labatt. That's unfortunate, but understandable; the two account for 90 percent of their home market. But a quiet revolution is taking place north of the border: drinkers want alternatives to mass-produced beer, and breweries have sprung up in every corner of the country to meet the demand.

Living near the border, I've managed to get a first-hand look at--and taste of--Canada's craft beer renaissance. I've gotten acquainted with cask-conditioned bitter in Toronto pubs, arranged a degustation of Belgian-style beers in a Montreal hotel room, and toasted Victoria's beauty with hand-crafted ales.

The comeback of locally-brewed beer and the revival of long-forgotten beer styles is a compelling story, one masterfully told by Stephen Beaumont, the author of The Great Canadian Beer Guide. Actually, it's a twice-told tale. The first edition appeared in 1994, and quite a bit has happened since then: the number of breweries has more than doubled; brewmasters have learned from experience; and beer drinkers, many of them women, have become more sophisticated.

Beaumont, the author of five books and numerous articles, is Canada's best-known beer writer. And judging from the effort he put into this book, he's also the hardest-working. His research began with more than 6,000 miles on the road, plus numerous plane trips to far-flung parts of the country. Then, once he got home, he conducted blind tastings of more than a thousand beers.

The Great Canadian Beer Guide describes more than 150 breweries and brewpubs. For each one, it provides the essential information--address, phone and fax number, and website. In addition, there are the results of Beaumont's tastings: a short description of each beer, and a rating on a scale of one star ("standard but unimaginative") to four ("a classic in every regard"). The author is a tough, but fair, grader; his list of three- and four-star beers is short.

In evaluating beer, Beaumont looks for three attributes: balance; character, which he defines as a beer's ability to capture his attention; and what the French call je ne sais quoi. While his evaluations are succinct and precise, he makes it clear that he's written a guide, not the Holy Writ; his objective is to get you to try new beers. To help you along, Beaumont offers his thoughts on what makes a beer "great," tips on picking the right beer for the season, and the best-written glossary of beer terms I've run across.

What makes The Great Canadian Beer Guide a joy to read is Beaumont's descriptions of the breweries and, especially, the people behind them. He tells us that Saskatoon's Great Western Brewing Company was started by workers left behind when Molson left town, the founders of Niagara Falls Brewing Company learned to brew in their native Ethiopia, and Moosehead Breweries started with a couple who brewed at 1867.

Beaumont is proud of Canadian beer, and rightly so, but he admits there's room for improvement. He criticizes brewers and, especially, beer writers, for not doing more to educate the public. The author of two beer-themed cookbooks, he'd like to see more emphasis on pairing beer and food. He also hints that politicians would do craft brewers a favor by repealing antiquated liquor laws and making the tax structure fairer. Yet despite these shortcomings, Beaumont sees a bright future for Canadian beer.

The only shortcoming of The Great Canadian Beer Guide is something beyond Beaumont's control: most Canadian micros aren't available in the States. Perhaps that will change; Canada's brewing industry is maturing, and trade barriers with the U.S. are coming down. In the meantime, however, you can join the author in a virtual beer tour of his country--and discover a world of beer beyond Molson and Labatt.