Inside the struggle to make a light beer Canucks would admit to drinking

Forty years ago, Canadian beer companies were competing to produce a low-calorie beer that tasted good, and it wasn't easy.

Alcohol content was a secondary concern when 'lite' beer joined the market 40 years ago

The cautionary tale of a Canadian beer whose name was too close to a U.S. brew. 1:02

In 1978, Canada's big brewers launched a fight for the light beer market, and things got heavy.

For one thing, they didn't see eye-to-eye with the government about what, exactly, made a beer "light."

It wasn't about the calories: all the brands tested added up to less than 100 calories a bottle. 

Not always light on alcohol...

Regulations specified that a light beer should contain no more than 2.5 per cent alcohol by volume. But CBC reporter Paul Workman clocked Labatt Special Light at four per cent and Molson Light checked in at 4.5 per cent.

"The two companies have lowered the calorie count, but the alcohol count is still above government standards," said Workman.

Because of the discrepancy, the government had taken Molson and Labatt to court — and lost. But Workman said that wasn't the end of it, predicting the case would go to the Supreme Court.

(It did. In December 1979, the court ruled 6-3 in favour of Labatt and found that all of the Food and Drugs Act's regulations concerning the brewing of beer were invalid.)

Only Carling's Trilight had a prescribed 2.5 per cent (as did a Hamilton brew called Henninger). 

But Trilight had its own problem: branding.

How much alcohol by volume should a light beer contain? The breweries and the government disagree. 1:27

Carling spent $1 million to promote its entry into the light beer market, a beer it called Highlight. 

But the U.S. brewer Miller, which made a beer called High Life, threatened a lawsuit, according to Workman.

And so Highlight became Trilight.

"Carling O'Keefe acknowledges pressure from Miller," said Workman, "but said no, it changed the name to avoid confusion with an American product, because American beer tastes too watery."

Taste was a problem all beer companies had to address when making a light product. 

... but light on flavour

"It's malt that makes beer alcoholic," said Workman. "When you reduce the malt, you lower the alcohol content, all right — but you also weaken the taste." 

Drinkers at an Ottawa bar said light beer tasted all right, but their praise was as weak as the beer.

"It's a good taste, but I still think 50 is a better beer," said one man.

"It tastes like beer, so that's why I do it," said another. "I worry about my physique so I drink it at home."

For light beer brewers, it's a struggle to balance low calories with flavour. 1:17


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