The 'cheap' American beer that made Canadian brewers hopping mad

American beer was cheap and freely available in Alberta. To Canadian brewers, that was no bargain.

In 1987, domestic brewers decried Alberta price for U.S.-made beer

A beer war in Alberta

35 years ago
Duration 2:12
In 1987, the CBC's Kevin Tibbles reported from "the front lines" of a beer war that was brewing in Alberta. 2:12

The way Alberta liquor officials looked at it, a steady supply of cheap American beer was a good thing for consumers.

But the way Canadian brewers looked at it, that was not a bargain for Canadians if it came at the expense of domestic beer companies.

That's why The National had Kevin Tibbles tapping into the issue for viewers at home back in January of 1987.

He described a situation where Canadian brewers were frustrated to be competing against "cheap" American beer that was, in some cases, priced at $2 less per case than the equivalent product in Canada.

'A free ride' for U.S. brewers?

A man is seen working at a Molson plant in Edmonton in 1987. (The National/CBC Archives)

"We think they're getting a free ride in this province by getting 100 per cent distribution and not paying a proper markup for it," said Harley Deeks, a Molson executive in Alberta.

Deeks said it was not possible for Canadian brewers to increase their presence in the provinces, as they were hemmed in by inter-provincial trade barriers that limited their business development opportunities on this side of the border.

"We're not allowed to ship between provinces," Deeks said. "And if they're talking about free trade, they better get it between the provinces in Canada first before they start talking about the States."

But one American brewer pointed to a current trade balance that was already favouring those same Canadian brewers complaining about their situation.

A claimed 12:1 advantage

The CBC's Kevin Tibbles is seen working on his report on the tensions brewing in Alberta over the price at which U.S. beer was being sold in the province in early 1987. (The National/CBC Archives)

"I think one statistic is very telling: For every case of beer that we send into Canada, 12 cases of the Canadian brewers' (beer) come back to the United States," said Randy Smith of the Washington-based Rainier Brewers.

"That's a whopping trade imbalance between the United States and Canada over beer."

And while Molson and other Canadian brewers intended to press their case with the provincial and federal governments, Alberta officials, to that point, had been content "to let the breweries fight it out," Tibbles said.

Jim Ogilvy of the Alberta Liquor Control Board told CBC News that the organization applied "a standard percentage markup on all our products." He also said that the better prices the liquor board could provide for Alberta consumers, "the better the whole system works."

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