Thunder Bay·Photos

A long brew-mance: Thunder Bay's love affair with Crystal beer

In Thunder Bay, Ont., Crystal beer is a bar staple.

It's not as iconic as Persians or Finnish pancakes, but in Thunder Bay, Crystal beer has a loyal following

Carlo DeAgazio says strangers sometimes offer him money for his vintage Crystal sweater, but he refuses to part with it. (Damien Gilbert)
It's something of a local legend. In Thunder Bay people seem to have a connection to one particular budget beer. Amy Hadley tries to understand the appeal of Labatt Crystal. 6:46

In the northwestern Ontario city of Thunder Bay, Labatt Crystal beer has a reputation for being a local favourite. 

"It's one of our best sellers. It has been forever and ever," said Wendy Darcis, who's tended bar at the Port Arthur Curling Club for 37 years. 

"If you are a Crystal drinker, you are a Crystal drinker, and they're die hard."

The working-class lager with the waterfall on the label is often requested by visitors who can't get the brew in their part of the country, she said, and for her own brother, who moved to Calgary years ago, a cold Crystal is part of his homecoming routine. 

It's just "a Thunder Bay thing."

Wendy Darcis, who tends bar at the Port Arthur Curling Club in Thunder Bay, Ont., says Crystal is a favourite with regulars, but visitors from out of town also often ask to try it. (Amy Hadley/CBC)

Crystal is a European-style lager that's about as fancy as a Kenora dinner jacket. Essentially it's a budget brew — albeit one with a surprisingly interesting history.

Jazz-age creation

Labatt started making Crystal in 1921 as part of its plan to weather Ontario's prohibition years. 

At the time brewers in the province were limited to making low-alcohol "temperance beers," but they could produce a stronger beverage for the export market, a Labatt spokesperson explained in an email.

Hoping that it would appeal to drinkers south of the border, the company decided to brew its first European-style lager, and got it to U.S. drinkers despite that country's own prohibition laws. 

Labatt Crystal was originally marked "for export." (Amy Hadley/CBC)

In the 80s, Labatt launched Crystal in the city of Thunder Bay with a campaign that included vouchers given out to employees at the Bombardier plant and the paper mill — two of the city's biggest employers. 

The enduring popularity of the brand in the area may have something to do with that advertising push.

It may also have something to do with demographics and the tastes of the immigrant populations in northern Ontario, said Jordan St. John, a beer blogger based in Toronto, and the author of The Ontario Craft Beer Guide

"There's an old chestnut in Ontario that suggests that if you live east of Yonge Street you're going to drink ale, and if you live west of Yonge Street you're going to drink lager," he said. 

And since Crystal comes from Ontario, "it makes sense that somewhere in Ontario people would drink it."

Beer blogger Jordan St. John said he once reviewed Crystal as part of a feature on cheap beers. 'I think it was slightly better than the other things in the category,' he said. (saintjohnswort.ca)

Carlo DeAgazio, 29, has been drinking Crystal since he was a teen, and he has more than a stack of empties to prove his loyalty.

His vintage Crystal sweater is a treasured possession, that's often coveted by others. 

"People do ask to buy it," he said. So far, the highest offer is $350.

But not everyone in Thunder Bay shares his taste.

Is Crystal losing its sheen?

"There's some people that just don't understand," he said. "They're like 'that is the worst.' It's the left over of Blue that sits at the bottom of the barrel." 

"If you ask me I would just say, 'well it's just a good standard beer. It's not too light, it's not too heavy, it's not too hoppy'." 

And if the brand were ever cancelled? 

"No one wants to see that day," he said. "I'd probably have to start drinking more OV."

Carlo DeAgazio, an 'avid' Crystal drinker in Thunder Bay, Ont., is the proud owner of several pieces of vintage brand memorabilia, including this backpack, which includes a cooler pouch. (Amy Hadley/CBC)

At the curling club, the most loyal Crystal drinkers tend to belong to older generations, said Wendy Darcis. More and more, younger patrons favour micro-brews. 

"I'm not sure what's going to happen with that," she said, but she does know a Crystal cancellation wouldn't go over well with regulars.

"I just keep talking to our Labatt salesman and say, 'you can't stop making Crystal,' ... wait until I retire," to do that.

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