Suds and strokes have long been linked through time, much like coffee and donuts. Few things are more satisfying after paddling all day in the sun than cracking a cold bottle. And many a bottle of beer has been stamped or labelled with the timeless image of a canoe, designed to evoke just such a feeling and thirst from us when we’re away from the water. We survey the best (and very worst) of canoe beer to celebrate this time-honored connection.

Celebrating canoe beer

First, the worst canoe brew

The first canoeing brew however was God-awful trail-made bière d’epinette—a spruce beer blending natural boreal forest sugars, sweetened with molasses, fermented with yeasts from dried wild berries and aged for days in the sun. With a moose-piss pour, dirty whitewater head and lingering naphtha gas finish, this was not the finest beer. However, the hardworking voyageurs must have thought, “It’s better to have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”

Guinness Brewery in Ireland was one of the earliest commercial breweries to link canoeing and brewing. In the 1950s, they created an ad campaign featuring a stylized Indian in full headdress holding up over his head a canoe containing five happy voyageurs; the slogan read, “Guinness—Him Strong.” What this ad lacked in cultural sensitivity it made up for by propelling Guinness’ earthy, thick black stout to one of the best-selling beers and one of the best-known brands in the world.

Modern-day canoe beers

Closer to home, a succession of Canadian breweries have made the canoe connection. Who can forget the Labatt Blue television ads featuring William and Jacques paddling a bark canoe across the country in search of the perfect all-Canadian libation? These spots may well have been inspired by the Niagara Falls Brewing Company’s Trapper beer, which featured a black-bearded coureur des bois paddling out of the label.

And there’s the Algonquin Brewing Company in Formosa, Ontario, showing a bark canoe in profile with two shirtless First Nation paddlers on a low-alcohol brew bottle called Algonquin Canadian Light.

Great labels, but what about the beer? For a while many beer drinkers wondered if canoes on the label meant contents were, “near water.” That notion changed in 1984 when Toronto’s first micro-brewery, Upper Canada Brewing Company, created a family of unapologetic, all-natural beers and proudly plunked likenesses of Arthur Heming’s and Frances Anne Hopkins’ classic voyageur paintings on the labels. Upper Canada started a tradition of robust beers that harkened back to the days of biere de l’epinette, only with great body, memorable taste and a smooth finish. What these labels promised by way of a refreshing whitewater splash across the face, the beer delivered.

A bottle of Maudite beer resting on a canoe
Feature Photo: Rapid Staff

The same is true with Unibroue’s Maudite—English translation, the damned—a bottle-conditioned ale resplendent with a rendering of the Quebecoise folk tale la Chasse Galerie’s flying canoe on the label. At eight per cent alcohol, too many of The Damned could tip your boat. And the tradition goes on.

On the lighter side, Moosehead Breweries in St. John, New Brunswick, came out last year with a new slow-brewed lifestyle beer called Cracked Canoe. Nice label. But dodgy beer one reviewer called “vaguely beer-like.”

You can have both great taste and a canoe on the bottle. In today’s beerscape, the best all-round canoe brew hails from the CANOE Brewpub, Marina and Restaurant on the harbor in Victoria, B.C. Their handcrafted Red Canoe Lager is a winner—superb label with even better beer inside—and as good a reason as any to set off across the continent by canoe.

This article was first published in the Early Summer 2010 issue of Canoeroots Magazine. Subscribe to Paddling Magazine’s print and digital editions, or browse the archives.

 

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