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America vs. Canada: The battle over beer
By Joey Redner
Published August 17, 2007
One of my favorite beer myths to dispel is the wholly incorrect notion that Canadian beers are stronger than American beers.
Try to convince a Canadian otherwise, and the conversation may turn to fisticuffs. Canadians swear Canadian beer is higher in alcohol content than American beer, and if you claim it isn't, you're just a jealous Yank in need of a good forecheck.
Fortunately, I like a good argument - it runs in the family - so I'm happy to tackle this myth despite the risks.
Canadian beer is not only no stronger than American beer on average, even the strongest Canadian brews are wimpy when compared to the United States' highest alcohol-by-volume beers. Go ahead and hurl all the hockey pucks you want. It won't change the facts.
The myth got its start because of how alcohol was traditionally measured in the two countries. Americans used the alcohol-by-weight method while Canadians used the alcohol-by-volume method.
Take a typical macro lager 12-ounce can that is 5 percent alcohol by volume. Five percent of that 12 ounces is alcohol. But alcohol weighs only about 80 percent as much as water. So that same 5 percent alcohol-by-volume beer is only 4 percent alcohol by weight. This difference in labeling led to the erroneous belief in the extra potency of Canadian brews.
Most American breweries now use alcohol by volume, but the myth persists. In fact, many Canadians believe American beer producers make stronger products for export to Canada. This, too, is untrue, and merely reflects the shift from the American alcohol-by-weight system to the Canadian alcohol-by-volume system, which American brewers used when labeling cans and bottles for export to other countries.
The macro examples of Canadian beers are almost perfectly in line with the American versions. Full-bodied lagers tend to be 4.5 percent to 5 percent alcohol by volume in both countries, with malt liquor reaching into the 8 percent range.
Even among flavorful small-batch craft-brewed beers, Canadian beers tend to be fairly light in the alcohol department. Of the 10 highest alcohol-by-volume beers in the world, nine are made in the United States and one is brewed in Germany. Canadian craft brews seldom top 15 percent alcohol by volume and many of their brews tend to be lower in alcohol than similar U.S. versions, reflecting the English tradition of brewing less alcoholic beers.
It should be noted that Canadian craft beers are, on average, higher in strength than their macro-brewed counterparts. Craft brewers tend to brew many styles of beer, some of which are quite high in alcohol content, while macro brewers tend to focus exclusively on one or two styles of beer.
This doesn't mean there aren't any options for powerful Canadian suds.
Unibroue, out of Chambly, Quebec, brews a line of Belgian-style beers that are full of flavor and higher alcohol. Look for Trois Pistoles, Maudite, Don De Dieu, La Fin du Monde, Seigneuriale and their latest release, 16, brewed to celebrate the 16th anniversary of Unibroue.
The latter is a strong Belgian-style ale, 10 percent alcohol by volume. The flavor features plums, prunes, brown sugar, figs and light spice notes, and is held together by a soft banana-like yeastiness typical of Belgian-style ales.
- Joey Redner is a Tampa resident and world beer traveler.