So you’re from Grey Bruce; and I mean you’re really from Grey Bruce. Your parents are from Grey Bruce. Your grandparents are from some back corner of Grey Bruce. Your friends and their parents and grandparents are from Grey Bruce. Growing up here isn’t unlike growing up in any small town across Canada. You get up, go to school, go to work, go to the grocery store, and probably go to the Beer Store every now and then. You like what you like, so you have a tendency to refrain from straying from the script all too often. Hell, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Picture this: You’re away for a weekend with some friends – maybe at a cottage. You roll into the friendly neighbourhood Brewer’s Retail and order up a case of Crystal. You’ve been doing it for years. You think nothing of it. You don’t even look the fella in the eye when you say it, you half expected him to just have it ready for you when you walked in the door.
He looks at you and says “pardon?” You’re confused. “Crystal,” you say, squinting back at him perplexed. “I’d like a case of Crystal, please.”
“Never heard of it,” he responds, shrugging his shoulders.
“Y’know, Labatt.” “Nope, sorry bud. I don’t think we sell Crystal here.” This makes no sense to you. You want beer and you’re in the Beer Store, after all.
Welcome to life outside of Grey Bruce. It’s a big, cruel world out there, and as soon as you leave the territory, things change. Maybe you should sit down for this, because I’m about to hit you with a truth bomb that’s bigger than when you found out wrestling wasn’t real.
Brace yourself – nobody else in Canada really knows what Crystal is. It’s only normal and perhaps prevalent in your life because of Grey Bruce. It’s a weird, geographically specific brew that’s ascended into the ranks of myth elsewhere in the province. Of course, there are pockets of loyal Crystal drinking populations elsewhere in Ontario – most notably on the north shore of Lake Superior in Thunder Bay, Midland, London, and further south near Windsor. But here in Grey Bruce, Crystal is king.
For years I’ve been telling people the waterfall on the iconic label is actually Indian Falls just north of town. We enthusiastically sold it at my Buck n Doe in Shallow Lake. Heartwood Concert Hall (shoutout to Lisa) brought in a case specifically for my 30th birthday party. I was introduced to Facebook in 2005 when people insisted I follow a “Keep Labatt Crystal” page devoted to petitioning an apparent thought by Labatt’s top brass to discontinue its production.
So, in an effort to better understand this allegorical brew and cement Grey Bruce as the epicenter of Crystal fandom and allegiance, I’ve made it my personal business to canonicalize the legend of Labatt Crystal.
First up, I contacted the Labatt Brewing Company Ltd. in February of 2020. I received an email from their Customer Relationships department which said: “If this is something in which we are interested, someone will be in touch.” As of press time and following numerous emails and phone calls in a prolonged effort to contact them, no one from Labatt Brewing had responded. With that said, and since the magazine was released in early July, the opportunity to speak with a local Labatt regional sales representative was presented to me. Ultimately I chose not to have that discussion. When I started researching this article, of course speaking with Labatt was on the top of my to-do list – but this piece has become so much more. Labatt HQ wasn’t “interested” in February when I wrote it, so this article has become the culmination of researching Labatt Crystal on the Google machine and speaking to loyal drinkers. It’s become more about memory, nostalgia, and word-of-mouth. These tidbits of info are what’s available to me, and so, this is the story that’s present. I suspect there’s much, much more.
In the Beginning
In the early 1920s brewers were limited to making low-alcohol ‘temperance’ brews, thanks to the icy clutch of Prohibition. Crystal began its life back in 1920/21 as Ontarian brewers were thankfully still allowed to brew beer with higher alcohol content – as long as it was marked for export – so Labatt tried its hand at its first European-style Lager in Crystal, aimed directly at the American market (despite its own Prohibition-era laws) – and not Canada.
Over time, Crystal wound up finding regional homes in pockets of Ontario, thanks in part to the tastes of predominant immigrant populations of those days; English, Irish, Scots, German, and Scandinavian being some of the groups who have traditionally had a taste for lagers versus ales. Lagers are brewed using bottom-fermenting strains of yeast at colder temps, earning a smooth drinkability.
If you’re a Grey Bruce local, you’ve likely seen the Crystal label on the kitchen table, around the campfire, by the workbench, or maybe on the tailgate growing up. It’s a subtle part of your life and you don’t really know, or care why.
Mike Schwan is a descendant of the owners of Owen Sound’s once-bustling Schwan Brewery, a good Habs fan, and one of the most loyal Crystal drinkers I know. He was introduced to the stuff playing pick-up hockey many decades ago.
“It was here in Owen Sound, probably through the Puffer hockey league. Someone is always responsible for bringing beer for after the game. Someone had brought Crystal and I remember thinking, ‘hey, yeah, that’s pretty darn good.’” Interestingly, the classic Habs v. Leafs rivalry may play a role in its local popularity as well.
“I used to drink Molson Canadian and I remember taking it to hockey for my offering one week, and the guy who ran the team said ‘don’t bring that shit around here. No one likes drinking it.’ I think there were a lot of Leafs fans on the team and Montreal was of course associated with [the Molson family] and the Canadian brand, so I started bringing Crystal.”
People here drink it religiously, without fail, and will travel with cases if they’re staying in a locale where it’s not available – leading us to perhaps the most interesting aspect of the prolonged existence of Labatt Crystal: where you can’t get it. It makes very little sense economically or logistically to only offer a certain brand in pockets of the province based on sales alone. To only ship Crystal to OS and Thunder Bay, for example, seems ludicrous in the long run. But nonetheless, there are spots where you can, and many, many spots where you can’t get Labatt Crystal.
“I went interior camping at Algonquin with my nephew John once,” recalls Schwan. “The deal was, I’d look after the food and he’d look after the beer, so I said ‘make sure you get Crystal.’ He arrives and he has no Crystal – but he has a note from the lady at The Beer Store saying ‘I’m really sorry but we don’t have Crystal [in Huntsville]. Hope Blue will be OK.’”
It’s popular in certain circles here, but is Crystal the best-tasting beer on the block? Certainly not. But does it have to be? You can’t buy a 6-pack. You can’t buy cans. You can’t get it by the keg. You can only enjoy Crystal by the case, which makes it a bit of a risk for curious newbies looking to sample its bubbles. The Beer Store’s website describes Crystal as “specially brewed for a mild lager taste. The brand is a cool, clear, great tasting beer.” For the record, “cool” and “clear” are literally printed on the label, leading me to believe the author of such coincidental and mundane metadata has never actually tipped one.
The LCBO website (you can’t find it on the shelf or order it to the LC) in true Food & Drink fashion evidently consulted the thesaurus when penning their description, citing a “bright amber colour; light spicy hoppy and cereal aromas; crisp, fresh flavour with a mildly hoppy finish.”
Beeradvocate.com will tell you Crystal has a “rich taste,” but it’s the public reviews that win the day. Robdip9 from Pennsylvania left one such gem describing his first encounter with Crystal during a fishing trip north of the border:
“Words are yet to be discovered and the human brain is far from understanding the sensation this beer will create for whomever possesses. It is evident that Labatt is merely a front company and that the literal gods of beer had a more active role in the creation of this special brew. The existence of Labatt Crystal is a sign for all man/womankind that we are truly blessed. It is currently up for submission as one of the wonders of the modern world (Please call your congressman or member of parliament to help this cause). In closing, best liquid you could consume, ever.”“Robdip9” from Pennsylvania
By contrast, someone who calls themselves ForthNorth confesses they once “left the case at my brother’s and he gave most away and pitched the rest,” after leaving a 1.75/5 taste rating.
Personally, I’m a big fan. If you ask me, Crystal has a distinct minerality to it. There’s a deep, almost metallic aftertaste that’s unique to say the least. There’s a grassy, musty nose, a crystal *wink* clear auburn hue, and a clean finish accented by an elevated bitterness. There’s not a ton of info available about how it’s made, but I was able to find it’s brewed using Saaz hops, giving it a slightly sweet taste, limiting its hoppy-ness, and is much smoother than a Pilsner or an IPA.
There’s a popular old myth that says Crystal is just the leftover Labatt Blue they manage to gather from the bottom of the tanks, but Blue is actually brewed with Hallertau hops, so there goes that bit of folklore.
Am I bummed Labatt wasn’t “interested” enough to want to contribute to this article? Yeah. But talking with locals and doing a deep-dive on the internet was the perfect way to go. This is, after all, a beer of the people, and the people, in all of their glorious honesty and fascination with this weird brew, have spoken.
Everyone has a Crystal story about their dad, uncle, or backwoods buddies preaching the gospel of Crystal. That’s what this article is about. Nowhere has a history with Crystal quite like Grey Bruce. I was speaking with a friend who “lost” his beloved vintage denim Crystal ballcap at my aforementioned birthday party. I included the text conversation as a photo in the summer 2020 Rrampt Magazine print edition for a laugh, only to have another friend text me upon picking up a copy. The hat, missing for over two years, was not only found – but kept safe and secure with such delicate and loving care – and now occupies its long-lost head.
A gent named Tom emailed me after the print edition was released. Tom worked the Bayshore Beer Store in Owen Sound from 1993 to 2007 and could more accurately attest to the popularity of Crystal in Grey Bruce.
“We would order a shipment every couple of weeks and receive 6 pallets of Crystal,” said Tom. “There are 84 cases of 24 on each pallet. We would only get 4 each of Blue and Canadian.” Tom also let me know that if you’re from Allenford, you’re more likely to pick up a case of OV. From Port Elgin or Chatsworth? Labatt 50 is likely your go-to.
For reference sake, both Blue and Canadian occupy the Big 10 poster at the Beer Store, noting their supposed popularity amongst beer drinkers. Crystal, never the show-boater, has consistently outsold them both in Grey Bruce for at least those 14 years. So why do beer drinkers here, and not elsewhere, love Crystal? I’m no closer to understanding that one, if I’m honest. They just do, and I guess that’s good enough for me.
My brother-in-law visited the Labatt Brewery for a tour with a group of pals a few years back. They finish the tour and come to the bar. The barkeep is a legit showman, touting the comprehensive offerings of his Labatt-centric bar. He says something to the effect of: we have every Labatt brew available right here, right now. So without missing a beat, my brother-in-law pops his head up and asks for a Crystal. The barkeep, totally deflated, murmurs to the group under his breath, “we don’t have Crystal here. Where are you guys from?”
Grey County, he replied. “You damn northerners,” the bartender chuckled.
Yer damn right.
Words and photos by Nelson Phillips