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Ross Murray's Border Report
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Ross Murray
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is a freelance writer living in Stanstead, Quebec. You can reach him at ross_murray@sympatico.ca
Posted 07.02.08
Stanstead, Quebec

ROSS MURRAY

You want cheap beer, buy in Quebec

STANSTEAD, QC | It's hard to imagine a world shortage of rice. I mean, rice: the stuff restaurants pile beneath other food to offer the illusion that their portions are generous; the item you choose last at the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet because it might take up valuable stomach room that could instead be filled with General Tao penguin.

People in Asia may be rioting over rice prices but don't expect the Western world to get too upset about it. We've got other staples: wheat, corn, potatoes, Burger King.

The world food crisis is, however, affecting another commodity that strikes closer to home, namely hops. A shortage of hops and rising transportation costs is reportedly causing an increase in beer prices.

There will be rioting.

The Atlantic provinces will declare a state of emergency.

As a gesture of solidarity, people will sport Pabst Blue Ribbons on their lapels.

Without beer, country music just won't be the same. There'll be no more interest in Nascar or curling or watching people tinker with engines. Men will simply stop talking to each other.

Lucky for me, I live in a province where a bottle of beer is still cheaper than a bottle of water, just as the Good Lord intended.

For example, in Ontario a case of Labatt Blue costs $36.50. (And by "case" I mean 24 beers, even though when I was growing up in the Maritimes a "case" meant 12. If you wanted 24 beers you called it a "two-four" as in "Got me a two-four there, buddy, and we're gonna party hearty tonight.") In Quebec, meanwhile, that same case of Blue -- er, I'm sorry, -- Bleue can cost as little as $22.01.

Vive le QuŽébec livre!

As joyous as this statistic is, you have to wonder how it could be. Labatt is clearly still making a profit in Quebec, otherwise why would they bother? It's not like "cheap beer" is in the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms (though the right to buy it in grocery stores is). Labatt must therefore be making a huge profit in Ontario.

It seems logical, then, to surmise that Canadian consumers have a lot of cushion before prices have beer drinkers marching -- or perhaps staggering -- in the streets.

Then again, don't look for logic in the world of beer.

For example, like any Nova Scotian, I was weaned on Alexander Keith's India Pale Ale, whose motto was "Those who like it, like it a lot" (the corollary of which is, "Everyone else thinks it tastes like a lobster tank").

For years, you couldn't find Keith's in Quebec. Occasionally, you'd find it as an "import." Very exotic sounding, that. Everything "imported" sounds impressive, until you remember that smallpox was also "imported."

Reliving my childhood Keith's-drinking-days used to be a treat. I might even have to pay over $20 for a twelve, once you added in the taxes, the deposit, the bagpipe surcharge.

But now Keith's is available in most stores, often costing less than the so-called domestics, even though it's traveling all the way from Nova Scotia, which isn't cheap, especially the overnight motel stay in St. Stephen, NB.

So if rising hops and transportation prices are such a problem how can I be getting my Keith's so cheaply? And why a couple of weeks ago was that 12-pack of German "premium" beer cheaper still? And what does "premium" mean, anyway? "Good enough for bland North American tastes"?

Even the once expensive Quebec microbreweries are cheaper these days than complacent and smug Molson and Labatt products. Plus they offer a wide selection of interesting beers such as St-Ambroise, Belle-Gueille, and other brands tourists can't pronounce.

In short, it seems there's never been a better time to be a beer drinker, at least here in Quebec. I should enjoy it while I can. If the doomsayers are correct, Canadian brewers will have to start stretching budgets, perhaps by watering down their recipes. They'll have a name for this beer: American.

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