The story of Labatt 50, a working class beer

Labatt 50 was the best-selling beer in Canada for over 10 years, but nowhere has it had as much of an impact on popular culture as it has in Quebec. Here's an investigation of that legendary beer.

Pierre-Olivier Bussières

Pierre-Olivier Bussières

May 28, 2024- Read time: 9 min
The story of Labatt 50, a working class beerGilles Villeneuve at the Canada Grand Prix in 1979. |Photograph: Bernard Brault

In Quebec's brewing landscape, Labatt 50 occupies as special a place as Laurentide. Those who have never drank it know that it's emblematic of a bygone era, but having left its mark all the same, and those who have know this beer speaks of the toil of Quebec and the tenacity of its working classes.

In this article, we're taking a look at this beer that's been so dear to the generations of the 1960s and 1970s.

Photograph: Le Temps d’une Bière

Labatt 50's origins

It all began with the founding of Labatt in 1847. The grandsons of Labatt's founder decided to celebrate 50 years of partnership with a unique brew. This anniversary beer, which was supposed to remain on the market for less than a year, quickly became a classic and was the best-selling beer in Canada until 1979 when it was dethroned by Labatt Blue.

Labatt 50 Histoire Ale
A Labatt 50 coaster clearly indicating that the beer is an ale. | Photograph: Marc-André Rocheleau

Labatt: 50 shades of English ale

At the time of Labatt 50's creation, major Canadian breweries were still following the English tradition of brewing and selling ale from coast to coast to coast. Lager, today's leading American beer, had little presence in Quebec and the Maritimes before the 1970s—much less than ales, anyway.

What did it taste like? Officially, Labatt 50 had cereal and peach aromas. But above all, it was the hoppiest beer on the market. In the age of standardization, Labatt 50 was almost a microbrewery beer—purists might remember that even Saint-Ambroise was inspired by Molson Export.

Incorrigible standard-setters in the United States set the tone with a cold, generic, insipid lager. Labatt 50, brewed with North American hops and an apparently very special yeast, was quite the opposite: It was a beer with flavour, paler than its competitors, and with a creamy texture and clean finish.

Le Temps d'une Bière is preparing a major feature on Labatt 50. Thanks to photographer and collector Marc-André Rocheleau, they've tracked down this incredible photo of a Labatt poster from the height of the Korean War. Not only was Labatt the beer of Canadians, it also sponsored the Anniversary Bridge. | Photograph: Marc-André Rocheleau

Labatt 50 made its debut in Quebec in 1956 with the opening of a plant in Lasalle. It was an ambitious move for a brewery that had previously been non-existent in the province. At the time, Molson, O'Keefe and Dow dominated the market. According to consultant and author Stephen Beaumont, beer was a big hit across the country, but it was above all a Quebec phenomenon.

In English Canada east of Toronto, Canadians drank ale, while the west drank lager. In Quebec City, the infamous Dow Brewery accounted for almost 90% of sales. So, Labatt 50 had a special mission: To put Labatt back on the map in Quebec.

Labatt was lagging far behind its competitors in Quebec. Molson, for example, dominated sports advertising with the Canadiens, as did O'Keefe a little later with the Nordiques. The logical alternative was the Montreal Expos.

And it wasn't out of spite that Labatt chose baseball: On the contrary, this popular sport attracted huge crowds. In fact, it was such a success that the Expos associated Labatt with the city of Montreal and the surrounding area for at least twenty years, an influence that soon spread throughout Quebec.

In the words of sommelier, lecturer and storyteller Sylvain Bouchard, the Expos were "BIG" in the 1980s, and many in Quebec rallied behind the team under the shadow of Labatt 50 posters.

Nothing to Labatt about

We can't talk about Labatt 50 without mentioning comedian Olivier Guimond.

The comedian helped make Labatt 50 popular, catching the province of Quebec up with Labatt. According to Sylvain Bouchard, "Olivier Guimond was the ultimate proletarian. A child of the Montreal cabarets, he represented the people and was tremendously funny. With Labatt 50, Olivier Guimond became sacred."

Sylvain asks: Did Olivier Guimond introduce Labatt 50, or did Labatt 50 introduce Olivier Guimond?

Labatt 50 et Olivier Guimont
Olivier Guimond: Actor, comedian, and spokesperson for Labatt 50. | Photograph: Le Temps d’une Bière

If Olivier Guimond has made rivers of Labatt 50 flow, it's also thanks to a medium ideal for large-scale advertising: Television.

Every baby boomer in Quebec remembers Cré Basile, a sitcom sponsored to the hilt by Labatt. It starred Olivier Guimond as a plumber who went on zany adventures. The show was broadcast on Télé-Métropole, the only French-language alternative to Radio-Canada. The symbolism was powerful: Télé-Métropole was for ordinary people, and ordinary people drank Labatt 50.

Being a private channel, Télé-Métropole was much more dependent on advertising revenue than Radio-Canada, so anyone following Guimond's hilarious career was inundated with Labatt 50 ads. The 514 was inundated daily with the people's beer: At the time, nearly 50% of all TV ads were for beer, according to author and historian Sylvain Daignault.

The massive distraction campaign didn't stop there. Olivier Guimond spent nearly a decade extolling the virtues of beer in television commercials with his famous slogan: "He knows his stuff".

With a disarming smile, Guimond would comically rely on the authority of experts to demonstrate that Labatt 50 was the right choice of beer.

Lui Il connait ça Labatt 50
"He knows his stuff... that beer is nothing to Labatt about!" | Photograph: Le Temps d’une Bière

Back then, major Canadian breweries both in Quebec and elsewhere were waging major advertising wars across the continent. While Olivier Guimond tenderly embraced Labatt 50, Tex Lecor sang the virtues of Molson. In 1975, François Dompierre composed the song On est 6 millions, faut s'parler, another Labatt ad.

At the same time, Labatt was even sponsoring chansons à répondre (song in which a singer sings a line and a group repeats or answers sung line throughout the song), something unimaginable in the era of alcohol-free beer. Fifteen years later, Claude Legault thumbed his nose at fledgling microbreweries making "drinkable" beer filtered with yak hair from Nepal, preferring to go with Labatt 50.

Labatt 50 dethroned by Labatt Blue

The heyday of Labatt 50 was in the 1970s, but the death of Olivier Guimond and the demise of the Expos heralded the decline of the popular brand. The 1980s followed, with a slow slide down the sales lists under the reign of light lagers.

Canada's last commercial English ale, Labatt 50, was swallowed up (figuratively, not literally) by pale lagers. Labatt Blue took the lead in beer sales across the country, soon to be followed by Labatt Ice. In less than five years, Labatt 50 went from being the King of Beer to the King of the Pint.

Generation X quickly distanced itself from Labatt 50. In bars between 1986 and 1993, Gen Xers preferred Labatt Blue or Black Label. By the early 2000s, Labatt had all but abandoned the brand: Advertising had fallen to a standstill, and sales were down to a fraction of what they had been—but something unexpected happened at the end of the 2000s.

A bar in Trois-Rivières, the Nord Ouest Café, had started selling a lot of Pabst, which was a new arrival in the province and had taken bars and convenience stores by storm. The regulars at the Nord Ouest Café, wanting to try something different, started asking for "une bonne grosse 50". Legend has it that Labatt got wind of this and many of the café's customers started asking for Labatt 50 as a foil to the ubiquitous Pabst.

So Labatt reopened the kegs for a small-scale experiment, which was an immediate success. In truth, we don't know whether this experiment was tried only in this café or whether the initiative came from the customers, but we do know that the demand for Labatt 50 was coming back through the counter-culture.

Photograph: Marc-André Rocheleau

The short history of the 'grosse 50'

Many of us are familiar with the 650ml version, affectionately known as the 'grosse' (or large format/big) bottle of Labatt 50. This piece of heavy artillery was a bit like Big Bertha of the First World War, a type of howitzer that was first used by the German army for bombardment. But the story of the grosse 50 deserves to be told for other reasons beyond the slightly saucy expression: The idea of a big beer is rooted in the moral context of alcohol in the 1970s.

In the 1970s, alcohol consumption was still taboo. Some regions of Quebec were still dry zones following Prohibition. Outside restaurants, drinking was limited to taverns and hotels. (Note: My father sometimes ended his days at the Hotel Plessisville with a grosse 50 after working 12 hours at a service station.)

While taverns were legion in town, hotels were often the alcoholic meeting places of municipalities. Of course, you had to have rooms and tables if you wanted to sell beer. In both cases, beer was mainly served in two formats: The 12-ounce glass and the pitcher. The 20-ounce pint did not exist. Around 1980, a glass cost 50¢ and a pitcher (much larger than today) cost $5.95.

But there was also the quille (which takes its name from their resemblance to bowling pins): The 650ml bottle that was served directly from the bottle to the customer. Labatt 50 was one of those beers whose large format was selling more and more.

According to Sylvain Bouchard, the die-hards who are still attached to Labatt 50 like to take a long sip of the beer, which tastes best when brought to room temperature. Eventually, they abandoned the word quille for the more suggestive grosse Labatt 50.

Labatt 50 was also the main sponsor of the Montreal Grand Prix. It was on this occasion that Jacques Villeneuve won first prize. On receiving his medal, Jacques refused the traditional bottle of champagne and opted for a Labatt 50! | Photograph: Bernard Brault
Caisse Labatt 50 Grand Prix
The beer case dedicated to Jacques Villeneuve was not as successful as the famous driver. It was quickly withdrawn from the market because of a disagreement with the sponsor. | Photograph: Marc-André Rocheleau

The Labatt Brewing Company today

Founded in London, Ontario in 1847 by John Kinder Labatt, Labatt Breweries has become one of the pillars of the Canadian brewing industry and remains its leading brewer.

Today, the company employs more than 3,000 people and operates six breweries, as well as four independent craft breweries, including Mill Street, Goose IslandBanded Peak, and Archibald Microbrasserie.

Labatt offers a diverse portfolio of more than 60 quality beers, including Labatt 50, Budweiser, Alexander Keith’s, Labatt Bleue, Kokanee, Stella Artois and Corona. The range also includes popular flavoured drinks such as Palm Bay and Mike's Hard Lemonade.

As part of the Anheuser-Busch InBev group, Labatt is committed to being the brewer of choice, "dreaming big to create a future with more cheers". This mission translates into significant contributions through various community support programmes, the promotion of responsible drinking, and the protection of the environment.

Pierre-Olivier Bussières is the host of the Le Temps d’une Bière podcast, producer of Hoppy History and is editor-in-chief of Le Temps d’une Bière. He has been writing about beer and beer markets since 2022.

We ain't nothing to Labatt about either.

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