October is always a special time of year in the beer world. Our teutonic comrades in Munich have the fortnight-long bacchanalia known as Oktoberfest, with countless imitations the world over.
Closer to home, the local craft brewers put out their seasonal pumpkin ales, which always help wash down that turkey dinner.
For our friends in Eastern Canada, October brings a special day for the pride of Nova Scotia. Yes gentle reader, October 5 marked Alexander Keith’s 217th birthday.
The non-Maritimers in the crowd may be surprised to learn that Alexander Keith’s produces more than just the India Pale Ale that we all know and love. In addition to their flagship IPA brand, they also produce a Light Ale, a Red Amber Ale, a Premium White, as well as a new brand this year called Dark Ale.
In years past, we only saw a few of the brands this far west, as those eastern beer misers kept all the good stuff for themselves. However, production has expanded from the original brewery in Halifax, and Keith’s is now brewed in Newfoundland, Ontario, Quebec, and BC. This increased capacity has brought a wider variety to your local liquor merchant.
The more beer-aware readers in the audience might be thinking to themselves that those new locations coincidentally all happen to contain Labatt breweries. Those readers would indeed be onto something, as the Alexander Keith’s Brewery was acquired by Labatt way back in 1971.
They don’t really advertise that Keith’s is being produced at existing Labatt breweries, as Keith’s is marketed as a more upscale brew.
For those not familiar with the history of Nova Scotia’s favorite citizen, Alexander Keith was a Scottish immigrant who arrived in Halifax in 1817, at the tender age of 23 years. Already known as an accomplished brewmaster in the British Isles, he started up the brewery that bears his namesake in 1820.
Looking back to our history books, we recall that Canada was still a British colonial outpost at the time, and did not gain independence until 1867, so there were lots of British soldiers in Halifax, each of whom were entitled to a ration of one gallon of beer per day.
Young Alexander Keith saw this as a golden opportunity to capture the taste buds of the globetrotting soldiers, hoping they would carry tales of his delightful beers to all corners of the British Empire.
To that end, Keith’s India Pale Ale was originally designed to be a beer that would stay fresh and unspoiled during the long sea voyage from Halifax to British troops serving in India. In the days before pasteurization and refrigeration, the brewer’s only defenses against spoilage were alcohol and hops.
Most English beers of the day were dark and rich porters, and were impossible to keep fresh during the six-month voyage from London, all the way around Africa then across the Indian Ocean. The IPA style evolved out of existing pale ales, and were tweaked by the brewers with additional bittering hops, which prevented the growth of bacteria that soured the beer over time.
While it took some time for local boozers to catch on, it was all the rage in India, as it was the only beer that arrived for the thirsty British soldiers that was still fit to drink after the long sea voyage.
The bitter and hoppy taste that we find in the India Pale Ales of today is but a shadow of its former self. Thanks to the modern miracles of rapid transportation, pasteurization, and refrigeration, we no longer have to worry about our beer going bad before we have a chance to enjoy it.
Due to the changing palate of the contemporary beer lover, the recipe for Alexander Keith’s IPA has changed drastically over the years. A thirsty seaman fresh off the boat would be hard pressed to recognize the similarities between the bitter and hoppy IPA of the 1820’s with the light and refreshing taste of today’s brews. Most beer snobs no longer consider Alexander Keith’s to be a true IPA at all, due to its mild taste, more in line with the Pilsner style than an IPA.
Nitpicks over the traditional recipe aside, quaffing a few pints down at the local pub is the best way to honor one of the great Canadian names in beer. Mark the date on your calendar, and maybe I’ll see you next year!