You’ll know when you see the deliberately blurry illustration of a Mountie on the cover and the publisher’s classification of Cheers! as “humour,” that this is a quirky beer book: part history, part travelogue and part rant. Cheers! is a lively, funny and very well-written look at the Canadian brewing scene.
Nicholas Pashley is a Canadian writer and retired bookseller who ought to be better known in the United States. His earlier book, Notes on a Beermat, had an endorsement from Bill Bryson, and Pashley is very Bryson-like both in his comedy and his approach to writing. Indeed, the last third of the book, in which Pashley drinks his way across Canada, from Halifax to Whitehorse, is very much like what Bill Bryson would write if he ever wrote a Canadian beer travel book.
Cheers! is billed as a history, and does accurately describe the history of beer in Canada. But this isn’t a straightforward account. For example, in a chapter on the consequences of Prohibition in Canada, he notes that Canadian provinces imposed all sorts of peculiar prohibitions. British Columbia tried to ban women from drinking in bars, on the grounds they would be corrupted. Provincial regulators then mandated, until the late 1940s, that women had to be served in the “Ladies and Escorts’ Lounge,” while men could drink by themselves. Men, however, could only enter the “Ladies Lounge” if they were escorting a woman.
Ontario regulators until the 1970s barred drinkers from standing up to order a beer, on the theory that forcing drinkers to sit down encouraged moderation. A drinker in Ontario was breaking the law if he carried his beer from one table to another.
Pashley credits Quebec for teaching Anglophone Canadians how to have fun while drinking. “I can remember drinking outdoors at Expo 67 in Montreal, an activity still strictly illegal in much of the country at the time.” Falling airfares in the 1970s enabled Canadians to visit Europe, ”where drinking wasn’t considered a social disease,” and return home and successfully lobby Canadian legislators to remove arcane restrictions.
Quebec still offers Canadians many examples of joie d’vivre in beer drinking, in Pashley’s view. He contrasts the laid-back atmosphere of Montreal’s Mondial de la Bière with the more puritan Toronto Festival of Beer, where, before he entered, he had to face “the kind of frisking I haven’t experienced since I spent a day at a major conspiracy trial of Black Panthers in the early ’70s.” The Festival of Beer, he writes, “isn’t a proper beer festival. There’s no beer judging here, and considerably less quality beer than used to be the case. But there’s a lot of loud music and pretty girls.”
Americans should know more about Canada’s beer culture and traditions. Nicholas Pashley’s Cheers! is an entertaining and delightfully quirky snapshot of Canadian beer history.