It’s been just eight years since Barack Obama’s first term began. Though it seems like a lifetime ago, you might recall a signature moment of his early presidency in which alcohol sat centre stage. Cambridge Massachusetts police sergeant James Crowley had arrested Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates in his own home, mistaking him for a burglar in an apparent case of racial profiling. Given the importance of race in Obama’s narrative of hope and unity, the president took a personal and vocal interest in the incident. And so, in an effort to calm the waters, he invited both men to join him for a conciliatory chat in the White House Rose Garden over a beer, just “three folks having a drink at the end of the day.”
The story still reads like a parable about why Canadians take such pride in their booze. According to a survey conducted as part of The Canada Project, 41 per cent of us prefer our beer, wines and spirits to be home-grown. That’s an impressive show of patriotic pride given the many options available at the liquor store. And if we look deep enough, beer probably lies at the heart of why. If the pollsters had asked Canadians to forget about spirits and wine and focus on their suds preferences alone, that home-grown predilection might be greater still. We are surely some years away from making a world class tequila; Beer likely carries a lot of statistical weight here. But more than this, beer is likely where we forged the original link between our nationhood and what we drink. Like a first love, brew became the cultural standard every other home-grown beverage would have to meet to be authentically ours.
To understand why it holds this special status for Canadians—and why it was served to two angry men on a patio at the White House —you need to know two things about beer as a consumer product: First, people never buy anything just to solve a problem, no matter what they told you in business school. The utility of any product falls somewhere on a continuum between what it does and what it says about us, determined at least partly by how observably it’s consumed. A leaf rake, for example, deployed in grudging solitude, tends to be chosen based on how well it will work. Shoes, on the other hand, might be selected at least partly for what kind of statement they will make, because other people will see them and assume our choice was socially motivated. Beer is more like shoes than rakes. From the cash register to the patio, everybody knows what you’re drinking, and often which brand you’ve chosen. Like it or not, beer speaks for you.
Second, as a category, beverage alcohol has a more nuanced social language than most. Very few of us drink one kind of booze to the exclusion of all others. Instead, we choose from a menu of personal preferences based on the option that best suits our mood and the situation. That selection usually has a lot to do with declaring our intentions for what will follow. To see the truth in this, just imagine you’re having a first lunch with a new boss or someone you met on OKCupid. The message you might send ordering a glass of pinot grigio is starkly different—and less uncomfortable—than the one you’d send ordering a margarita. Socially, choosing your booze is like the first move in a chess game.
Which brings us back to the White House Rose Garden. Obama was thinking like a Canadian that day, deliberately trading on the particular social signal that beer sends (and the photo opportunity it would create) to prove that “what brings us together is stronger than what pulls us apart”. That’s exactly why Canadians claim beer as part of our cultural heritage. Beer is a leveler. It declares class distinctions moot and invites easy dialogue, even between a black Harvard professor and a white cop. Like donning blue jeans or a Roots sweatshirt, choosing beer specifically repudiates status and promotes inclusion. Most of Canada’s beverage alcohol brands swim in beer’s cultural wake. They’re liquid symbols of the quality we admire most about ourselves as a nation. And maybe, these days, the one we’d most like to see exported to the rest of the world.