I am Canadian, too: Inside Moosehead’s cross-country push

Cans of Moosehead Lager showcasing its original logo wait to be shipped from Saint John, N.B.

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As with any neighbour you’ve known for years, New Brunswick is on a first-name basis with its beer. Here, it’s just Moose – Moose Green for the lager, and Red for the original Moosehead beer, even though the ale no longer has a red label.

But that doesn’t mean they always drink the beer from Moosehead Breweries Ltd. At a pub in uptown Saint John, a lager order goes through without a hitch, but when asked for the ale the bartender hesitates. Instead, he pours a taste of a pale ale from a Fredericton craft brewer, Graystone, to compare with a taste of Moosehead’s ale.

“Moose Green, I love it. I drink it like it’s going out of style,” he says. But pointing to the two glasses, he insists, “You can just tell one is a domestic” – a bigger brewer – “and one’s not.”

This is Moosehead’s problem. For the growing number of people gravitating to craft beer in search of new flavours (or just a cooler-looking label that will confer a bit of hipster status), it’s too big to love. And outside of its home turf, the situation is even worse.

“‘You guys are owned by Molson, aren’t you?’ That’s a consistent piece of feedback,” says Trevor Grant, vice-president of sales and marketing at the independent, family-run brewery.

More than 1,200 kilometres away, on a craft-heavy pub menu in downtown Toronto, Moosehead lager is listed under “Macros and imports we don’t hate.” This kind of grudging respect is about as good as it gets for a big-ish brewer these days.

Moosehead is indeed a macro compared to the newest players on the beer scene. There has been a boom in licensed breweries in Canada – reaching 644 last year, a huge jump from 290 just seven years earlier – driven largely by operations producing less than 2,000 hectolitres (200,000 litres) per year, according to Beer Canada. (Moosehead contributed too, opening the Hop City craft brewery in Toronto in 2009.)

But while Moosehead is bigger than those upstarts, and is the fourth-largest brewer in Canada – behind Molson, Labatt and Sleeman – it is a distant fourth. The big two have more than 75 per cent market share of beer sales nationwide. Moosehead has 2 per cent to 3 per cent.

The company draws roughly $200-million in annual revenue – a number that has stayed relatively flat for at least eight years, though the makeup of the business has changed: it is selling more of its own beer and beers it distributes in Canada such as Boston Beer Co.’s Sam Adams. That has made up for losses in its contract brewing business – most notably when it lost the Guinness account a few years ago – and the steep decline in its U.S. sales amid the explosion of competition from both craft beer and imports there.

The Oland family has been managing these business challenges all while grappling with personal tragedy: the brutal murder in 2011 of Richard, brother of the chairman, Derek, and uncle of the current CEO. With the accused, Richard’s son Dennis, awaiting a second trial, they will not be able to put the ordeal behind them for some time, even as professional demands loom.

Andrew Oland, president of Moosehead Breweries, left, and father Derek Oland, check on the operations of the packaging line.

Moosehead needs to grow. To do that, the leaders believe they need to tell their story as an independently-owned operation as old as Confederation. Sure, it has emphasized its conveniently patriotic founding date – 1867 – on packaging and in ads for years, but without the money to wallpaper its brand across consumers’ field of vision, and lacking some consistency from one ad campaign to another, the message hasn’t really stuck.

Meanwhile, competitors with deeper pockets have been freely, and some might say dubiously, riding the wave of Canadian heritage. Molson Coors Brewing Co. – now a multinational – trades on the slogan “ I am Canadian“; and Sleeman, now owned by Tokyo-based Sapporo Breweries Ltd., has used its ads to romanticize its “