I’ll ‘fess up right from the start. The first time I ever became shitfaced drunk was at the age of 15. I was at summer camp, and some of the counselors (most of whom were 18 or 19) had sneaked beer onto the grounds. It took precisely one 12-ounce bottle of Molson Golden to polish me off; for the next couple of hours, I was babbling like a moron, much to the delight of the counselors. The next day, as I was debriefed on the experience, I asked them why they had bought Molson. “It’s Canadian”, one told me, as if that would settle any mystery. When I looked baffled, he added, “Canadian beer has more alcohol in it; more buzz for the buck”
For some reason, that stuck with me throughout the years. That Canadian beer has more alcohol was something I took for granted well into my thirties. When given a choice, I’d opt for Molson, or Moosehead, or Labatt. I even asked a Canadian about it, a few Canadians even. I asked them why there was more alcohol in Canadian beer. The answers always varied. “It’s because of the climate; the water is much colder”, a young boozer from Halifax told me. “It’s because of the climate; the air is much colder, so you need something to warm you up”, a stoner from Vancouver explained. “It’s because Canadians are all alcoholic”, a Saskatoon oil man once confided.
I’ve found that this little kernel of knowledge is so well known, I’ve met few people who greet it with more than a shrug. A college student from Toronto even added, “if you want to get even drunker, try drinking the beer through a straw”. She then qualified her statement by saying, “I haven’t done that since I became of legal age to drink. Nothing quite shouts “freshman” like drinking beer through a straw. But it works!”
This sent up a red flag. I had heard the straw rumor too, but had dismissed that one. A straw does not change the alcohol content of a beverage any more than a straw turns a milkshake into wine. I’ve heard all the supporting arguments (“a straw regulates oxygen flow to the brain, a straw gets the alcohol into your blood faster”), and none of them make a shred of scientific or logical sense. I began to wonder if the alcohol content legend was similarly flawed. Perhaps Canadian beer doesn’t have more alcohol than its American competition?
So a few years back, I decided to settle this once and for all. I went to the local liquor store, grabbed a six-pack of Moosehead and a six-pack of Budweiser, and went home and spent the day chugging beer. It was a glorious day! The sun was shining, tunes were playing, and I drank can after can of beer. I’m not quite sure how the day ended, but I awoke around 3AM with a throbbing headache and little memory of what had happened during the last few hours of my experiment. As for which brand got me drunker, it was hard to say. They both played a role in it.
For my second experiment, I decided a simpler method of determining alcohol content was to examine the labels. I picked up two more six packs and examined the fine print on the cans. Moosehead had “5%” listed as alcohol content, while Budweiser had “3.9%” on the can. That seemed to have been the proof I was looking for, and decided to drink the rest of the Moosehead to celebrate one urban legend that appeared to have been proven true.
Somewhere into my fourth can of Moosehead, I started getting some funny notions in my head. I began to think that proving Canadian Beer was more alcoholic was too easy; surely I was not the only person to look at the side of a can. As I cracked open my fifth, this nagging concern of mine became consuming; there had to be more than met the eye. After all, how could Budweiser be such a ubiquitous beer with such a low alcohol content? Isn’t the whole point of beer to get a buzz, I wondered, momentarily forgetting that I wasn’t in college anymore. I examined the side of the cans again, and noticed two key abbreviations: ABV on the Moosehead, and ABW on the Budweiser. I had always been dimly aware of those abbreviations, but it was then that I realized that they were different abbreviations. However, the significance had to wait for another day, because by the time I had finished my sixth can of the stuff, I could hardly do more than listen to music and make fatuous pronouncements to my long-suffering girlfriend.
The next morning, hungover again, I got to work. ABV (commonly used as a measurement in Canada) refers to alcohol by volume, while ABW (common in the U.S.) refers to alcohol by weight. How much of a difference does this make? A lot, as it turns out. 5% ABV means that 6/10 of an ounce of beer in a 12-ounce bottle is actually alcohol, 5% of the total volume. However, the equation becomes trickier with ABW. Alcohol is lighter than water; it weighs about 4/5 as much as the same volume of water weighs. Thus, a measurement of 3.9% ABW works out to about 4.9% ABV. In other words, the difference between the two beers is negligible. Not only that, but the entire range of best-selling Canadian and American brews all fall within a range of 4.5% to 6% ABV, with both evenly distributed throughout. In other words, American beer is no weaker than its foreign counterparts, and Canadian beer is not stronger; frankly, it is all the same stuff. While there are beers that push the alcohol content even higher, they tend to be craft beers or the product of microbreweries, and can be found on both sides of the border. American brewers are now required to list alcohol content in ABV to conform with the rest of the world, but the rumors still persist.
So, if getting drunk is your purpose, no need to shell out those extra bucks for Canadian imports. As it turns out, good old-fashioned American pisswater gets the job done just as well.