Does Canadian Beer Really Contain More Alcohol Than Beer Made in the United States?

Paul E. asks: Is it true that Canadian beer has a lot more alcohol in it than American beer?

canadian-beerCanadians boast longer lives, safer communities, free nationalized healthcare, a cleaner environment, the most gold medals in Olympic hockey, and, of course, poutine. But, contrary to popular belief, one thing they don’t do any different than their friends to the south is make stronger beer.

When you’re dealing with mainstream beers, those with the highest alcohol are generally stouts, porters and pale ales, with alcohol by volume (ABV) contents typically ranging between 4% and 10%, though most mainstream beers tend to stay in the range of 4%-6%, such as Canada’s popular Labatt (5% ABV), which edges out the United States’ “favorite” brew, Bud Light (4.2% ABV).

For a few more comparisons using ABV, we have the U.S.’s Busch (4.6%), Coors Original (5%), Old Milwaukee (5%), Bud Ice (5.5%), Keystone (4.4%), Keystone Ice (5.9%), and Budweiser (5%).  On the Canadian side, we have Carling Black Label (4.7%), Grizzly Canadian Lager (5.4%), Moosehead (5%), Labatt Ice (5.6%), O’Keefe Canadian (4.9%), and Molson Canadian (5%).

However, some Americans prefer their beer with a little extra kick, and United States brewers have delivered. For instance, the kind people at Dogfish Head make the 120 Minute IPA with an ABV of 20%, while the evil geniuses at Sam Adams have created Utopias, a brew that boasts a whopping 27% ABV.

Of course, Canadian brewers are no slouches and their breweries have produced some hefty quaffs, too, including Trafalgar’s Critical Mass Double/Imperial IPA with its 17% ABV, and the aptly named but apparently discontinued Korruptor (ABV 16%).

As you can see from this, both nations boast brewers that make beers with a variety of alcohol levels, but there really is very little difference between the nations’ respective brewers when you average them all out. This, perhaps, should not come as a surprise as most would like to be able to drink several beers while socializing or watching sporting events, rather than become completely hammered off just one or two beers. As a result, the sweet spot for this type of recreational drinking tends to be in that 4%-6% ABV range favored by brewers the world over.

At this point, you might be wondering where the myth that Canadian beers contained significantly more alcohol than beers made in the United States came from. And, indeed, the U.S. also has the reputation among other nations of having weak beers, not just in comparison to Canada, despite the alcohol levels in reality being pretty similar on the whole to every other beer drinking nation in the world.  So what gives?

It is generally thought that this comes from the fact that Canada (and most everywhere else) lists the alcohol levels in their beers by the aforementioned alcohol by volume (ABV). As with many metrics, the United States initially bucked the trend and went with alcohol by weight (ABW)- the weight of the alcohol in a drink divided by the total weight.

The key thing to note here is that alcohol is lighter than water (about 0.79 g/cc at standard pressure and temperature vs. 1.0 g/cc of water).  The result is that the ABW in beers is going to be equal to roughly 4/5 of the ABV.

To illustrate, if you have a typical 12 ounce bottle of beer that is listed at a 5% ABV, 5% of that 12 ounces in the bottle is going to be alcohol. On the other hand, take that same bottle, but now list it by ABW and because alcohol weighs about 4/5 of water, by weight, it’s then only going to be about 4% of the total weight of the beer in the bottle. It’s the same amount of alcohol in the bottle, but if you don’t pay attention to whether it’s ABV or ABW, one looks like less than the other.

With most beers in the United States classically listing their beer by ABW, instead of ABV, this ultimately led to people thinking beer from the United States had about 20% less alcohol on average than their international counterparts.  Today, of course, most brewers in the United States go with alcohol by volume, but the undeserved reputation for weaker beers has endured nonetheless.

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Bonus Beer Facts:

  • The amount of alcohol in beer is determined by the amount of malted grain present at the beginning of fermentation. Any cereal grain (think oats, wheat, etc.) can be malted, although barley is by far the most common cereal used to make beer. (See: What Exactly is Malt?) Dried, heated, sprouted and baked, malted grain contains a natural enzyme, diastase, which, when water is added, turns the grain into sugar. Yeast is added, which digests the sugar and produces two “waste” products, carbon dioxide (making beer bubbly) and alcohol (making beer potent). Early in this process, brewers can make beer stronger by ensuring more malted grain, as measured by the amount of dissolved soluble sugars (called its original gravity or OG), is in the batch. The more OG, the stronger the ultimate product, but the longer it will take to ferment (turn into alcohol). Not as easy as it sounds, since only 80% of malt sugars will ferment, all beer contains residual sugars; with high gravity beers, this can be tricky to manage. If the extra sugars of a brew that is intended to be higher alcohol are not properly tended, the result can be too sweet, even syrupy. Luckily, many brewers know how to properly manage this extra sugar and produce delicious, higher alcohol (higher gravity) beers.
  • People have been making beer since the dawn of agriculture – for at least 10,000 years. The ancient Sumerians made beer, and given that it popped up around the same time people started making bread, some opine that it was invented when dough was forgotten in a mixing bowl, left out in a rainstorm, and then warmed by the reappearing sun – grain, yeast and water, when given enough time, should ferment. Whatever the truth of how they discovered it, it is known that the Sumerian brewing process began with baking bread, crumbling it and then allowing it to sit in crocks of water until it transformed into beer. For more on all this, see: A Brief History of Beer
  • According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, having one to two beers (or equivalent drinks of any alcohol) a day is associated with lower rates of heart disease, and may reduce the risk of developing kidney stones (perhaps due to its diuretic effect). Beer is also a source of soluble fiber (.75g- 1.3g in a 12 oz. bottle), and it’s a natural source of niacin, pantothenic acid, floate, B6, riboflavin, silicon and B12.
  • In Germany, Schorschbräu once produced a 57.5% ABV Elsbock, eponymously named Schorschbräu Schorschbock 57%, and still makes a 30.86% Elsbock, Schorschbräu Schorschbock 31%. And in Scotland, Brewmeister once produced a 65% ABV Elsbock called Armageddon, while BrewDog once made the Elsbock, The End of History (55% ABV) and still makes the American Double/Imperial Stout, Tactical Nuclear Penguin (ABV 32%) – a beer which seemingly was named after it was consumed.
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  • Bill

    I’ve read that US brewers started to use the ABW system prior to the prohibition years in order to make beer look ‘weak’ in order to avoid being banned/prohibited. It didn’t work…but the ABW stuck around ’till now…now going away since people like the perception of stronger beers.

  • Rajalda

    Beer as i know it tastes best at 5% abv,we have 2 grades 5% and 8% but the 8 tastes nasty.

  • Yer Pal

    Hi! Canadian here! Many years of experiencing beer from both Canada & U.S. This “myth” has some truth in the past. In the 50’s & 60’s most mainstream American beer was btwn 4 & 5%. At the same time, Canadian mainstream brew was btwn 5 & 6%. No brainer which was preferable.
    In the last 20 years independent breweries have become quite prevalent & cater to every taste & content of alcohol.. (I’ve never even heard of half of the Canadian brands mentioned in the article & I work in a bar!)

    • Donna

      You’ve never heard of Moosehead. Labatt’s Ice, O’Keefe, and Canadian?? And you work in a bar?? Wow. Must admit I’ve never heard of Grizzly? But we have so many beers produced in Canada these days. I don’t know if it’s stronger or not, but I can definitely say it tastes better. American beer tastes very watery (and frankly I’m not much of a drinker, so if I notice it, it must be pretty pronounced).