A Belgian Beer Knight in Canada

(Originally published in the Toronto Standard)

 Meet Guy McClelland, the guy who drinks for free in Belgium and brings brews like Stiegl to Canada
A Belgian Beer Knight in Canada Belgian Beer Knight, Guy McClelland

It’s Friday afternoon and I’m parked at the end of the bar, sitting next to a Knight.

Our server is bringing the drinks faster than I’m getting through them and the glasses are starting to accumulate. It’s fine, because Jessica – a charming redhead with a well-practised two-stage pour – understands this is a different kind of drinking session.  I’m being walked through a range of beers at the Esplanade Bier Markt, and after the first half dozen there’s no doubting the veracity of the Knight’s next words.

“Why do we need beer from Europe? We need beer from Europe because they’re fucking good at it.”

Guy McClelland was “knighted” in 2007, he tells me, for the work he’s done promoting Belgian beer in this country. He figures he’s one of only four Canadians to have received the honour.

The ceremony itself, as described by the 53-year-old, sounds like something concocted over a few rounds. La Chevalerie du Fourquet des Brasseurs (The Knighthood of the Brewers’ Mash staff — “these are the dudes in the gowns that honour and knight people”) “bless the stars and the moon and the sun and the keg, and they wind their way down the cobblestone streets into the Grand-Place. They tap you on the shoulder with a mashing fork, swear at you in Flemish and spank you… give you a beer.”

La Chevalerie also rewards each inductee with a medal, which, in the host nation, allows the wearer to drink for free… anywhere… in arguably the best beer country on the planet.

Even if you’re not a beer enthusiast you’ve likely seen at least a couple bottles with McClelland’s fingerprints on them: Delirium Tremens, Affligem, Mort Subite, Fruli, Rodenbach, Erdinger, Floris, Palm, Stiegl. Guy’s the guy that gets them into the country.

His journey towards beer nobility began in Manitoba, where McClelland’s first job after university was with market research firm Angus Reid, and a client list that included McGavin’s Bread, Canada Trust, The Liberal Party, Johnson & Johnson Tampons, and Labatt Breweries.

Not surprisingly, he found the beer customer was the most fun, so when Labatt offered to uproot him for a gig in their national market research division, he didn’t hesitate. “I know Toronto’s no Winnipeg,” he deadpans, “but I get to work in beer full time.”

When research started to get tired he moved into brand management (Carlsberg, Budweiser) and from there a stint in sales. “My background in research and marketing made me a helpful ally to the bar owners.” He tells me he was the brewery’s top performer in Ontario, two of three years.

By the mid 1990s, Labatt was working on a joint venture with Guinness. Then Boddingtons was introduced to Canada.  Then Sol and Dos Equis. “I was the only guy. I was autonomous. Nobody cared what I did.”

“Then, in 1995, we get bought by Interbrew and suddenly I’m very important. No one else in the company had any experience doing what I do. We were turning about a million dollars per year – bottom line – to the company.”

Interbrew, the Belgian brewing giant, wasn’t simply interested in getting Blue, Blue Light, and 50 in its portfolio.  They also had a plan to introduce some exotic-sounding labels to what at the time was a very boring Canadian beerscape.

McClelland launched Stella Artois in Canada, and this time he had some serious head office resources at his disposal. “I more or less had a blank cheque to get this brand (Stella) off the ground.  On a zero volume commitment, I had a $9 million budget in my first year.  That’s a rare opportunity in any corporation.”

“Sooner or later though, someone in the board room was bound to say ‘Why do we have two separate sales forces? Two different Marketing Managers?’ Rather than accept another position within Labatt, McClelland took a generous buyout – and his unique skill set – and went out on his own.

“From the day we launched Boddingtons in 1994, I realized that all it was, was me, a guy from England, the Liquor Board saying ‘yes’ and somebody to sell it. The big company (Labatt) had very little to do with Boddingtons in Canada.

“I had a beer profile – a career path – that was unique.  No one in Molson was doing what I was doing. So I knew no one had a resume like mine, and when I’m 75 I’m probably going to kick myself in the ass really hard if I don’t try.”

A Belgian Beer Knight in Canada

Belgian Beer Knight, Guy McClelland

McClelland Premium Imports incorporated in 2003, and its founder has been working ever since to build a roster of European beers that, with the right messaging, could win over Canadians.  Each year he travels to Belgium with 20 or so customers and salespeople— both a gesture of appreciation and an opportunity to reinforce his branding. McClelland himself navigates the Great White North’s beer festival circuit, competing for affection with sponsored party zones and sentimental hometown favourites. The multi-million dollar marketing budgets are gone now, so it’s unrealistic to expect a new launch could have a significant, immediate impact.  Every sale, every order, every listing is precious.

Imagine walking into most pubs and telling the manager they should set aside a tap for a beer they can’t pronounce, that doesn’t taste like what their customers are used to, and isn’t very visible (maybe absent altogether) in its North American mainstream marketing.  There are no Blue Jays tickets flowing from their sponsorship arrangements. There’s no invite to the local brewers’ festival. Oh, by the way, it costs more.

“I was honoured side-by-side with the U.S. Ambassador,” he declares with pride, again recalling the 2007 ceremony in Brussels.  Sure, Belgian Beer Knight an honorary title, but that doesn’t negate the spirit of it. The man got knighted because he recognized the challenges and met them head on.

After more than three hours of charts, photos, facts and wisdom the point has been driven home. McClelland isn’t pushing his roster of beers because he thinks there’s something wrong with the homegrown craft beer scene.  He’s not launching another discount lager or North American Pale Ale.  It’s about diversity, not competition. He’s about quality brands that we, in Canada, are better off having access to.

Affligem has been around for close to a thousand years. Rodenbach has a couple centuries of its own history, and uses 20 different yeast strains, undergoing three separate fermentations. At the 2013 International Brewing Awards, Mort Subite won Gold and Silver (two different styles) in the category of Best Fruit Beer.

Without a doubt, there are plenty of storied and award-winning North American beers as well, but when a Belgian Beer Knight says we need more European beers “because they’re fucking good at it,” it’s definitely worth hearing him out.

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