How Lucky Lager became a Vancouver Island institution

Image M09138 courtesy of City of Victoria Archives.
The Lucky Lager brewery on Government Street is shown in this photo taken from the City of Victoria Archives.

If you live on Vancouver Island, chances are you’ve crushed a Lucky Lager or two.

With its iconic red-and-white logo, the beer brand is known for being affordable, crisp and refreshing — and is intrinsically linked to our corner of the world.

But how did that happen? The company, now owned by Labatt, has no current ties to the region.

As it turns out, the story goes back nearly a century.

Matt Poirier, a beer expert who runs the website Matter of Beer recently sat down with Joe Perkins and KC Kyle of the MicCHEK podcast to discuss the brand’s rise to prominence on Vancouver Island.

“The story of Lucky as a brand itself actually starts in 1934 in San Francisco,” Poirier explained. “Even then the story of the brands that were built behind Lucky go back even further than that. The breweries that were involved that actually amalgamated and became partners and that, that eventually were brewing Lucky here on the Island go back to 1858.”

The General Brewing Company, which started up in 1934, opened to specifically brew Lucky Lager — a classic, crisp lager — and the president of the brewery was none other than the grandson of Adolphus Busch, the founder of the Anheuser-Busch beer empire.

“Part of it maybe was for prestige, but one of the things that happened right away was there was a group of breweries here, based here in Victoria, that actually partnered up with General Brewing Company in San Francisco.”

That group was called Coast Breweries, and it essentially took over General Brewing as it was in the process of opening, bringing the recipe to Victoria and brewing Lucky Lager right on Government Street.

Image M01374 courtesy of City of Victoria Archives

The brewery Lucky was made in had already existed for four decades, and was previously used by the Victoria Phoenix Brewing Company, which went on to inspire a beer and logo now used by Phillips Brewing.

It was part of a beer boom in B.C.’s capital at the turn of the century.

“There were times, like in about 1891, there were about 16,000 people in Victoria. And there were five breweries,” said Poirier.

And while many breweries found success on the South Island, Lucky — the only product Coast was brewing — hit it big.

“They basically found this recipe, this brewery that was going brewing this beer, and partnered with them and basically took over the beer market for the entire west coast,” Poirier explained. “It was quite popular. It’s definitely a lot lighter now than it used to be, but it was a fairly rich malty beer for the time.”

Also a hit was Lucky’s packaging — the red, white and gold logo with a large red ‘X’ behind it.

“Yeah, the red ‘X’ is really synonymous with Lucky Lager. In fact, it actually ended up winning advertising awards,” said Poirier.

The can has changed slightly over the years, but for the most part, it has retained its iconic look, as has the box it comes in. One major change? Lucky’s place of origin was once prominently displayed alongside the logo.

“The box has actually been a more recent change…in fact, a few years ago, it used to, in font about as large as it says ‘Lucky,’ say ‘Vancouver Island’s’ across the top and have a fisherman on it,” said Poirier.

Lucky Lager remained a part of Vancouver Island’s exports for decades, through the Second World War and into the ’50s, when it was bought by Labatt in 1957.

“One of the first things they basically did was phase out the Silver Spring Brewery over in Vic West and focused almost solely on the brewery on Government Street,” said Poirier.

Between 1957 and 1982, it was mostly business as usual, save for some brewery strikes that led to a significant beer shortage throughout the province in the late ’70s.

But something happened in 1980 that likely led to Labatt shifting its attention elsewhere — the company purchased Budweiser, being able to produce and not just distribute the popular beer in Canada for the first time ever.

Only two years later, Labatt announced it would shut down the Lucky Lager brewery in Victoria.

“Because of the demand for Budweiser, because of the portfolio that they had, they decided to put all their eggs for Western Canada in one basket in Edmonton,” said Poirier.

But the company didn’t stop at just shutting down the Victoria brewery, kitty-corner to today’s Philip’s Brewery on Government Street.

“They had recently renovated the entire exterior of the brewery, redone the stonework on the outside, and so when they shut down the brewery to make sure that no competitor could come in and make use of the facility — they tore it to the ground.”

Despite a fight to maintain the building, the heart of Victoria’s brewing industry was essentially ripped out on March 29, 1982.

It’s a strange thing that Lucky has somehow been linked to the Island despite having no physical connection to it for 40 years, Poirier said, but there is a simple explanation for it.

“Probably one of the most powerful things: nostalgia,” he said. “I can probably guarantee you that there are so many listeners and people watching this…Lucky was the beer that they took a sip from their dad’s can that was on the coffee table. Or when they were out camping, that’s the can that you brought with you. It’s been 40 years, but it’s still that association with it.”

But you can draw a direct line from Lucky Lager relocating from the Island to today’s explosion of small craft breweries propping up the region’s bustling beer scene, Poirier argued.

In 1982, the B.C. government went after the big brewers for price fixing, opening the door to micro-breweries.

“So between the price-fixing scandal and John Mitchell working on opening up the Horseshoe Bay Pub, they happened in lockstep and led to the opening of the first brew pub in Canada,” he said. “Which then led to Island Pacific Brewing, which led to Spinnakers, which led to all of these craft breweries.”

Drinking Lucky Lager today doesn’t do anything for Vancouver Island except promote the nostalgia that Poirier talks about, he added, but it’s a connection that won’t fade away anytime soon.

“The dollars are not staying local. So at the end of the day. Is it synonymous with Vancouver Island? Yes. Is it still linked at all to Vancouver Island? Only through very fine threads of nostalgia.”

You can listen to Matt Poirier discuss the history of Lucky Lager on episode 151 of the MicCHEK podcast here.

Jeff Lawrence

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