The post-Prohibition, regional-to-macro beer Cinderella story is nothing we haven’t seen play out before. The trajectory of these beers has become a cliché of sorts — a sign of larger American beer trends over the years. The story of San Francisco’s Lucky Lager is no exception, even though the brand took a slightly different route with its brew, priding itself on a quality product and simple marketing over expensive advertising and excessive rebranding. And while California may be the beer’s birthplace, it was essentially adopted and embraced by Canada through a string of corporate decisions. Its story might be reminiscent of other beers in its league, but rest assured, Lucky Lager has been on an unusual track from the get-go.
The original motive for creating Lucky was to brew beers that stood up against European lagers, which carried the reputation of being superior to American beer. Some of the first print advertisements that Lucky rolled out focused on tradition, ingredient quality, and the lengthy nature of its brewing and lagering process — similar to that of German beers. Tongue-in-cheek phrases like “aged just right” and “slow-brewed Western-style for man-sized taste” were some early slogans in the mix. To add to the beer’s image of authenticity and brand transparency, Lucky Lager became the first beer to include the date the beer was brewed on the can itself.
The original Lucky Lager team had the makings of a macrobrewery supergroup. First led by president Baron Paul von Gontard (the grandson of Adolphus Busch), brewmaster Julius Kerber (former brewmaster of Joseph Schlitz Brewing Co.), and secretary of treasury Eugene Selvage, the beer was launched under brand General Brewing Company in San Francisco in 1934, just on the heels of Prohibition. That same year, the parent company of General Brewing, Coast Breweries of Vancouver, brought Lucky Lager to British Columbia. With a brewing facility in Victoria on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, Coast Breweries proceeded to brew Lucky Lager for its Canadian clientele until Labatt Brewing Company purchased Coast and took over Lucky’s production in 1957. All the while, Coast — and later Labatt — let the folks in San Fran run all Lucky Lager-related business affairs in the states.
Unfortunately, Gontard was not as savvy a businessman as his genealogy would suggest. In late 1935, he was replaced by Kerber, and went on to start a couple of other breweries in the late ‘30s that all went bankrupt. Kerber died suddenly in 1936, and the reigns were passed on to Selvage, who would go on to lead General Brewing for the next 20-plus years. Based on early sales, it seems that Selvage was leading Lucky Lager down the right path. After General Brewing invested $1 million to build a state-of-the-art brewery in San Francisco to just brew Lucky, the company quickly ascended to becoming the No. 2 best-selling beer in California by 1937.
With wind in its sails and World War II in the rearview, General Brewing proceeded to open facilities in Southern California, Washington, and Utah by the end of the ‘50s to meet demand. By 1962, Lucky Lager was pumping out over 2 million barrels of beer annually. Of course, this was all with the help of some straightforward and somewhat antiquated ad campaigns paired with a clean, timeless — not to mention award-winning — logo.
Lucky Lager’s packaging is arguably more iconic than the beer itself. The original gold, retro-style can was emblazoned with a large red X flanked by fleur-de-lis-esque golden leaves. The design cycled through several iterations over the years, generally getting sleeker over time, but the signature X always remained. While other breweries like Schlitz and Schmidt made their brewery names the focal point of their can art, Lucky Lager’s cans instead focused on simple yet unforgettable design. Lucky Lager also came packaged in signature 11-ounce “stubby” bottles that featured rebus “word puzzles” under each cap, much like Lone Star Beer and Ballantine.
The brand ran a number of ad spots over the years, both in print and on TV. Its main slogan in the early ‘50s was “It’s Lucky when you live in California,” before changing to “It’s Lucky when you live in America” when distribution expanded. Sing-song-y radio ads took over airwaves, and later, TV spots highlighted the lager’s easy-open pull tab and “unfullfeeling” drinkability. The overarching theme of these ads was that Lucky is of higher quality than its competitors, no gimmicks necessary.
Still, the brand’s ad spots generally played second fiddle, marketing-wise, to the legendary X. The packaging remained consistent up until the late 60s, when the brand ditched the cross and replaced it with a large cursive L to stay up to snuff with the newer premium packaging of its competitors.
In the ‘70s, beer baron Paul Kalmanovitz purchased the brand and diversified its portfolio to combat the rise of light beer, but to no avail. When the generic “BEER” label craze was popping off in the late ’70s, Lucky jumped on board, but that didn’t work, either. Its brewing facilities began falling like dominos, with three major breweries closing between 1967 and 1978, including the original facility in San Francisco. Meanwhile, during Lucky Lager’s U.S. decline, Labatt broke off all ties with its stateside counterparts. While the beer spiraled in the U.S., Canadians were head over heels for the stuff.
It’s tough to say exactly why Canada fell in love with Lucky Lager. Perhaps it’s because the beer’s packaging bears the same color as the Canadian flag. Perhaps it’s because the Lucky Lager brewing facility became a sort of focal point in downtown Victoria as the only “local brewery.” Whatever the case may be, Canada basically adopted Lucky Lager and wrote its own narrative around the beer. Local papers ran print ads that read, “It’s Lucky when you live in Vancouver,” and the Victoria facility’s can labels proudly stated, “Vancouver Island’s Lucky Lager.” In 1982, when Labatt purchased the rights to brew and distribute Budweiser in Canada, the brewery moved all production to Edmonton, Alberta, and subsequently demolished the Victoria Lucky Lager brewery to prevent competition from occupying the space. Labatt has been owned by AB InBev since 2008, and it’s still producing Lucky Lager at the Edmonton facility to this day for its dedicated following.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., production dwindled to just one facility in Washington, which eventually shut down in 2003. These days, the brand is barely alive stateside. The American rights to the Lucky brand are in the hands of the Pabst Brewing Company, though Pabst has only done revival runs of Lucky Lager in partnership with 21st Amendment Brewery in California’s Bay Area starting in 2019.
With so many beers that pride themselves on locality and being the banner for a region of the U.S., Lucky Lager presents the unique situation of being born in California but raised in Canada. Whether or not that makes it American is debatable, but as long as people are out there enjoying it, who really cares? The Canadians won Lucky Lager fair and square, and while we’re happy to get Labatt Blue here in the states, we can’t help but miss the almighty X.
*Image retrieved from Drew Leiterman on Instagram
The article Remembering Lucky Lager, the American Macro Beer That Took Canada by Storm appeared first on VinePair.