Canadians are renowned the world over for being polite. They will always say “please” and “thank you”, “excuse me” or “I’m so sorry” – and genuinely mean it. They also take great pride in their peace-loving nature, their beautiful scenery and mountains, wintersports and the 10 different varieties of maple trees which are native to their land. It’s their national emblem after all!

As a nation they are laid-back and easygoing, not given to braggadocio and loud claims of being the biggest or best, first or most numerous, like their southern neighbours. Which is why most beer drinkers are blissfully unaware that Carling Black Label, the number one selling beer in South Africa according to recent figures, is actually Canadian in origin.

There are a number of surprising and interesting facts about this beer. Having been founded in London, Ontario, in 1840, the focus of the brewery initially was on ales and not lagers. That changed around 1870, Wikipedia reliably informs, when it began brewing lagers – specifically Black & White Lager. About half a century later, in 1927, the then president of the company, J. Innes Carling, oversaw a corporate shake up and rebranded the popular lager as Black Label. According to corporate history, the Carling brewery was bought out and merged into Canadian Breweries Limited of Toronto in 1930 – and the Carling Black Label became its flagship. It was the first beer to be produced on a large, industrial scale and became especially popular in Commonwealth countries: the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.

And that’s where the paths diverge somewhat. In the United Kingdom nowadays the beer is simply known as Carling, having dropped the Black Label from its name in 1997. Much of its success in the UK market in the 1970s and 1980s, when it became the best-selling beer brand in a rather beer-obsessed country, was driven by advertising. The specific campaign is still considered one of the Top 10 Funniest TV ads of all time, according to a 2008 survey. The ad campaign was “I bet he drinks” – and Carling Black Label was always the punchline. Although there were a series of adverts, the parody of the famous Dambusters war movie is the one most awarded one, and is frequently recalled and quoted by long time fans of both the beer and advertising. If you want a good chuckle, check out the advert on YouTube below:

The interesting thing about the UK version of the beer and the one so beloved of South Africans is the difference in alcohol levels. Although the UK Carling claims to be 4% alcohol by volume (ABV) versus South Africa’s 5.5%, the British version is actually only 3.7%! It’s brewed at that level to avoid a higher taxation level, something which was only revealed by American brewing giant Molson Coors in a court case in 2017. As the PublicHouseStories blog wrote: “This came to light in 2017,when Molson Coors admitted to having dropped the alcohol percentage in 2012 to 3.7% in order to lower the alcohol tax on Carling. Since beer is allowed to have a ‘natural’ variation of up to 0.5%, Molson Coors successfully argued in court that they had done nothing wrong, and have since continued to advertise it as being a percentage at which they make no attempt to reach.”

Earlier this year, Eighty20, a consumer analytics business, conducted a survey of 20 000+ South Africans and revealed how alcohol consumption patterns have changed in the past decade. Castle Lager fell out of the top five and leading the pack was Carling Black Label. Back in 2013, the top beer was Castle Lager, followed by Castle Light, Carling Black Label, Heineken and Hansa Pilsener. Research has shown that this popular lager is consumed by nearly 2 million South Africans every week!

As stated on its website: “Carling Black Label is Africa’s most awarded beer with over 50 local and international awards for its quality taste.  We stand proudly for core beer – accessible, democratic and available everywhere. We’re a high quality beer that our consumers can drink whenever they want to enjoy the refreshing taste of a great lager. Our home is anywhere that our consumers get together to share a beer. Male social occasions are our heartland, and the home where Carling Black Label has its most impactful role.”

“The tavern is our stomping ground, where champions share a quart. Champions deserve Champion beer as a reward at the end of the day. The reference, Champion, is core to who we are, synonymous with Carling Black Label. For Carling Black Label, champion means quality, winning and the very best. We don’t take that lightly.  And that’s why our superior beer is described as award winning and world-class, surpassing all rivals.”

It was announced in October that Carling Black Label is the headline sponsor of what used to be one of South Africa’s premier soccer competitions, the Telkom Knockout Cup which ended in 2021. 2023 sees this competition host the country’s 16 top teams under the Carling Knockout Cup banner.

* Readers wondering about the reference to Wrexham football club ownership in the introductory paragraph should know that it’s a Welsh amateur football club which owes its elevation to the fourth division of English soccer due to investment by Canadian-born actor Ryan Reynolds and business partner, fellow actor, Rob McElhenney. The rise of this gritty club was the subject of a Netflix documentary series, Welcome to Wrexham, making the club a social media sensation and boosting its fortunes dramatically.