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What Happened When an Island Fueled by Booze Went Dry

March 24, 2020

By Ivy Knight, March 24, 2020

Canada ended Prohibition in 1930 in every province but one small holdout. Not only did Prince Edward Island stay dry until 1948, it had actually adopted prohibition back in 1900, making it the first province to go dry well before Prohibition took hold in 1920. PEI has a strange relationship with alcohol. All those many years while the island was under prohibition, a strong subculture of moonshiners, rum runners, and bootleggers developed. Even in modern times, the government has kept a tight grip on liquor sales. A liquor store in Alberton, PEI wasn’t able to open on Sundays until 2016, when the mayor finally got the provincial government to extend their hours. 

Because it has always been restricted, islanders are passionate about their booze. To say that islanders like to drink is an understatement; drinking is as big a part of the culture as Anne of Green Gables and the island’s famous beaches and golf courses. So when the Provincial government announced it would be closing all liquor stores (and in a further draconian measure, cannabis outlets) on the same day last week, the entire population, all 156,000 of them, went a bit wild. 

Dave Mottershall, 38, is set to open a charcuterie shop in the little town of Montague. With COVID-19 quarantine measures in place those plans have been put on hold. “We were sitting at the table working out our finances,” he tells me over the phone. “I went outside to let the dog out and saw our neighbour putting on her coat and running to her car.” He asked why she was in such a hurry. She frantically replied, “The liquor store is closing tomorrow at 2! I gotta get down there before everything runs out.” 

Mottershall and his girlfriend wasted no time in following her lead. “We hopped in the Jeep and shot down there,” he recalls. “It looked like a Stephen King movie. Cars were at all angles in the parking lot, people had parked on the grass.” Inside was just as chaotic. “I’d never seen so many shopping carts in the liquor store except at Christmastime.” 

Kaet Felix, 20, had just been laid off from her job as a restaurant server when the news about the liquor store closures hit. “My last day at work we were all talking about how we had to get to the liquor store and how half the island would be there because everyone’s a drunk.” She went the day before it closed. “We waited in line. They had a security guard out front like a club. There were carts filled to the brim. It was pretty insane.”

To put this in perspective, last night Ontario announced the list of essential services that can stay open during the pandemic. Liquor stores were right at the top.

“All the Alpine was gone,” says Mottershall. “The Moosehead, the Schooner, all ripped off the shelves. The rum section was devastated; whisky as well. The vodka was like the toilet paper section at the grocery store. We wish we got more, but it’s hard to know what to do. Like how many beers will you drink when you’re in quarantine?”

Photo courtesy of Copper Bottom Brewing.Inside Copper Bottom Brewing.

Alpine, Schooner, and Moosehead are among the most popular beer brands on the island—the Maritime equivalent to Schlitz, PBR, and Old Milkwaukee. Five years ago that slowly started to change, when craft beer began to invade PEI. There are currently seven independent breweries operating, with another due to open this summer. And in a time when everyone is on lockdown, those brewers are working hard to get their beers out to fans—and potential converts—in an effort to stay in business, but also provide some sense of normalcy for the population. 

After the mayhem of March 19, the Provincial government allowed craft brewers to keep selling, as well as agency liquor retailers, located in a few gas stations and corner stores.

“The government didn’t expect that rush on the liquor stores,” says Alex Clark of EverMoore Brewing Company in Summerside, PEI. He had shut down his taproom on March 14. Now he’s prepping his skeleton crew to re-open for sales out of the garage door at the back of his brewery. “We don’t have a lot of pull on social media—we’re going to put a little sign by the road. I honestly hope we’re not too busy. We’re all alone out here and could get overrun pretty quick.” 

Holly Chiasson works at Crowbush golf course and grew up in Georgetown, PEI. “I’m from a small, rural town and we stick to what we know. I always compare drinking on the island to the Last Supper: it brings everyone together, it’s the breaking of the bread. To go to someone’s shed, start a fire and crush a case of Schooner—it’s a huge part of our culture.” When craft beer came to the island she was intrigued and soon became a convert. “Instead of a vodka soda I could ask for something on tap that’s local.”

Back in Montague, Mottershall is lucky to live within walking distance of Copper Bottom Brewing. Ken Spears and Ashley Condon were the first to open a craft brewery in King's County, in 2017 in the old Eastern Graphic newspaper building. “We’ve seen a dramatic increase in sales.” Spears told me on Friday. “There’s no limit on what we can sell to a customer. People who might have ordered a single or a four-pack are now ordering by the caseload.” Like all the brewers I spoke to, Copper Bottom is keeping social distancing top of mind. “People order on the website,” explains Condon. “We have a social distancing promotion code for 10 percent off if they order online. Then they drive up, we put it in the trunk, and they drive away.”

Photo courtesy of Upstreet Brewing.Marsha Gallant and the Upstreet team (left) and Upstreet’s head brewer, Mike Hogan.

As for those Schooner fans, Spears says, “We’re in a rural part of the island so a lot of people haven’t been exposed to craft beer. When we opened here, Montague was ready for it. There was a lot of pride that our little town was getting a brewery. We’ve been helping change palates and see a lot of migration from Schooner to craft beer.”

Marsha Gallant is the marketing manager at Upstreet Brewing in Charlottetown. “As of yesterday we were allowed to deliver beer for the first time on PEI,” she says. To celebrate this big step forward for the notoriously uptight Liquor Control Board, Upstreet’s head brewer, Mike Hogan, dressed up as their mascot Do Gooder, named after their flagship American Pale Ale, of which a portion of sales goes to support arts and culture initiatives. Hogan wears an orange and green spandex outfit, complete with a cape, to deliver beers door to door. “He took his guitar and serenaded people he delivered to,” says Gallant, noting that the orders coming in have been for a lot of beer at once. “That speaks volumes about people practicing social distancing and wanting to support us. We hope that everyone will buy local now more than ever.”

Photographer Alana Sprague is the founder of a weekly beer league. This past Friday her friends joined her for beers over FaceTime. Alana’s beer of choice? Upstreet’s Do Gooder. “I don’t drink a lot at home, but I think that will change because I’m not getting my social time with my friends in the same way.” As the quarantine continues she says she plans to order delivery from Upstreet. “I’m glad they found a way to get product out and maybe not see such a huge, drastic impact on their bottom line.”

As people hunker down at home the craft brewers are happy to serve them, in the hopes that they’ll be able to return to normal in time for the tourist season, when the population swells to more than a million. And perhaps locals will have had a chance to experience craft beer. 

“Schooner will always have a place in my heart,” says Chiasson, “but craft beer is a lot more flavorful. It has depth and there’s a story behind it. I am always trying to convert people. These days it’s all about local for me.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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