Tracing the origins of BC Bud is somewhat like being caught in a timeloop. It is an exercise in deja vu that teaches one thing above all else: those that do not know their history are doomed to repeat it.
The story of BC Bud does not begin with cannabis in the seventies as most people assume, nor does it even begin in BC. It begins in a town now located in the Czech Republic called České Budějovice. The town, founded in 1245, was a Bohemian city. The term Bohemian would eventually come to signify those who ‘were associated with unorthodox or anti-establishment political or social viewpoints, which often were expressed through free love, frugality, and—in some cases—voluntary poverty’. Before this though, they would be famous for their beer. Brewed since the foundation of the city, Budweiser, (of Budweis, the German name for the town) would come to be known all across Europe as the ‘Beer of Kings’.
In 1876 in America, after visiting the town, Adolphus Busch began making a ‘Bohemian-inspired’ beer with the slogan “The King of Beers.” Also named Budweiser, this American beer would be (and still is) marketed in Europe as ‘Bud’. The power of branding, even borrowed branding, is easily seen through the story of these two beers. While the original survived for over six hundred years, its clone brand had conquered the US before prohibition. Such was the power of this brand that it allowed the company to survive prohibition. As selling beer in the US became illegal, Anheuser-Busch began selling yeast, packaged under the name Budweiser.
With no beer being sold in America, the valuable trademarked name was open to poaching, and a Canadian industry just emerging from its own prohibition would be quick to capitalize.
“For Canada, America’s federal prohibition law, in effect from 1920 to 1933, was a miraculous economic benefit. Canadians were free to manufacture and export liquor. The American customers who took possession of it in their own waters or on their own soil assumed all the risk.”
These were exciting times in British Columbia, and while US Prohibition made alcohol a focus, it was not the only intoxicant of choice. BC paid a high price for the British Empire’s opium policies, a price it is still paying today, but some who ‘were associated with unorthodox or anti-establishment political or social viewpoints’ chose yet another intoxicant: cannabis.
It is important to remember that there were two things required for the cultural use of cannabis. The plant itself, and knowledge of its effects. The plant first arrived here thanks to the British, who took hemp with them everywhere. While tinctures made from cannabis were quite common alongside industrial uses, other preparations of the plant required knowledge. The British Empire’s policies in Asia led to an influx of Indian and Chinese workers, both of whom had extensive and intimate knowledge of cannabis use. While one can certainly say cannabis use was not common in BC at the time, it is inconceivable to think that no one in these communities was using it.
It was these communities, particularly the Chinese, that would be targeted by Canada’s first drug laws. Much has been written about how this came to be, with most citing Emily Murphy’s The Black Candle, Prime Minister Lyon Mackenzie King’s visit to Vancouver, the anti-Asian riots, and the British-induced opium epidemic as their cause. What’s less understood is how cannabis came to be suddenly included in these laws as well.
There was definitely pressure from the US, with the Los Angeles Chief of Police testifying how cannabis made Mexicans crazy, but there seems little correlation to how this could be seen as a serious problem in Canada at the time, particularly in British Columbia. Numerous writers have tried to find the reasoning, and failed. I believe there are two clues often overlooked.
The first is in the above mentioned ‘The Black Candle’, published in 1920. While Emily Murphy (hiding behind the pseudonym Janey Canuck), writes of Cannabis issues with Mexicans in Los Angeles, the book is mostly a diatribe against the Indian and Chinese races. However, short passage also takes a swipe at ‘Negroes’. “Many…are law abiding…but many are obstinately wicked persons, earning their livelihood as free ranging pedlars(sic) of poisonous drugs.”
While she clearly shows herself to be a racist throughout this work, and her knowledge of black people may have trickled up from the US like her knowledge of Mexicans, the answer may also lie in another often overlooked part of British Columbia’s history, a story that starts in 1912 in Chicago.
During this period, Chicago was going through a massive demographic shift referred to as The Great Migration. It saw a mass movement of southern black people into the north, particularly Chicago. One of the things they brought with them was jazz, and in no time, Chicago’s jazz scene was second only to that of New Orleans. A man named Jack Johnson, holder of boxing’s heavyweight title, ran the hottest club in town, Cafe de Champion, catering to ‘African aristocracy’ and ‘vanquished but aspiring whites’. It built on the success of an earlier club called ‘The Marquette’ run by a man named Bill Bowman.
This set the scene for George Paris. George was the kind of sports figure we rarely see today. A clog dancer, accomplished sprinter, and BC’s first heavyweight champion. It was this last title that would lead to him becoming a trainer for the Vancouver Police, the Seattle Giants baseball team, and later heavyweight champion Jack Johnson.
While jazz had made its debut in Vancouver in 1914 with the Original Creole Orchestra playing the Pantages, by 1917, it was about to become a phenomenon. George Paris, with his frequent trips to Chicago, would be at the centre of making Vancouver the West Coast’s hottest jazz city. With alcohol prohibition coming into effect in 1917, hotel bars like at the Patricia, the Irving, and the Bodega would turn to live music to offset the loss of sales from alcohol. By 1919, Paris had convinced Bill Bowman to manage the Patricia. Bill Bowman would gain later fame as the teacher of Quincy Jones, but prior to that, he would bring the likes of Doc Hutchinson, Ada ‘Bricktop’ Smith, and Jelly Roll Morton.
It is perhaps hard to imagine how outside contemporary society’s norms Jazz truly was. It was one of the few places where blacks and whites could mix freely, and it was home to a thriving cannabis scene. Songs like Reeferman, If you’re a Viper, and Weedsmokers’ Dream became standards, and somehow this was all tied to alcohol prohibition. Not only did instituting prohibition help create Vancouver’s jazz scene, when BC lifted prohibition in 1921, the jazz scene soon began to decline. Also, while Seattle was undergoing a similar demographic shift as Chicago, the local Canadian unions made it harder and harder to work on this side of the border, until eventually instituting a ban on all American acts that would remain in place until Duke Ellington in 1940. Vancouver’s once great Jazz scene simply migrated to Seattle.
With the jazz scene on the decline, BC would witness the birth of a new industry, one that would give rise to powerful brands. While smugglers on the east coast would be heavily controlled by the Italian Mafia, giving rise to brands like Seagrams, and Sleemans, the west coast had a very different industry. In some ways more established and respectable, such as first the Growers Wine Company, and then Growers Cider. The company motto back then was “What Western Canada Makes, Makes Western Canada.” The Growers Cider Company was truly a Western Canadian Company, with more than 90 percent of the company owned by residents of the four western provinces.
This appeal to Western Canadian interests led another company to build on the Budweiser Brand. In 1931, Coast Breweries Limited launched a beer known as ‘BC Bud’, and it was likely that this was the first BC Bud to be smuggled into the US. This beer was advertised as ‘liquid bread’ and sold as ‘good for you’. And in a foreshadowing that is unparalleled in its epicness, it’s makers implored people to “Buy BC Bud and support home industry, and help solve our unemployment problem.”
This veneer of respectability that is firmly established today was not as clear cut back in the day. BC Bud was smuggled into the US in such massive amounts that the northwest coast of the United States resembled “…a floating ship-city, thousands of miles in length, bobbing up and down in place along the coast of America, and serviced by a fleet of much smaller, nimble rum runners that slipped to and from the mainland under cover of night.” This would eventually lead the US government to push for an extension of the area of the ocean over which governments have jurisdiction, from 3 miles to 12.
This helped curtail the trade somewhat, but nothing would stop it until the US repealed prohibition in 1933, leaving Coast Breweries free to buy a controlling interest in the San Francisco Brewing Company.
With alcohol legal in both Canada and the US, and cannabis now illegal in both places, Canada’s jazz history would be relegated to Montreal, but the seeds of a new industry had been planted in British Columbia, one that would take another thirty years to germinate.
To be continued in part two.