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Cheers!: Eastern Canada's 19th Century Brewery and Distillery Industry

With the return of summer, patios everywhere are alive with patrons eager to soak up the warm rays of the sun while enjoying an ice cold brew in the company of friends.  Despite ambivalent social and moral attitudes toward alcoholic beverages over the years, Canadians have been taking pleasure in "fortified" drinks for generations.  Because of its popularity, an entire industry based on the production, sale and, in some cases, the illegality of booze blossomed in Canada after 1850.  Evidence of large-scale brewing and distilling is still visible in many urban centres throughout eastern Canada.  These places are testimonies of past social patterns of recreation and, for some, social evils which continue to the present.Don Brewery, 1877, City of Toronto Archives 496.4.3 / La brasserie Don, 1877, les archives de la Ville de Toronto 496.4.3

Early European colonists in North America brought with them a thirst for alcoholic drinks as well as the traditional knowledge for producing this commodity.  In New France, certain Catholic orders began breweries as early as 1620 while colonists soon after initiated their own private brewery enterprises.  Under a Royal Charter by the French monarch Louis XVI, Intendant Jean Talon established a brewery in Québec in 1668.  After the 1760 British conquest of New France, immigrants from the British Isles continued the practice of establishing small-scale breweries in the Maritime colonies, and in Upper and Lower Canada (now Ontario and Québec), one of these being famed brewer John Molson who began his own brewery in Montréal in 1786.  But a social shift in the mid-1830s put a damper, albeit short-lived, on the liquor industry, as anti-drinking crusaders successfully advocated temperance...

Gooderham and Worts Distillery, LAC C-151590 / La distillerie Gooderham and Worts, BAC C-151590As a result of the Industrial Revolution which swept eastern North America beginning in the 1840s, a renewed thirst for the "devil's water" was on the rise among the emerging working class, in turn leading to higher demand for spirits which the new economy would now quench!  It was in populated urban settings that large commercial ventures began with the construction of facilities to produce considerable amounts of spirits and beer for local markets and, as transportation improved, for national retail.  Toronto was one such market where huge complexes of imposing structures, such as the Don Brewery located along the Don River, dominated the townscape.  One of the country's most successful distilleries was established by William Gooderham and brother-in-law James Worts in 1837.  As one of the biggest distilleries in the world at one time, the Gooderham and Worts Distillery, now a National Historic Site and trendy Toronto landmark, grew Seagram's 83, Seagram Museum Library, University of Waterloo / Seagram's '83, Seagram Museum Library, Université de Waterloosteadily throughout the second half of the nineteenth century to include several dozen buildings for such uses as processing raw materials to storing goods awaiting export.  Today, while Gooderham and Worts is no longer a distillery, the impressive handcrafted beers of Mill Street Brewery are once again shipped out from the warehouse of this historic place to be toasted and enjoyed by the public.

Canada's distilling industry was equally put on the map by the efforts of Joseph E. Seagram who purchased the Granite Mills and Distillery of Waterloo, Ontario in 1883 and renamed the business J. E. Seagram's Distillery.  Seagram was a brilliant entrepreneur who realized the marketing potential for brand names.  His newly distilled whiskey, Seagram's '83, was marketed in Canada and the United States with huge success.  Today, the Seagram's label is internationally recognized.

Another long-standing and celebrated name in Canada's alcohol industry is Alexander Keith.  Educated in the art of brewing in Scotland, Keith immigrated to Halifax, Nova Scotia at the age of 22.  He began his own brewery in 1822 and expanded in 1837 with the construction of a large ironstone brewery building near the Halifax waterfront.  Not only was Keith a master brewer, he was equally a successful politician whose handsome residence, Keith Hall, built in 1863 and connected to his brewery via a tunnel, expressed his social status.  Alexander Keith Brewery, LAC C-150714 / Brasserie Alexander Keith, BAC C-150714Demand for alcoholic beverages in Halifax continued despite increasing efforts to eliminate the consumption of libations at the end of the nineteenth century.  Alexander Keith passed away in 1873 but his legacy endures through Keith Hall and Brewery which still stands to this day.

Another building confirming the deeply rooted relationship between libations and Maritimers are the Newman Wine Vaults in St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador.  The wine vaults were established in the early nineteenth century by Newman and Company to age port wine imported from Portugal.  Although inconspicuous in style from the outside, the vaults' interior consisted of large barrel vaulted, below grade cellars allowing for a constant temperature and thus ideal conditions during the aging process.

Temperance movements varied in success throughout the second half of the nineteenth and early-twentieth century, their major victory being a nation-wide ban on intoxicating drinks, known as the Prohibition Era, following the First World War.  In 1878, the government passed the Canada Temperance Act (Scott Act) which gave municipalities the option of voting themselves "dry."  It was in the Maritimes that this Act found the most support for the majority of counties chose to prohibit the sale of alcohol.  Yet, not everyone shared this attitude of sobriety.  Anxious to turn a profit, bootleggers engaged in the illicit trade of smuggling alcohol to a population thirsting for a "wet" drink.  Along the Atlantic Coast, and in many other parts of the country, this illegal business often occurred in secluded areas far from the long arm of the law.  One such place was Friar's Cove, Harbour Breton, Newfoundland and Labrador where bootleggers helped deliver a steady supply of booze to local purveyors and citizens. Chateau d'eau, Québec National Library and Archives, CP 749 / Château d'eau, Bibliothèque et archives nationales du Québec CP 749

Today, while big name breweries and distillers remain popular consumer choices, there is also a growing appreciation for microbreweries and brewpubs, where beer is hand-crafted on a limited scale following more traditional brewing methods.  Some historic places are ideally suited to accommodate this specialized industry, such as the Château d'eau in Gatineau, Québec which was initially constructed in 1902-05 to supply the town with fresh water but has recently been converted to the trendy brewpub Les Brasseurs du Temps.  Another example where a historic place built for one purpose has been converted to accommodate a brewery is Toronto's John Street Roundhouse which is now home to Steam Whistle Brewing and open for guided tours.

Whether an enthusiast of alcoholic beverages or not, it is undeniable that Canadians share a long and ambivalent relationship with booze.  Many places still communicate this storied past and you are invited to visit them and raise a glass to the pioneers of Canada's early brewing and distilling industry.  Cheers!

Further Reading:

Heron, Craig.  Booze: A Distilled History. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2003.


The Distillery District, former Gooderham and Warts Distillery

Alexander Keith Brewery - information about visiting the Alexander Keith Brewery

Newman Wine Vaults, Newfoundland Historic Trust

Les Brasseurs du Temps

Steam Whistle Brewing