Beer Built This City
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Beer Built This City

A review of Jordan St. John's Lost Breweries of Toronto.

As the owner of one of Toronto’s largest breweries, Eugene O’Keefe was an unexpected but genuine supporter of the temperance movement. The brewer and philanthropist felt that cheap whiskey was taking a toll on the city’s working class—his Irish brethren in particular. In the late 1870s, O’Keefe had switched to producing lager on a massive scale, self-consciously intending it—a product with 3.5 or 4.0 per cent alcohol—as a more temperate alternative to the locally brewed ales containing 6.5 or higher per cent alcohol. “You might have been able to get drunk on Toronto’s nineteenth-century lager,” Jordan St. John writes in Lost Breweries of Toronto (The History Press, 2014), “but you would have had to work at it.”

When O’Keefe articulated his belief that “the consumption of lager beer and light non-intoxicating liquors” was the solution to the temperance question in testimony before a public inquiry in 1893, however, he was asked the impact prohibition would have on his business. “Why, bless your soul, it would be ruinous,” he admitted with a sense of humour.

O’Keefe’s quirky understanding of temperance is but one of the episodes St. John has uncovered in his engaging and illuminating Lost Breweries of Toronto. In it, the nationally syndicated beer columnist traces the history of nearly 20 of the city’s breweries, covering more than two centuries from when the town was a mere outgrowth of Fort York to the mid-20th century, when E.P. Taylor consolidated control of the independent breweries under the banner of Canadian Breweries Limited banner.

In Lost Breweries, St. John shows a knack for unearthing anecdotes that are both entertaining and insightful—including those contained in the adjoining gallery. There’s the Ontario Brewery, whose facility at the corner of York and Front streets went aflame in 1856. Afterward there were complaints that volunteers had broken open barrels of beer in the vault instead of fighting the fire.

There’s Toronto Brewing and Malting Company, which, when it needed a popular beer to re-launch its brand after Ontario repealed prohibition in 1927, launched Canada Bud. The lager was so much like Anheuser-Busch’s flagship brand that the Toronto brewery was almost immediately and successfully sued—and was ordered by the courts to pay the American company $500 in damages.

And there’s the Copland Brewery, whose sales, during the patriotic fervour of the Second World War, were negatively impacted by its American ownership. Copland’s solution was to launch Pat’s Stock Ale in honour of the company’s brewmaster, Pat Wismer, a decorated war hero in the First World War. If the brewery’s intention wasn’t already clear enough, the beer’s label featured not only the Union Jack and Ontario’s Red Ensign flags, but also a maple leaf and a statement that it was “made by 100% Canadians.”

Staff from the O'Keefe Brewery Company, located at the southwest corner of Gould and Victoria streets, 1890s  From the Toronto Public Library's Digital Collection

Staff from the O’Keefe Brewery Company, located at the southwest corner of Gould and Victoria streets, 1890s. From the Toronto Public Library’s Digital Collection.

Mining original sources like the Royal Gazette, business directories, and diaries or corporate records where available—a truly admirable amount of heavy lifting—St. John is able to straighten out errors of dates and details found in earlier secondary accounts of Ontario’s brewing history. Moreover, he’s able to dissect what made breweries thrive or fail and capture the personalities running them—though he sometimes runs up against the limitations of his sources. As a brewer and certified Cicerone himself, the author’s knowledge of varieties of malt and hops and production methods allows him, at times, to suggest how a long-lost brew might have tasted from a mere list of ingredients.

In Lost Breweries, the author teases out interesting anecdotes and weaves them into larger stories, establishing common themes. One such theme is the importance of location to the success of early brewers, with the breweries all located on streams or waterways to provide a source of water. But ready access to customers was equally important. In Toronto’s earliest years, where Fort York’s soldiers chose to spend their beer money allowance or stipend could make or break a brewery.

Another theme links brewers to patterns of immigration. First English immigrants, like John Farr or Joseph Bloore, and later German immigrants, like John Walz—who introduced Torontonians to lager in the late 1850s—found that the operation of a brewery as a successful business afforded them a degree of social mobility in Toronto that was unavailable in the Old World. Here, they could build their brewing business, accrue land and wealth, diversify into other enterprises and holdings, and become civic leaders and pillars of the community.

St. John also explores how several early brewers used the profits and status that came from selling beer to build and develop the city itself. A few early brewers were devoted Methodists and philanthropists, such as Dr. Thomas Stoyell, who operated one of the very first breweries, at Sherbourne and Richmond streets, and John Doel, whose operation was behind his house at Bay and Adelaide streets. Both donated significant sums to the church, which spent the funds on temperance initiatives—the primary focus of Methodist ministrations.

Other early brewers made their mark by taking an active role in politics. Many sought public office as reformers, though some had more mixed motives. That Thomas Davies Jr., as an alderman, helped establish Riverdale Park, was undoubtedly positive—as St. John tells us—but it also had the roll-off benefit of preventing anyone from ever opening a competing brewery adjacent to his own Don Brewery at Queen East and River Street.

Doel's residence and brewery on the northwest corner of Adelaide and Bay streets as it appeared in the 1840s  Sketch drawn by Owen Staples in 1888  From the Toronto Public Library's Digital Collection   John Doel's brewery, located behind his residence, burned down in 1847  The Methodist Church, of which Doel was a member, used the brewer's philanthropic donations to build the city's first Temperance Hall among other endeavours

Doel’s residence and brewery on the northwest corner of Adelaide and Bay streets as it appeared in the 1840s. Sketch drawn by Owen Staples in 1888. From the Toronto Public Library’s Digital Collection.

Lost Breweries whets the reader’s appetite for more. Given how much Toronto’s landscape has changed, with waterways realigned or bricked up as sewers, the inclusion of a map clearly locating each brewery discussed would have been most helpful. In addition to copious archival photos, illustrations, and paintings of the breweries discussed, St. John shares a sampling of product labels. He offers some insight into the styles and evolution of bottle labels—evolving from elks, beavers, and maple leaves to Lothar Reinhardt’s logo showing a hand clutching a foaming pint glass—and how the packaging of beer became more important than content as the 20th century progressed. The topic is treated as an aside, however—discussed mostly in photo captions—when more thorough discussion would have been rewarding.

The downside for Lost Breweries is that, as a result of the book’s structure—with stand-alone chapters on each brewery—the book can be a bit episodic, with themes appearing in flashes across various chapters rather than full discussed and developed. There are mentions, for example, of how the varieties of beer brewed and techniques involved at particular companies evolved—as a result of taxes or duties affecting the price of ingredients, government legislation, and the personal preferences of either the brewmaster or the customers. But an additional, contextual chapter putting these isolated details together would have given a full picture of the local industry as a whole and how it fit broader trends. More of that, it seems, is to be found in the also recently published Ontario Beer: A Heady History of Brewing from the Great Lakes to Hudson Bay (The History Press, 2014), which St. John co-authored with Alan McLeod.

What St. John does do in Lost Breweries—that is, provide capsule histories of nearly forgotten breweries and their owners—he does quite well, and he digs up lively anecdotes to keep the proceedings interesting.

Both Lost Breweries of Toronto and Ontario Beer can be purchased from local retailers, and numerous copies are available through the Toronto Public Library system. The North York Central Library will host Jordan St. John on April 15 at 7:30 p.m.