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REMEMBER THIS: Drinking beer was 'necessity' for Newmarket's settlers

In this week's column, History Hound Richard MacLeod 'raises a glass' on New Year's Eve to the time-honoured tradition of brewing beer

Since many of have "a wee drop" in celebration of New Year’s Eve, here's a short history of breweries and the brewing industry as it relates to our area.

There has been an ongoing struggle to determine the place that alcohol should play in our community. You can read my article on Newmarket’s prohibition for background. 

Brewing in Canada evolved from what was at the time a vital household necessity into a commercial endeavour that grew rapidly under British rule. Aside from the brief period of national prohibition (a bit longer in our area), it has generally been a large and stable source of tax revenue for our governments. Today, the brewing industry accounts for approximately $13.6 billion of Canada’s GDP or about 0.7 per cent of our economy, and the industry employs approximately 0.8 per cent of the Canadian workforce.

Most histories of domestic brewing maintain it began locally with the first settlers and traders. This, like much of our history, has been conveniently reworked. There is considerable evidence that the Indigenous peoples had been making mellow fermented beverages for a millennium, perhaps not beer in the traditional sense but most certainly a fermented beverage. As was quite often the case, we may have learned the process locally from them.

The European grape varieties used in the production of wines and brandies did not thrive in our climate. Beer or mead was produced not necessarily for want but out of necessity. In the past, milk and even water were full of dangerous microorganisms that often caused people to get seriously ill. Beer was relatively free of such dangers as the long boils involved in the brewing process killed almost every disease-causing agent. In addition, beer’s unique combination of high acidity, hops and alcohol was a brew in which harmful bacteria rarely survived.

The first brewers in New France were of a domestic variety, quite often brewing their beer in the same pot or kettle that they used for preparing the family’s meals. Beer required few ingredients and only basic equipment: a few handfuls of grain, some water, yeast and a pot or a kettle were sufficient to get the process started. Often a combination of favourite ingredients was added to the beer: things like molasses, dandelions, ginger, maple syrup, spruce boughs, checkerberries, sassafras roots and hops. 

Upon their arrival in New France in 1611, the Jesuit Fathers found themselves deprived of their daily ration of wine and quickly turned to beer. In March 1647, they built a small brewing operation, in this case involving a single brewer. In New France, the art of brewing was practised in the homes and religious houses of the colony. It was small-scale and localized, emerging for practical rather than commercial purposes.

Credited as the driving force behind the birth of commercial brewing in Canada was Jean Talon in 1671. Talon had grown up near the beer-producing Artois region of northern France and had served as an administrator in French Flanders where people drank more beer than elsewhere in France. 

His reason for founding the first commercial brewery was to diversify the economy. He believed that a commercial brewery would encourage people to farm because "they will be assured that their excess grain will be used for making this weaker drink." Domestically grown ingredients could be better exported as a more valuable product (beer). 

On April 5, 1671, Jean Talon wrote to the King of France, Louis XIV, proudly declaring: My brewery is complete, adding there was nothing like it in the colonies of the Americas. In essence, he was correct, as it could produce 4,000 barrels of beer per year. To put that number in perspective, some 50 years later, the typical American brewery was about half that size.

And when John Molson began brewing in Montreal a century later, he produced only 120 barrels of beer per year. Talon’s brewery could make 33 times that amount at a time when the population of New France was approximately one-twentieth of what it was in 1786 when Molson started brewing.

The local population at the time did not really have much of an appetite for beer before the British Conquest (1759-63), as wine was the drink of choice. This would change with the arrival of Molson in 1782. By 1786, the young entrepreneur had established a small brewery in Montreal that is today one of Canada’s oldest companies.

Molson knew almost nothing about the art and science of brewing when he arrived in British North America (now Canada) in 1782; however, he had an eye for economic opportunity, and he was ambitious, eager to learn and determined to succeed

Montreal was a strategic place to establish a brewery. Its rapidly expanding flow of immigrants favoured the ales and porters of the old country along with the British garrison troops stationed within the city and at nearby posts.

As you can well imagine, anyone in Canada who had a slight knowledge of the art of brewing could profit. Thomas Carling, John Kinder Labatt, and Susannah Oland (Moosehead Breweries Ltd.) were among those who did.

The key to tapping into this rising demand for beer was to keep it cheap, selling for just five cents a bottle.

The advent of the railway transformed the colonial brewing industry in the 1850s, making it possible to continue trade and commerce all year long, even in the harsh winter. Brewers quickly recognized the advantages afforded by railroad transportation; the introduction in the 1870s of refrigeration, beer was less likely to spill, spoil or go stale, a greater volume could be transported safely and conveniently, and it cost less for both the producers and consumers. 

Another key development was the elimination of the "tariff of bad roads," the regulated, high transportation cost that protected artisanal brewers in small, local markets. Soon the Canadian brewing industry shifted into a vigorous new era of industrialization and regionalization, with a relatively small number of brewers dominating the central Canadian market. By the beginning of the First World War, brewing had emerged as a vibrant and significant industry.

While prohibition in Canada lasted from approximately 1916 to 1930 (Ontario from 1916 to 1927), we in Newmarket were dry for a considerably longer period.

Prohibition was instituted in the years leading up to the First World War as part of an effort to regulate the production and consumption of alcohol. Due to the division of powers between the federal and provincial governments, prohibition would last longer in some regions than in others. Under the British North America Act of 1867, the provinces have the power to regulate the retail sale of intoxicating drinks, while the federal government maintained the power to regulate its production.

The Temperance Acts between the Canadian provinces varied. Generally, they closed legal drinking establishments and outlawed the sale of alcoholic beverages above 1.25 per cent alcohol by volume (ABV). They also forbade the possession and consumption of alcoholic drinks outside private dwellings.

While Newmarket was dry, Bradford and Holland Landing were not dry for as long. People either went to Bradford for a beer or turned to the bootleggers who populated Holland Landing / River Drive Park.

Prohibition had a devastating effect on the Canadian brewing industry, cutting the number of breweries roughly in half. The personal fortunes of many brewers were lost, legacies vanished and hundreds of jobs disappeared. Those breweries that did survive sometimes did so by bootlegging (illegally selling) beer and hard liquor to the U.S., which experienced its own prohibition between the years 1920 and 1933. The movement did not, however, live up to the activists’ promise that it would cure all of society’s ills. 

After the prohibition ended, governments placed tighter restrictions on beer advertising. Ads had to meet provincial liquor control board standards. These could range from regulations on their content to total advertising bans. Brewers could not advertise their products on outdoor signs or billboards, and could not promote them on radio or television until the mid-1950s. And even after these regulations were relaxed in 1955, commercials could not feature a person drinking, a beer bottle or glass of beer. 

After the Second World War, what emerged was an industry primarily consisting of the Big Three brewers: Labatt, Molson and Canadian Breweries Limited (the first truly national brewery). 

By 1945, the Canadian brewing industry consisted of 61 breweries (28 in the West, 29 in Ontario and Quebec and four in the Maritimes) producing 159 brands. By 1962, the Big Three produced almost 95 per cent of the beer sold in Canada and dominated the marketplace.

By the late 1970s, some Canadians were getting tired of the offerings of the Big Three, calling them bland and similar tasting. We also became much more conscious of what they contained. Frank Appleton, in 1978, began to urge people to brew their own beer and ultimately inspired a microbrewing movement. The merger of Carling O’Keefe (previously Canadian Breweries Ltd.) with Molson in 1989 reduced the number of big brewers in Canada to two, and in 1995, Labatt was bought by the Belgium-based brewer Interbrew, and finally, in 2005, Molsons merged with Colorado’s Adolph Coors Company.

Today, the Canadian brewing industry is made up of two national brewers (Labatt and Molson), which dominate the domestic beer market and are controlled by foreign firms and a large and growing number of craft breweries. In 2004, Canadian beer makers catered to a dieting fad by creating a beer with a low carbohydrate content. Today, the Canadian mass beer market is dominated by foreign brands like Budweiser, Coors and Stella Artois.

The first Newmarket brewery is said to have been built by William Simpson on the site of the Cawthra distillery at the end of Ontario Street by the tracks, the old site of the Co-Op feed mill. However, the earliest date reference dates to 1861, when it was owned by N.A. Gamble.

From a local newspaper article, we learn that "a culvert was constructed by the village on the street leading to the brewery just off Huron." Records show that in January 1866, while it was being operated by Robert Simpson (not the merchant), the brewery would burn down with a loss of $3,000. Gamble rebuilt immediately at the cost of $1,600. In 1868, it was operated by H.E. Simpson.

In 1874, the Newmarket Brewery was acquired by Samuel Sykes, who rebuilt it and leased it for a term of years to Richard Heap. When the building of wooden construction was demolished, the bricks of its large chimney were used to build a local house.

John Cawthra had opened a general store that was a convenience to both settlers and to the Indigenous. He would erect the third distillery in Newmarket on the site of the first brewery built by William Simpson. After the Cawthra distillery was discontinued, Sykes was the last to operate a brewery on the site.  

The second Newmarket brewery had been built by Thomas Jebb at the intersection of Water and D’Arcy streets. When, in 1847, the potato blight devastated Ireland, sending thousands to Canada, they brought with them the "Irish immigrant fever," which soon raged in epidemic proportions. It, too, touched Newmarket, and those stricken were segregated in the old brewery, which may be considered the first hospital in Newmarket.

Records tell us the Newmarket breweries once consumed over 3,000 bushels of local barley in one year. That is a lot of beer for a small community.  

Our ancestors had their own home brew for personal use before and during the commercialization period locally. This home brew recipe proved fortuitous during our prolonged period of prohibition.  

Have a safe and happy New Year, and next weekend we'll have the second instalment of my articles on Teen Town featuring your memories of attending the dances. 

Sources: Brewing Industry in Canada an article by Philip MacNeil, Matthew Bellamy from The Canadian Encyclopedia; The History of Newmarket by Ethel Trewhella; The Newmarket Era and Express; Early Life in Upper Canada by Edwin C. Gullet; Stories of Newmarket – An Old Ontario Town by Robert Terrence Carter

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Newmarket Today, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews