A Brief History of Beer in Canada
Canada has always been a brewing nation. Molson, Oland, Keith, Carling, Sleeman and Labatt are all names that Canadian beer drinkers have been familiar with for generations.
The Early Days
In the early days, brewing was a domestic art, practiced by people in their own homes for personal enjoyment and special occasions.
Canada's first recorded brewer was Jesuit Brother Ambroise, who began making beer in 1646 after the foundation of New France.
A few years later, the Great Intendant Jean Talon, founded Canada's first commercial brewery in Québec City, to reduce his colony's dependence on imported brandy. His brewery, which opened in 1688, was so successful that its brews were sold to the West Indies, making it the first Canadian beer ever exported.
The Talon brewery only operated for five years, but its remains — known as the Talon Vaults — can still be seen in the lower city of old Québec.
Many of today's breweries have long histories, filled with colourful characters and incredible accomplishments.
By 1786, John Molson established his first brewery in Montréal, which is today the oldest brewery in North America. Alexander Keith & Son founded their brewery in Nova Scotia in 1829. John H. Sleeman established his first brewery in St. David's, Ontario in 1836. Thomas Carling opened the doors to his new Brewing & Malting Company in London in 1840. The Labatt name entered the scene in London, in 1847 and in 1867 the stage was set for both the Oland and Moosehead breweries by the Oland family.
By the 1870s, brewing had come into its own with brewers as far west as Victoria, British Columbia and as far east as Saint John, New Brunswick. Despite occasional economic setbacks, sales grew up until the First World War.
With the outbreak of war, beer prices increased due to a "doubling" of the excise duty on malt, and many provinces decided to go "dry" as a war measure. In 1918, the federal cabinet decreed that no intoxicating liquor of any kind could be manufactured or imported until 12 months after peace was restored. Canada's experiment with prohibition lasted into the 1920s (and as late as 1948 for Prince Edward Island), when consumer demand and common sense reasserted itself.
An Industry in Full Bloom
Prohibition, the Great Depression and the Second World War hit brewers hard, and forced a great period of industry consolidation. Regional brewers across the country merged or were bought out by other brewers, resulting in larger companies and a competitive industry.
As beer drinkers in other countries became aware of the quality of Canadian beer, exports also began to grow.
Beginning around the 1980s regional breweries began opening in communities across the country, increasing the range of brands and styles of beer available. In 1984, Jim Brickman began Brick Brewing in Waterloo, Ontario and is hailed as the pioneer of present day craft brewing in Canada.
Today, Canadian beer drinkers have access to one of the largest selections of different beer brands and styles available anywhere in the world. At our last count in early 2017, Canada is home to over 650 breweries and more than 7000 brands.