For many years, Canadian historians seemed less interested in exploring the place of beer in Canadian life than in describing attempts to control it, whether through temperance legislation, outright prohibition, or government regulation.
Today's historians, however, have switched their attention from the world of politics and government to investigating how Canadians actually lived. As a result we have histories of childhood, disease, work, marriage, religion, leisure, even the hamburger -- and now beer.
The year 2001 saw the publication of Allen Smeath's encyclopedic Brewed in Canada. In 2003 the historian Craig Heron published his scholarly and highly readable Booze. In 2009, Nicholas Pashley issued his anecdotal Cheers!, followed a year later by Ian Coutts's Brew North. Beer, it seems, has finally won its place on the stage of history.
However, none of these books devotes much attention to Manitoba, a defect now remedied, at least in part, by the publication of 300 Years of Beer: An Illustrated History of Brewing in Manitoba, written by two Winnipeg beer enthusiasts who are well known in the world of breweriana, or the collecting of beer memorabilia, Bill Wright and Dave Craig.
They begin their story in 1668 when Capt. Zachariah Gillam of the Nonsuch organized his crew to brew a supply of beer to last them through a Hudson Bay winter.
They then turn to the production of beer in the Red River Colony and the creation of the many local breweries that sprang up in Manitoba from the 1870s onwards, leading to the emergence of such local brewing giants as E.L. Drewry, George Shea and the Pelissiers.
They devote a chapter to Manitoba's experiment with Prohibition and the brewers' response to it between 1916 and 1923 and its creation of a new world of government regulation of beer consumption and advertising, where the deliberately dull and depressing beer parlour replaced the rowdy and raucous saloon.
They then show how in the 1950s, Winnipeg's breweries linked up with such major Eastern firms as Labatt, Molson and Carling, who in the 1980s struck alliances with even bigger American firms, abandoning local brews but thereby creating an opening for the micro-beers we know today.
Reflecting its roots in the world of breweriana, this is a history of the rise and fall of Manitoba breweries and the men (this was very much a man's world) who owned and managed them, making only passing reference to the worlds of beer drinkers and the workers who made the beer industry possible. As its subtitle indicates, it is a history of brewing, not drinking, beer in Manitoba.
It is, however, none the worse for that. It fills a gap in Manitoba's history and does so in a way that is at once informative, instructive, often entertaining, and always highly readable.
It leaves the reader wanting to know more, but, regrettably, it contains no list of suggestions for further reading.
Its appeal is enormously enhanced by the profusion and skilful placement of the illustrations, many of them in colour, that both accompany the text and tell a story in their own right, often sparking unexpected trains of thought.
300 Years of Beer tells an interesting story that introduces us to a world most of us seldom think about. And enlarging our experience in this way is, after all, one of the rewards of history.
Still lamenting the disappearance of Shea's Select, Ken Osborne is professor emeritus at the faculty of education, University of Manitoba.