Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A thirst for beer

Authors chronicle Manitoba's rich history with brewing

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Explorers who settled this barren, unforgiving, frozen land had priorities. You know, for survival and all.

First, find the place. Second, build shelter.

And, third, start brewing some beers.

OK, so maybe they had to kill some wild animals for food. But it's curious to note how high homemade ale was on the agenda.

It's all spelled (or spilled) out in 300 Years of Beer, a detailed and richly illustrated history of brewing in Manitoba (Great Plains Publications), authored by two Winnipeggers who painstakingly sifted through centuries of archives to serve up an everything-you've-ever-wanted-to-know-about-beer collection abetted by, well, folks who know a great deal about beer.


Beginning with Chapter One: The Original Microbreweries, which cites that brewing began in Manitoba not only before there was a Manitoba, but before there was even a Hudson's Bay Company.

Fun fact: In 1668, when Captain Zachariah Gilliam pulled into Hudson Bay on the Nonsuch, on board was an official brewmaster. The expedition founded Port Rupert. They cleared some land, built a house and stockade. Then started brewing. (Note: The stockade was built before the beer was made. In 1668, that's called "planning ahead.")

"Beer was a staple of life, right?" said Bill Wright, who co-authored the 200-page coffee-table book along with drinking buddy Dave Craig. "It was important to them."

Indeed, 300 Years of Beer serves as a window into the history of a province and its capital, which in the late 1880s was emerging as the country's third largest city. And the priorities of the Nonsuch were readily apparent in the ancestors who followed.

In the 1880s, according to the book, Main Street's "reputation for decadence was infamous." There were 86 hotels, many with saloons. There were 15 wine and liquor stores open 24 hours a day on Main Street alone. Another 64 grocery stores sold liquor by the bottle.

And between 1904 and 1910, no less than eight breweries opened in Winnipeg, which certainly wasn't unique to the times.

"Across Canada there were hundreds of breweries," Wright noted, "and they all had their own individual character to them."

The book includes snippets from almost every brewery of note founded in Manitoba dating back to the 1850s in distilled form, just a hint at the countless hours of research that Craig, 75, began on his own in 1980.

Long before that, however, Craig said he "discovered" beer as a 17-year-old while sipping on stubbies at the cottage. He and his buddies would take labels that had sweated off the bottles and stick them on the cabin wall. By the end of the summer, they had 50 different labels.

The hunt was afoot. Over the winter, Craig set out to track down and acquire as many beer labels as he could -- and the world was his oyster. One of Craig's first order of business was to mail the German embassy in Ottawa for information on all that country's breweries. "Postage was five cents back then," he said.

By the next summer, Craig had accumulated more than 2,000 labels.

That was only the beginning. Through his archival and garage sale journeys, Craig met more collect-oholics, who together founded the Great White North Brewerianists. "It just grew," he said.

The local chapter swelled to more than three-dozen, and they began to publish their own newsletter. Craig began submitting articles of various local brewers based on his tireless research. Wright, meanwhile, has spent the last 35 years working as a beer distributor.

Then Bill met Dave. Five years of research and writing later, 300 Years of Beer was complete.

The co-authors' effort was bolstered by the treasure trove of collections -- both from previous beer historians and brewerianists -- that not only help weave the narrative but illustrate the book.

"It really hadn't been fully told before," Wright said, of the story of Manitoba's beer industry. "There were pieces here and there. I thought with the collection of what the guys had from the club and what Dave had done we could finally tell the full story, with a lot of really cool pictures.

"It would appeal not only to the people interested in beer, but history buffs in general."

After all, the boom in the Manitoba beer industry mirrored the turn-of-the-century promise of what was then Canada's third largest city. There's the rise of both prohibition and, later, the arrival of women into Manitoba's bar rooms -- which were historically dreary watering holes void of any form of entertainment.

Readers might be surprised to learn that Winnipeg had its own versions of U.S. beer barons such as Adolphus Busch and Fredrick Miller in E.L. Drewry and Patrick O'Shea, immigrants from Wales and Ireland, respectively, whose families dominated the Winnipeg brewery and bottling business for decades.

"How many people have heard of some of these brewery owners?" Wright asked. "I mean, Edward Drewry was a really important businessman. He was a politician and pioneer of the city. But really nobody knows the guy. You've heard of people like Bannatyne and Ashdown because they have streets named after them. But E.J. Drewry kind of fell to the wayside."

Meanwhile, O'Shea's legacy on the North American beer landscape remains to this day, as the book details how Patrick O'Shea's championship Clydesdales were purchased -- trainer and all -- by Anheuser-Busch in 1932, the year prohibition ended in the United States. In 1933, the Budweiser Clydesdales galloped into American advertising lore.

The book travels through time to the present day -- the rise and fall of the major breweries, Carling, Molson and Labatt to the last two standing: Fort Garry/Two Rivers and Half Pints.

Not exactly a happy ending, Wright agrees. But...

"Things change," he allowed. "Nothing every stays the same. "Unfortunately, they were a big part of our economy early on and they had been for many, many years. I would say we lost a little bit of our individuality, our local flavour. There was a certain amount of pride to go into a bar and order a beer that -- like in the St. Boniface Hotel you could go in and get a beer made across the street."

All the more reason, according to Wright and Craig, to document a history that never seems to go flat.

"If I had decided to do a book about bakeries it just wouldn't be the same," Wright concluded. "There's just something about beer."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 27, 2013 A1

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