Barley, bootleggers and beer barons

Breweries have been a vital part of Winnipeg life since the time of the Red River Settlement


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Beer. It’s the drink of the masses, a beverage many from all walks of life enjoy.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 31/01/2021 (779 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Beer. It’s the drink of the masses, a beverage many from all walks of life enjoy.

Such has been the case around the world throughout the ages, and right here in Winnipeg for generations.

The craft-brewing scene in our city has exploded in recent years, and it’s undoubtedly a wonderful time to enjoy beer from here, as crafters produce styles for every taste and season.

Prohibition shift

During Prohibition, which in Manitoba began in 1916, many brewers shifted their operations, owing to their products becoming suddenly illegal to purchase (although there were numerous exceptions that allowed alcohol to be consumed for religious and medicinal purposes, with many doctors simply issuing “ale prescriptions” to anyone who asked).

During Prohibition, which in Manitoba began in 1916, many brewers shifted their operations, owing to their products becoming suddenly illegal to purchase (although there were numerous exceptions that allowed alcohol to be consumed for religious and medicinal purposes, with many doctors simply issuing “ale prescriptions” to anyone who asked).

Drewrys’ made Maltum and Hopum, two non-alcoholic beers. They were marketed to people of all ages, even nursing mothers. An ad in 300 Years of Beer reads “nursing mothers will find a daily glass or two of Maltum Stout of great benefit as it is a valuable blood making and strengthening tonic.”

On this matter, Wright and Craig note, “In the days before ‘truth in advertising,’ manufacturers could make claims about the health-giving properties of their beverages without regulation.”

Drewrys’ also began to bottle a line of Golden Key soft drinks — the most famous of which was its Drewrys’ Dry Ginger Ale.

McDonagh & Sheas, meanwhile, marketed their Near Beer with the help of their Clydesdales.

Empire Brewing Co. — which operated in Brandon between 1899 and 1931 — sold a “temperance beer” instead of its lager, stout, and English-style Empire Ale. Temperance beers exploited a loophole in Manitoba and Saskatchewan Prohibition regulations that stated beer containing two per cent alcohol or less was not considered an alcoholic beverage.

“Breweries were sometimes guilty of shipping carloads of temperance beer along with a few specially marked barrels of strong beer to prevent detection from government liquor inspectors,” Wright and Craig noted.

The American Temperance Brewery, located at 358 Flora St., also experimented with brewing fruit ciders, but lasted only a few years.

In June 1923, Manitoba voted to repeal Prohibition, and a new Government Liquor Commission, which imposed tight restrictions on the sale and possession of alcohol, was ushered in.

But the current generation of trendy taprooms and ’Peg-based brewers is far from the first to sell suds to the fine folk of the 204.

Brewing in these parts began with the Hudson’s Bay Co. The HBC had been providing beer as a provision for its employees since Zachariah Gillam — captain of the Nonsuch — first brought it to the Rupert House trading post in modern-day northern Quebec in September 1668.

Beer was brewed throughout Rupert’s Land thereafter, and by 1694, there were active post breweries in Fort Albany, Fort Severn, Moose Factory, Nelson House and Rupert House, Graham Stinnett wrote for the Manitoba Historical Society in 2014.

Beer was generally kept in house, though. It wasn’t popular among trading partners the way higher-alcohol spirits such as whiskey, rum and brandy were, and the costs of shipping raw ingredients for beer production to such remote areas were far greater than the costs of importing rum from the West Indies.

By the 1810s, the Red River Settlement began to take shape and in 1830, Lower Fort Garry was established. Beer began to flow there soon after.

In 1845, construction of a whiskey still, brewery and malting house began at Lower Fort Garry, mostly with the goal of providing potables to the British Royal First Warwickshire of Foot, a regiment stationed there to bolster British dominance in the settlement and ward off a potential invasion by the United States.

While HBC owned the only brewery, it wasn’t without competition.

Throughout the settlement there were also home brewers, whom the HBC and settlement officials disliked because it meant the loss of taxation and represented a threat to the monopoly they sought to create. A barley shortage hampered the new brewery’s early production and led to an uptick in sales for these unofficial purveyors.

The DIYers were tolerated as “the risk of an unsatisfied military detachment loomed larger,” Stinnett noted.

The HBC brewery eventually got up to speed. The Stone Fort, as it came to be called, became “a pinnacle of the craft during the fur trade and an icon of settlement life in Red River,” Stinnett wrote.

The Stone Fort operated until April 1880, when “demolition men set upon the structure with hammers, tearing down the smokestack, unearthing the plastered wood lath walls of the cellar and hauling the boil kettles and malt kiln out by horse cart.”

One of the home brewers who competed with the Stone Fort was Celestin (Whiskey) Thomas.

A bootlegger and agitator against local liquor laws, Thomas began brewing in 1859 out of his log-cabin home in St. Paul. “A trail running from St. Paul to the east side of Stony Mountain was widely known as the Whiskey Thomas Trail for his frequent deliveries of beer and liquor to the northern settlements,” Stinnett wrote. (The municipality of St. Paul did not split into East and West until 1915.)

Thomas was one of the first to make tracks to Winnipeg. In 1873, the year the city was incorporated, he opened the Winnipeg Brewery at the corner of Broadway and Colony Street.

At the time, there was a creek running through the area called Colony Creek, from which the brewery drew its water.

However, Thomas wasn’t the first in the area. James Spence, for whom the West End street is named, also operated a brewery on Colony Creek called the Burnell/Spence Brewery or the Maryland Brewery, between 1868 and 1873.

One early beer baron and city pioneer to arrive on the scene shortly after was Edward Lancaster Drewry (yes, that rhymes with “brewery,” so perhaps this is a case of nominative determinism).

The London-born Drewry travelled to Winnipeg by canoe from St. Paul, Minn., in 1875 at age 24. During his visit, he saw potential, despite his 1940 obituary reading that Winnipeg “was little else than a conglomeration of queerly constructed shacks” at the time.

In 1877, the energetic entrepreneur moved his family north and purchased the idle Hermchemer and Batkin Brewery at Redwood Avenue and Main Street, immediately expanding it and ramping up production to 20,000 barrels within a few years.

By April 1878, Drewry already had ads in the Free Press touting his extra porter, “brewed from the best malt and hops, especially for bottling, and highly recommended by physicians.”

Drewrys became popular across Western Canada and produced a number of different beers out of Winnipeg in the 60 years to follow, including a cream ale, a lager, a pilsner, an “American style” beer and Drewrys’ Standard Lager.

Yes. That Standard Lager.

Recognizing Winnipeggers’ famous frugality, Drewrys was marketed as an affordable offering. Take, for example, a Free Press ad from April 1915, which touted Drewrys’ American style, as an option this “is better and costs less”; the net cost of a dozen pints was just $1 if you bought two cases for $3 and returned the bottles.

A 1924 Free Press feature on “the model kitchen” literally waxed poetic about Drewry’s offerings:

“Of all the drinks worth drinking, Drewrys is the best/it adds a zest to every meal, a drink of the golden west/it’s sparkling, pure and beautiful, you can’t go wrong, don’t fear/so order a case sent to your place/in your home use Drewrys beer.”

Drewry himself was an engaged citizen with “unbounded faith” in the city.

In the early years of his brewery, it was well north of city limits. According to the book 300 Years of Beer: An Illustrated History of Brewing in Manitoba by Bill Wright and David Craig, he declared: “If Winnipeg grows to the extent I believe it will, my location will be handy enough. If the town doesn’t grow, then I might as well be out of the way as in it for my business will be a failure anyway.”

He was also an advocate of buying local. All Drewrys bottles came from the Manitoba Glass Co. in Beausejour.

He was a member of Winnipeg city council from 1883 to 1884, the Conservative MLA for North Winnipeg from 1886 to 1889, and was the first chairman of the parks board from 1894 to 1899. He was also a member of the board of the Winnipeg General Hospital for 40 years.

He expanded his brewing empire to the U.S. in the 1930s — purchasing breweries in Evansville and South Bend, Ind. — and the Winnipeg plant closed in 1940, having been sold to the Great Western Brewing Co.

Drewry died the same year, on Nov. 2.

“No man was more closely associated with the whole growth and progress of Winnipeg… than Mr. E.L. Drewry,” read an article in the Free Press after his death. “He was a genial and popular citizen, deserving the respect in which he was so widely held… quietly and unostentatiously he played a very worthy part in this community.”

In the U.S., Drewrys lived on until 1972, and there was an attempted revival by a Chicago-based entrepreneur in 2013.

While Drewrys enjoyed longevity, many other breweries were short-lived. These include but are not limited to the Elmwood Brewery (1904-1905), Lyonne Bros. (1905-1907), Imperial Brewery (1907-1908), the Crown Brewery (1908-1910) and the Blitz Brewery (1910-1911).

Drewrys used horse-drawn wagons to make its deliveries, as did McDonagh & Shea Brewing, founded by Irish expats John McDonagh and Patrick Shea.

Shea, born in County Kerry, arrived in Manitoba in March 1882, a few years after Drewry. He had previously spent 12 years in the U.S. overseeing railway construction.

Upon his arrival, he turned his attention to the hospitality industry. He and McDonagh operated the Waverley Hotel at the northeast corner of Main Street and Higgins Avenue, which became a popular rough-and-tumble watering hole among Canadian Pacific Railway workers. (It was eventually demolished to make way for the Royal Alexandra Hotel.)

“With the burden of owning a busy hotel and saloon, perhaps the two young men realized the real money lay in making beer instead of selling it,” Wright and Craig wrote.

This realization challenged Drewry’s dominance.

Three years later, McDonagh and Shea acquired “Whiskey” Thomas’s Winnipeg Brewery for $16,000. While the pair rebranded the brewery as McDonagh & Shea, Thomas relocated to Pembina, N.D., and opened the Pembina Brewing Co., which operated until Prohibition took hold in the U.S.

McDonagh died in 1893, but Shea kept the business going under the same moniker. It became known as Shea’s Winnipeg Brewery Ltd., or simply Shea’s, in 1926 when it had to be reincorporated owing to the province’s new liquor production rules.

Shea continually expanded his operations and his beers could be found in Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. His true strength, though, was getting hotel owners to serve his quaff.

“Brand loyalty was created by using discount incentives or even going so far as to holding the hotel mortgage,” Wright and Craig wrote. “By 1916, McDonagh and Shea’s was considered to be one of the largest breweries on the Prairies.”

By the mid-1920s, Shea — known affectionately as “Papa Shea” by his employees — was wealthy and well respected like Drewry.

“Public spirited, he never hesitated to support a worthy cause that benefited the community and his acts of kindness and generosity were countless,” Wright and Craig wrote.

You know the Budweiser Clydesdales? They were sold to Anheuser-Busch by Patrick Shea himself.

Shea was an active Clydesdale breeder and his eight-horse team became a powerful branding tool. His heavy draft horses won prize after prize on the western show circuit, and at shows in Minneapolis and Chicago, too.

They eventually caught the eye of August Busch Jr., who purchased Shea’s team for $31,000. Budweiser debuted “its” Clydesdales in St. Louis, Mo., on April 7, 1933, to celebrate the end of U.S. Prohibition.

Shea died that same year after an illness. Beer parlours stayed closed until 1 p.m. on the day of his funeral in tribute.

Twenty years later, Labatt purchased a 91 per cent stake in Shea’s for $9 million. By then, more than 50 per cent of shares were owned by the General and Misericordia hospitals.

Some explanation is necessary. Frank Shea — Patrick’s son, who died at age 44, just three months after his father — had transferred his stake in the company to his wife, Ethel. When Ethel died in 1952, she bequeathed her $2.5 million in shares to the two hospitals. “Each hospital ended up making over $1 million in the sale. The General Hospital put its funds toward the construction of a new Children’s Hospital in 1956, while Misericordia put its money toward the construction of its Cornish Wing in 1957,” Winnipeg history buff Christian Cassidy noted in his blog, West End Dumplings.

The Shea name disappeared in 1958 when the company was renamed Labatt’s Manitoba Brewing Ltd. The Broadway and Colony location operated until 1979, when it was closed and torn down. Beer had been brewed there for more than 100 years.

Unfortunately, there just isn’t time to cover in detail all the brewers whose beers were refreshing accoutrements to Winnipeg life, such as Mulvey Avenue’s Pelissier’s, St. Joseph Street’s Kiewel’s, or Stadacona Street’s Edelweiss and Riedle Breweries.

Each of those could warrant a feature of its own, as could the rise of macro-brewers Carling/O’Keefe, Molson and Labatt from the 1950s onward. Wright and Craig call this the “Eastern Invasion,” facilitated by a steady rise in home beer consumption post Second World War.

It wasn’t until provincial legislations were relaxed in 2016 to allow craft brewers to serve their offerings on site without having a restaurant that Winnipeg’s new generation of beer barons and baronesses began to burgeon.

These entrepreneurs aren’t so different than those who came before. Their taprooms are tucked throughout the city, just like breweries of Winnipeg’s early years. They use different tools — Instagram, clever can designs, merch lines — than their predecessors to market themselves, but have similarly made their offerings synonymous with city life. Their influence outweighs the modest buildings from which they ply their trade.

They don’t have Clydesdales like Shea, a big brewery on the river like Drewry, or the backing of a giant corporation like the HBC’s Stone Fort. But they do have the same spirit of the figures before them and the same goal: to provide top-notch tipples — that drink of the masses — to thirsty Winnipeggers.


Updated on Sunday, January 31, 2021 8:28 PM CST: Fixes typo in Royal Alexandra Hotel's name.

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