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History and Influence of Beer in Canada


Justin Van Wagoner

Beer is a popular and nutritious beverage that has influenced the economic development of communities, both large and small, saved lives, and become a cultural symbol. Thus, beer has played an important role in the historical development of Canada.

Today the Canadian brewery industry is a large industry of 24 conventional breweries and 54 microbreweries. However, in the 1800s there were nearly 200 small breweries that were an integral part of their local communities. Interestingly, there has been a resurgence of microbreweries in the last decade. The beer industry currently employs about 16 790 people who work directly for beer companies, and an estimated 130 000 people work in jobs that depend on the beer industry. While this is only about 1.3% of Canada’s active labor force, it feeds a thirsty country that annually consumer about 90 liters of beer per person over 19 years old.

Beer is deeply rooted in the history of Canada. For example, in 1535 Jacques Cartier and his men were staying near Stadacona. They became sick and all would have died of scurvy if the natives had not shown them how to brew spruce beer that cured the disease.

Canada’s commercial beer industry began with the arrival of the first settlers. Europeans preferred not to drink water, because the water in Europe was, if not poisonous, undrinkable. Their substitute for water was beer and other fermented beverages. As the New World became more developed numerous small breweries began to emerge, serving mostly local communities. By the mid 1800’s there were nearly 200 Canadian breweries which played a vital role in their communities and brought Canadians closer together during social gatherings. The local breweries employed many people, and the profits from the brewery often helped development in the town. For example, when John Molson’s brewery became a success the profits he made funded a railway and a steamship business, which employed many. Eventually transportation became faster and the number of breweries declined to it’s present number of 24 conventional breweries, and 54 microbreweries. It has become less common for Canadians to go out and drink the local beer, brewed by a friend, or the pub they are drinking at. In the "old days" Canadians usually drank the same beer everyone in their locality drank. Canadians today can go out and choose from a broad selection of beers, mostly supplied by large national corporations that focus on selling a brand name, not a great tasting quality beer.

The years between 1915 and 1934 brought success to some breweries and demise to others. With prohibition in the United States between 1920 and 1933, as well as multiple provincial prohibitions in Canada, the number of Canadian breweries dropped from 112 in 1915 to 66 by 1935. On January 17, 1920, the 18th Amendment, or Volstead Act, went into effect. The United States was now "dry". This promoted a boon for Canadian brewers, which started widespread rum-running. As various Canadian provinces declared "dry years" the number of breweries began to shrink. Only the big breweries survived either by rum-running or by selling malt food products to stay in business. By the end of the Prohibitions, around 1934 in Canada, instead of the hundreds of small breweries which once dominated the Canadian beer industry, only a few large breweries remained. The large breweries took advantage of the demise of local breweries to exploit a void in the market. This, along with improved transportation, provided by the railroad and as the rise of the trucking industry make it possible for large centralized companies to dominate the beer industry.

Alexander Keith and John Molson are some of the more famous early Canadian brewers. Keith came to Canada from Halkirk, Scotland and bought Charles Boggs’ brewery, located in Halifax, in 1820. Keith’s beer soon became very popular in Nova Scotia, and after 175 years Alexander Keith’s beer is still one of the best selling maritime beers. In fact, many Nova Scotian beer drinkers won’t drink anything but Keith’s hence the saying, "Those who like it, Like it a lot."

John Molson, born in 1763, immigrated to Canada in 1782 and bought a small brewery. Molson developed this small operation into a major Canadian brewery, which led to his tremendous fame and wealth. Molson became a very influential man in Canada, well known for his beer, and his many business ventures. Using the profits from his brewery Molson funded Canada’s first railway, the Chaplain and St. Lawrence Railroad. This small track of railroad ran 23km between the St. Lawrence and Richelieu rivers, and was the first step in building a united country. Molson also used the profits from his beer to build the first successful steamship made entirely in Canada. Molson went on to build a fleet of 22 ships. One of these ships became the first steamship used in conduct of war.

John Molson also became the president of the bank of Montreal in 1828, and served in the House of Assembly from 1816-1820. In 1832 Molson was appointed to Legislative Council. His sons, also benefiting from the profits of Molson brewery, founded the Molsons Bank in 1854. All this grew from the lucrative Canadian beer industry. None of it would have been possible of Canadians didn’t have an incredible thirst for beer and celebrations.

As the years went by, the railroad was built and transportation became more efficient and less expensive. This enabled breweries to ship beer across the country for a low price. With advanced transportation and increased market, the quality and strength of beer began to decline in order to satisfy a broader range of people. Unable to compete with national beer companies, the microbreweries were not able to regain a foothold in the industry after prohibition. More recently, however, people began to miss quality craft beer and the old time local brewpubs where they could spend a Friday night and drink a high quality local beer. Microbreweries are responding to this demand. During the last decade the number of microbreweries in Canada rose from 26 in 1988 to 54 in 1998, and the number of conventional breweries declined from 37 to 24.

Paddy’s Pub, in Kentville, Nova Scotia, opened in the spring of 1995 responding to the demand for better beer. It was designed by Randy Lawrence who also does the brewing, and grows his own hops on his farm in Sheffield Mills, NS. Paddy’s makes a variety of beers, which are sold year round, as well as seasonal specialties, such as Honey Wheat Beer. During apple season, Paddy’s produces cider. Paddy’s has been quite successful and has trouble keeping up with the rising demand.

The Maritime Beer Company is a microbrewery specializing in craft beer. The brewery is located in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, and targets a larger market than a brewpub like Paddy’s. The Maritime Beer Company’s goal is to attract mainstream beer drinkers and take them away from the low quality commercial beer, yet still supply quality "craft beer". Their beer is brewed with only malt, hops, yeast and water, in an age when brewing with additives and preservatives is cheaper and more efficient. The brewery produces a variety of craft beers under the guidance of the beer master, Kirk Annand. These beers have become quite popular in Nova Scotia. It has, however, been a struggle for the Maritime Company to compete with Molson’s and Keith’s.

Canada has acquired a reputation as being a nation of beer drinkers, and perhaps this is not far from the truth. Every year Canadians consume approximately 90L of beer per capita over 19 years old. In fact, beer is the most heavily consumed alcoholic beverage in Canada The runner up, wine has a it’s per capita consumption of only 11.82L.

In Canada, beer has become more than an alcoholic beverage. It is a part of our history, our economy, and a symbol of our cultural identity. Surely Canadian history would have unfolded differently if Jacques Cartier and his men died in 1535. But they did not die, they were survived by beer. Canada was united by a railway, which started from the profits of Molson’s brewery. A fleet of steamships was built from the profits of beer, including the first steamship used in war. Communities have been built around successful breweries, giving citizens employment, a product to be proud of, and to celebrate with. Beer has also become a national symbol for Canada, we have acquired a reputation for producing and exporting great beer, and of course drinking a lot of it.



"Alexander Keith’s".

Brewers Association of Canada, Annual Statistics Bulletin, 1998.

"Brewers Association of Canada".


"Molson, John" Junior Encyclopedia of Canada. 1990. Page 226

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Tannahill, Reay. Food in History. Stein and Day Publishers, New York. 1973.

Wood, Sean. "Brewing up a Storm." Sunday Herald. Aug 9, 1998.


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