That Time In 1986 When Mr. Jackson Came To Albany

This is an interesting notice in the October 31, 1986 edition of the Times Union from Albany, New York under the heading “Newman’s Brews Beer Tasting”:

English beer authority Michael Jackson will visit Albany Nov. 4 to conduct “The Quintessential Beer Tasting,” at 8 p.m. at the Century House in Latham. The international beer tasting, sponsored by Albany’s Newman Brewing Company, will be open to the public. Jackson, known as “The Bard of Beer” and author of “The World Guide to Beer,” has been called the world’s best authority on beer. He has led beer tastings at Harrods in London and the Pierre Hotel in New York City. For the Albany show, he will lead a guided tour through a selection of 13 international beers. Tickets at $6 per person are available through Newman’s Brewery at 465- 8501 and at the door.

What is really fun about the item is that a few days later, on 5 November 1986, a report on the event written by Fred LeBrun was published in the same paper under the headline “Beer Guru Salutes Newman’s” which I need to reproduce in full to properly undertake a review of the implications:

The real Michael Jackson came to Albany yesterday. Downtown was snoring because it was Election Day, so he did what he frequently does when he’s on the road anyway. He had a well-thought-out Newman’s Albany Amber Ale at Ogden’s. Now Ogden’s, a reasonably serious restaurant, is not a bistro that would first come to mind for a casual beer. But then the real Michael Jackson is not a casual beer drinker.

It should be noted about here that this real Michael Jackson rarely sleeps in an oxygen tent, at least by choice, nor is he likely to be caught fondling a Pepsi. He did wear a sequined glove for a while as a goof, but grew tired of it in a couple of hours. This real Michael Jackson is 44, bearded, a touch pudgy, tweedy and scholarly, wears glasses and speaks with a pleasant, all-purpose British accent. He is also the world’s most respected authority on beer. His “The World Guide to Beer” of a decade ago is still the definitive text on the subject, and his newly published “Simon and Schuster Pocket Guide to Beer” will do still more to educate a world awakening to the great variety and styles of beers and ales available, using much the same critical language in the past reserved for fine wines. From Adelaide to Nairobi to Anchor Steam country out in San Francisco, wherever beer and ale is brewed, this Michael Jackson is The Word.

He was in Albany on a pilgrimage of sorts, paying respects to one of his favorite American alemakers, William Newman, and sampling a fresh batch of Newman’s Winter Ale, due out for the general public in a couple of weeks. A few months ago, when Jackson was interviewed by the Chicago Sun-Times, he listed Newman’s Winter Ale as one of his five favorite American beers. Anchor Steam, for the record, remains his favorite.

For Albany, in its Tricentenniel year, Jackson’s visit offers a double dose of irony. Albany, and the Capital District in general, was once a brewing center of the United States, according to Jackson, along with Philadelphia. At one time, there were breweries in practically every Albany neighborhood, brewing a variety of styles – 18 at one point. But when the Newmans, William and Marie, opened their microbrewery five years ago exactly, there wasn’t a single brewery left in town. Schaefer, the last major brewery, was newly gone, and shortly before that Hedrick’s, owned by Albany County Democratic Chairman Dan O’Connell, and Fitzgerald across the river.

Yet in the five years since, the Newmans has struggled mightily to carve out a steady little market for itself with deep, full-flavored, hoppy ales sold in kegs and jury-rigged take- home containers. They have fought against the biggies, which in this market is Genesee, and Miller, and the ever-present Budweiser, and recently a hot run by Stroh’s. They have eked out standing in this crowd. Now Albany Amber Beer is available in bottles, created to Bill Newman’s fussy specs by the Schmidt’s Brewery in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, the active center of new breweries in America has moved to the West Coast, notably Oregon and Washington State.

Out there, the Newmans are positively venerated, idolized, for what they’ve done. They were the first on the East Coast to create a new-style baby brewery offering traditional beers and ales of great character. Now there’s Samuel Adams in Boston, and New Amsterdam and Royal Amber in New York and dozens more. “Newman’s has never had the credit it deserves,” writes Jackson in his newest guide. “Its misfortune is to be in Albany, which may be the state capital but is an unimaginable distance – about 140 miles – from downtown Manhattan.” Prophets in their own land.

Jackson strongly recommended making the trek up the Hudson to sample draft Newman’s, much better than the bottled stuff. Good news for Jackson’s next book, as far as the Newmans are concerned, was his delight with the soon- to-be-released Winter Ale, an ale Bill Newman varies each time it comes out. “It has a very rich aroma, with a lot of fruitiness to the palate,” Jackson said Tuesday, referring to a little notebook he always keeps with him. The Word has spoken.

Craig mentioned a Jackson visit in our 2014 book, Upper Hudson Valley Beer. A photo caption states that Michael Jackson, in the middle sporting his Jeff Lynne lid, said on a 1985 visit: [i]f Newman succeeds in his heroic venture, he will undoubtedly inspire many others.” Newman is the guy in the necktie. As we told the tale, Newman spent three months in 1979 under the tutelage of the father of the British independent brewery movement, Peter Austin, at his Ringwood Brewery in Hampshire England. With Austin, Newman received a crash-course in all things brewing, and toured many of the countries breweries—both big and small. He returned to Albany with plans for his own version of Austin’s 10-barrel, open fermenting brewing system and, within a year, was brewing Newman’s Albany Amber as the 1980s were hitting their stride. 

Look what the LeBrun article notes. Jackson knew in the mid-80s that Albany had been one of the great brewing centres. As Craig has learned, that was forgotten history locally.  And Newman’s wasn’t just early, it was good if Jackson’s word the Winter Ale was worth anything. There is an implication that the west coast had passed an earlier east coast prominence in micro brewing – not part of the triumphalism of today but, as we know, history gets forgotten. And Newman was considered their forebearer.

In December 2015, Gary wrote about his own trips in the 1980s from Montreal south to visit Newman’s. It makes for a great companion piece. It was all over soon. On 15 August 1987, it was reported in the Knickerbocker News that Newman’s had filed for bankruptcy and, while it would live on as a contract brewed beer for a few more years, the brewing era was over.

Imperial, Yes, But Cream Ale Was Also Light As Well As…

The more I get into the records referencing cream in 1800s New York brewing, the more obvious it is that the term was pervasive. It illustrates excellently, as a result, how branding existed independent of those claims to copyright we suffer from today. In law, there is an excellent and better word for such stuff that applies as much now as then – puffery. Claims made as to quality that are never ever really expected to be challenged. Look at that ad from the Jewish Daily News of 30 November 1916 again. Imperial Cream Ale. Is that the same as the Imperial Cream Ale of the Taylors of Albany from the early 1830s to the late 1860s? Or is the cream just a puff?

That image to the upper right? It’s a part of a column in the Plattsburg Republican from 21 August 1858 entitled “Items: or Crumbs for all kinds of
Chickens.” Is that puffery? Seems a bit more than that. Cream beer is being lumped into a class: non-intoxicating drinks. Sounds like a bit of a vague concept but at the same time the courts in New York State were struggling with the same term as it related to lager and the wider issues related to acceptance of the German immigrant wave in the middle third of the 1800s.

The book De Witt’s Connecticut Cook Book, and Housekeeper’s Assistant from 1871 includes these two recipes, one after the other, on page 100. The first for “common beer” has yeast added, the second, for “cream beer” doesn’t. Is “cream” then code for no alcohol? When I was a kid out east in Nova Scotia, one of my favourite things was cream soda. There were two types as I recall. Pink or clear. Pink was like drinking candy floss. Clear was like drinking candy floss… but was not pink. I hated pink cream soda. I was a clear cream soda man. Crush, if you have it… but only in Canada. Pop… soda… soda pop… was a class of soft drink that morphed out of beer. In the 1850s you could speak of California Pop Beer. In the 1830s you could speak of the Lemon Beer of Schenectady. In the excellent short book Soft Drinks – Their Origins and History by Colin Emmins, small beer is described as a progenitor of British soft drinks along with spa waters, syrupy uncarbonated cordials and that favourite of George III, plain barley water. [Continuum. Perhaps continua.] Consider the simple lemon…

The earliest English reference to lemonade dates from the publication in 1663 of The Parson’s Wedding, described by a friend of Samuel Pepys as ‘an obscene, loose play’, which had been first performed some years earlier. The drink seems to have come to England from Italy via France. Such lemonade was made from freshly squeezed lemons, sweetened with sugar or honey and diluted with water to make a still soft drink. 

It appears that 1660s lemonade plus small beer could be a cause of that fancy 1830s upstate NY lemon beer. Could be. There would be other intermediaries and antecedents. Think of how the sulfurous spas of Staffordshire in the late 1600s, saw the invention a drink introduced the local hard to swallow spa water into their beer brewing. Is this how it works? Isn’t that how life works?

When you consider all that, I am brought back to how looking at beer through the lens of “style” ties language to technique a bit too tightly for my comfort. The stylist might suggest that in 1860, this brewery brewed an XX ale and in 1875 that brewery brewed an XX ale so they must be some way some how the same thing. I would quibble in two ways. Fifteen years is a long time in the conceptual instability of beer and, even if the two beers were contemporaries, a key point for each brewery was differentiation. The beers would not be the same even if they were similar.

Layered upon this is the fact that “style” is an idea really fixed somewhere in the 1980s after Jackson’s original expression which was altered in the years that followed. The resulting implications are important given how one must obey chronology. This means if (i) Jackson’s 1970s “classics and cloning” idea didn’t last more than ten years until (ii) the more familiar “corner to corner classification” concept comes into being then the application of “style” to brewing prior to the 1970s (if not 1990) is also a challenging if not wonky practice. Brewers brew to contemporary conventions even though they are but points in a fluid continuum. You can’t conform to an idea that doesn’t yet exist.

All About Beer published the article “How Cream Ale Rose: The Birth of Genesee’s Signature” by Tom Acitelli on 17 August 2015 which, as we can see above, contains an origins narrative for cream ale which (though very condensed so somewhat unfair to parse) is now really not all that sustainable:

Cream ale is one of the very few beer styles born and raised in the United States. Predating Prohibition, the style grew up as a response to the pilsners flooding the market via immigrant brewers from Central Europe. Cream ales were generally made with adjuncts such as corn and rice to lighten the body of what would otherwise end up as a thicker ale; brewers also fermented and aged them at temperatures cooler than normal for ales.

I think I am good until to the word “the” in the second sentence after the comma. If style can be applied to the concept at all, cream ales at best probably represented styles. They were not a response to pilsners as they predate Gillig and were in mass production happily in their own right though the mid- and latter 1800s. They became made with “adjuncts such as corn and rice to lighten the body” but so did ales as our recreation of Amdell’s 1901 Albany XX Ale illustrated. The last sentence may well be fine.

BUT! – now notice the gem of a wee factual trail actually setting out as the specific origin of Genesee Cream Ale as related to Acitelli:

His father and grandfather, a German immigrant, had been brewers in Belleville, Illinois, about 15 miles southeast of St. Louis. Bootleggers had approached his father, in fact, about brewing during Prohibition, but he demurred. Clarence Geminn himself was completely dedicated to the craft, according to his son, a fourth-generation brewer. “Saturday and Sunday he would go into check on things,” Gary Geminn told AAB from his home in Naples, New York. “Summer picnics had to wait until the afternoon; any outing had to wait.” As for the exact formula behind his father’s most enduring beer, no one’s talking—obviously not the brewery itself, nor did the beer’s progenitor.

Mid-west Germans? Now that starts sounding more like the parallel universe of cream beer than cream ale. Does its DNA include Germans moving to Pennsylvania in the 1700s, then on inland into Kentucky in the early 1800s then into the Mid-West later that century only to back track to upstate NY by the mid-1900s? Can we draw that line? Either to connect or perhaps delineate? Maybe we need to be prepared to do both if we are seeking to understand events prior to the point of conceptual homogeneity that is achieved with the crystallization of style when MJ meets what becomes the BA.

As for cream? It’s a lovely word. So many meanings. So many useful applications. So many more leads to follow.

Cream Ale, Cream Beer And Creamy Goodness

This ad in the Jewish Daily News of 30 November 1916 published out of New York has my wee brain spinning – and not only due to the works I can read and those I cannot read. I am starting to think “creamis a nugget of a folk tale, an indigenous memory that keeps appearing generation after generation from, as Gary proposed, the later 1700s to today in the northeastern US for no other reason than its useful pleasantness.

Gotta think about this.

The Business Case Study Of My Late 1980s

I do not often let out a squeal of giggly delight but I did last evening when I came across this university course business case study from 1995 entitled “Peddler’s Pub and JJ Rossy’s Ltd.” It was written by Professor Jeremy Hall of Saint Mary’s University for the Acadia Institute Of Case Studies and sets out a description of the downtown pub scene from my hometown of Halifax in the years when I was in my mid to later 20s. It lines up well with two early posts of mine for The Session but has masses of detail on the business side of the taverns and bars I knew as second homes. I came across the document when Norm, the Boston Beer Nut, and I were a’tweeting and I was making the case that there is a forgotten phenomenon from the early micro era – the “beers of the world” bar / pub / tavern. The Hall study mentions the principle establishment of this sort in Halifax, the still operating Maxwell’s Plum:

“Nobody is focusing as much as we are.” According to co-owner-operator Scott Little, Maxwell’s Plum had the largest selection of single malt scotch and imported beer in Metro: 21 single malts, three blends, one Irish whisky, five imported draft and dozens of imported bottled beer. Importing so much does have its drawbacks, especially cash drain, as payment was due before delivery for special orders through the NSLC.

The atmosphere of the bar could be best described as traditional – the focus was on a large, well stocked bar with dark hardwood fixtures. Most of the time management played low volume music from a selection of 200 CDs and live jazz on Sundays, without a cover charge. “We want people to be able to talk to each other and be comfortable” (S. Little).

I remember, vaguely, being in a beers of the world bar in Paris in early 1986 and also seem to recall a few years earlier that our undergrad bar having beers of the world nights where you had a passport that was ticked as you bought your syrupy black McEwan’s Export or a thin glassed bottle of Dortmunder Union. Chris Begley reports that there was a place like this in Vancouver called “Fogg n Sudds” about the same time. A version seems to still exist connected to an airport hotel. Calgary seems to have had its own Bottlescrew Bill’s since 1985.

The Hall study has a number of other tidbits of information that frame the downtown scene, starting with this map. I kid myself that I could sketch this blind folded in a isolation tank but most of the locations pop back to mind immediately. The map also illustrates the general university student flow from southwest to north east, the march many evenings being from Your Father’s Mustache to the Lower Deck. And there is a concise description of what “draft” was:

Draft beer could be purchased from the two local breweries, Moosehead or Oland’s (a division of Labatts), and was generally the least expensive form of alcohol. Draft beer was allowed under all categories of licenses. Draft came from the same vats as bottled beer, but did not go through a pasteurization process, and therefore had a short shelf life.

When I started my Halifax pub life, this fresh tasty pale ale was ordered in pairs of eight ounce glasses but by the mid-80s that was being replaced by the 20 ounce imperial pint. I think this might have been started by the opening in 1986 of the Thirsty Duck which had the first keg Guinness in town. The days of the “draft wars” are also fondly recalled. I remember one place that had a horrible business plan based on Monday selling 29 cent draft, Tuesday 39 cent draft, etc. Lasted only a few glorious months.

One thing the report illustrates is how the narrative that micros changed everything is a bit of a fib. There was a bit of that. We certainly could buy New Brunswick’s Hans Haus lager in the stores or go have a Peculiar at the embryonic Granite Brewery, then housed in one half of the early rougher incarnation of Ginger’s on Hollis Street.  They did not, however, set the scene. While society generally has enjoyed a great diversification in all sorts of consumables over the last 30 or 40 years, the drinking experience was still laced with the perception of variety that included, well before micros became popular, a variety of imported beer choices. I’d be interested in learning how many other places like Maxwell’s Plum were out there in other communities but my inclination is to consider imports opened or at least eased the entry to the market for micros.

Are Canada Red Vine Hops… Canadian?

The other night I had my nose deep into a bag of Canada Red Vine hops, a variety revived in Tavistock, Ontario.  The scene was Folly Brewpub in Toronto and the bag was care of Jordan who had picked it up at The Tavistock Hop Company. The fact that some of the bag of hops exists at all is pretty neato as this news item explains.

Wynette dug up some rootstalks, called rhizomes, on the banks of the Speed River. He grew a new generation of plants on his farm in Tavistock. He took cuttings from those plants, and soon had enough for a small crop. “So now in Tavistock we grow these same hops cloned off 100-plus-year-old plants,” Wynette said. Based on a chemical analysis of the plant, Wynette believes he cloned a type of hops called Canadian Red Vine.

My nose was pleased but my mind was racing. I had heard of this reintroduction a few days before and had asked Stan about it. His tweet in reply was succinct: “Grown in US NW into the 1970s. Origin of name unknown.” Hmm. I don’t like unknown. Someone once told me that the history James Pritchard, Loyalist, was unknown. Nope.

So, being that way, I started to look around and found this reference in the Documents of the Senate of the, 139th Session, 1916 which, as you know, contains the 34th Annual Report of the New York Agricultural Experiment Station located at Geneva, Ontario County. The 34th year was 1915. I found this in a passage about mildew:

That there are other influences which affect the growth of the mildew is very apparent. Yards near enough together to be equally affected by periods of wet weather frequently show great differences in severity of mildew attacks though new spots may appear in both at the same time. Different varieties and even different leaves on the same plant vary in susceptibility. Named in order of susceptibility beginning with the most susceptible, the New York varieties would be arranged as follows: Canada red vine, English cluster, Humphrey and native red vine. No serious injury has been noticed, so far, on the native red vine variety though planted near badly infested yards and, in some instances, scattered through yards of a susceptible variety. It is said to be a light yielder, however.

Not a lot of references to Canada Red Vine out there on the internets and this one describes it as a New York Variety. Things get a bit weird in terms of naming conventions around the east end of Lake Ontario. Notice above there that Geneva, New York is located in Ontario County. In 2009, I wrote about running into a pal at a gas station north of Utica. It was right where route 12 meets route 28 – near West Canada Creek, NY. Country well known by Sir William Johnson in the 1750s and well known to his son Sir John Johnson in the 1770s and 1780s during the American Revolution as a Loyalist military force escape route back north. It was called that because it was the way to Canada… aka New France… aka Quebec.

Here’s a thought. People take what this like with them when they move. If that is correct, a third generation of US northwest farmers may well have still be growing the hops their settler great-great-grandparents carried with them to the West. The grandparents of those settlers may have dug up the rhizomes in central New York as they started the family’s trek west after the Erie Canal opened up in the 1820s. And some of their cousins may have had other plans and shifted north into what was then Upper Canada. Many did, euphemistically now called Late Loyalists. And they may have carried the rhizomes with them to Tavistock, Ontario and rammed them into the banks of streams.

Tracing hop lineage is difficult. Consider this observation from William Blanchard Jr. published in the 13 September 1823 edition of The New England Farmer:

The Hop is a native plant. It is found growing spontaneously on the banks and intervales of many of our large rivers. There are several distinct species, all bearing a near affinity to each other; (I have noticed five.) At present they are cultivated together, promiscuously; no preference having been given to any particular one of them by the brewer. But I am of the opinion that there is an essential difference in their qualities—that one may be the best for pale ale; another for strong beer; and a third for porter; and I presume, ere long, particular attention will be paid to ascertain their different qualities.

I love at least two things in that passage. Obviously, the foreshadowing of the use of specific hops for specific beers. And also the fact that only 92 years stand between Mr. Blanchard’s letter to the paper and the Report of the New York Agricultural Experiment Station mentioned above. [And the river banks. Fine. Three.] I expect that the noticing of five distinct species of hops had advanced, through the application of science, some way in those years. Yet – in the 1860s, only a few sorts are propagated in central New York, including Pompey and Cluster. And of the New York varieties identified in 1915 only four are named: Canada red vine, English cluster, Humphrey and native red vine.

Are all three instances of Canada red vine the one variety? Is it one of the five one could spot in a promiscuously planted patch? How can I figure that out?

Is The Data Overload Becoming An Issue?

It was a bit of a revelation. Well, a joke and a revelation. I have a brother who is a bookman who sends rare finds for birthdays and holidays. This year for my 52nd I got this book on cheese. Published in 1960, it is a simple thing. More like a long magazine article than a full book. The author describes one trip taken in a car traveling from farmhouse cheese maker to farmhouse cheese maker. Cheeses are gathered in the back seat and the trunk… sorry, boot… and the taken back to London where they are eaten at dinners and parties with guests like Dame Margot Fonteyn and Stirling Moss. It’s all very light and comforting. It’s not all that unlike Everyday Drinking – The Distilled Kingsley Amis which I reviewed six years ago now. Yes, a voice from another era and one imbued with class and cultural distinctions which don’t matter anymore. Yet it is filled with discovery:

Mrs. Roberts DOES still make Caerphilly but not in her cool dairy, which I had foolishly asked to see. That is only used for storing milk and cream! Her cheeses are made in the kitchen, with vats and presses a hundred years old, and they mature in the bedroom. As these ancient, heavy wooden vats are irreplaceable, she may soon have to give up her cheesemaking.

OK, like Amis perhaps without the ever present danger of arrest for driving whilst intoxicated. Perhaps. There are still bottles consumed as she goes about. But there is nothing snobbish about any of it. In the second paragraph, snobbery is the word used for the one who sniffs contemptuously at the mere mention of the cheeses of ones own country. It’s an essay about the pursuit of the real in a world where imports and processes have become the norm. Sound familiar?

This is a voice like the one in my head when I became interested in beer. Not a voice I hear very much of anymore, sadly. Between the quantity chasing tickers and the off-flavour seminarians and the worshipers of the next ever so slightly different hop strain, there seems to be little being left to individual discovery. Too much expertise in the beer to be assimilated from above. Not enough simple pleasure in the experience of it. The current bleat about poor quality in new craft is just the latest twist. The hand of industrial process now reaches down as one’s betters warn that if you eat that cheese matured in the bedroom you might encounter something unexpected, unplanned.

This is not to suggest all was better. The second half of the book is filled with recipes which range from the traditional – like that very attractive cheddar biscuit – to the weirdly experimental. I will not, for example, take up the recommendation to wrap eight bananas in ham and bake them in a sauce made with a whacking pile of grated Lancashire cheese. But there is a joyfulness about it all which big craft seems to be drumming out of me, drumming out of good beer. I don’t care. The errors and trials and surprises of all these new actual small brewers are too interesting to care about their elders and betters, the self-appointed senex with the standard operating procedures, marketing staff and strategic plans for the annual trade show.

Ontario Loves Its Large Profit-Making Aggregations


This is likely the least exciting picture visually I have posted around these parts. But its content may place it among the most interesting. Click on it for the larger version. That’s a couple paragraphs from a 1931 financial statement for E.P. Taylor’s nine month old firm, the Brewing Corporation of Canada. Taylor played a greater role in restructuring Ontario’s brewing industry from the 1930s to the 1970s than anyone else. We discussed him last December but it is worth reminding ourselves about one of his governing principles. We face, as Jordan notes, a supposed renewal of our retail trade in beer, a brave new future with beer being sold in a few grocery stores. We may, however, be facing the prospect of not obeying only some little discussed cultural factors but baggage left behind after the old man made his billions, moved on and died.

You see a few references to payouts. We are told that the executive officers enjoy large remuneration. Also a dividend of $90,000 was paid but unwarranted ensuring the shareholders were happy even as, we learn elsewhere, the firm suffered total losses on $496,000. The financial statements disclose these decisions because they are submissions to the bank lending Taylor and his firm money to raise the overdraft from $80,000 to $130,000. This bet on Taylor’s future was backed by his access to English investors but still was quite extraordinary given this passage in the financial statements which we quoted in Ontario Beer:

He is a very young man but quite capable,although probably not thoroughly experienced in the manufacture of beer. However, we think he has good organizing ability and is capable with lots of self confidence in the eventual success of this organization.

What all this illustrates for me is something I think was given to Ontario at its birth in the 1780s and lingers on today. We love a controlled aggregation. Ontario was established after the American Revolution as something of a utopian Tory colony which was supposed to prove that prosperity followed when a well conceived plan was followed through by a compliant populace obedient to their governing betters who ensured, in return, a supply of good things including beer. With the coming of the madcap liberties under the Victorian era, commercial opportunity in brewing expanded but it was soon stalked by another set of betters in the form of the temperance movement. This guiding principle of the growing God-fearing middle class made gains on economic liberty through the latter end of the 1800s to the point it were the most powerful political force by the First World War. The imposition of Ontario’s tepid form of prohibition during the conflict lasted until 1927 when the concurrent stink of corruption brought in liquor control system we live with today with its abiding interest in ensuring the many are, again, guided by the benevolent hand of the few. The few now being semi-bureaucrats heading heading up semi-governmental agencies.

What does that have to do with E.P. Taylor? Well, like others well situated at various points in Ontario’s history – from Richard Cartwright Jr in the 1790s enjoying the liquid rewards of his riches to the international conglomerates which own The Beer Store today – Taylor knew that Ontario and its beer buying population was too valuable a resource to let it have its own way without the application of a little profit making control. See, he may have carried the baggage for a large chunk of the 1900s he did not pack the bags. And because of the cultural acceptance of this sort of thing, because that is part of what makes Ontario Ontario… I do not expect this to change. So, when I read that out betters are planning to add a whole 300 extra retail licenses for a population of over 13 million, well, I do not expect great change. I do expect great financial reward for those granted the power to sell. And I do expect existing interests will likely be respected. No one will suffer the undoubted societal confusion caused by imposing the broad-based forms of beer retailing common in all our neighbouring US and Canadian jurisdictions. We shall be saved from all that. Anything else would be unOntarian.

Are The Oddest Things In Ontario The Solutions?


Update, Thursday: A rousing 17% of Ontarians want beer in grocery stores. Because we can’t handle what Quebeckers, New Yorkers and those of Michigan can. We must suck.

That’s a video posted in the Toronto Star the other day summarizing where this Province sits in its own internal debate about the retailing of beer in Ontario.Its attached to a story titled “Time to take ownership of the Beer Store: Cohn” The Star is taking a lead in the discourse and doing an excellent job but as the video displays there are some weird aspects to this issue that might seem odd to those from beyond the borders. When we were writing Ontario Beer the tasks got chopped up and I was assigned primary attention to the years 1900 to 1980 which, as you might guess, were not expected to be the most exciting for the development of good beer in the culture. What I found, however, through the review of law and brewer’s public appearance as much as the family trees of families who owned the brewery was that the community, culture and marketplace in Ontario has a number of abiding characteristics which continue to pop up through the decades and centuries of its relationship with beer:

-> Ontario is very comfortable with state ownership. You will notice in the story as retold an unhappiness that The Beer Store, the sole retailer of about 90% of all sales, is not government owned. Many assume it is. Many would say it should be. Many want more beer variety in the existing government LCBO which sells primarily macro six-packs as well as single bottles of craft brews and imports.

-> Ontario is very comfortable with a controlled market. Amongst those who reject the model of the Beer Store a prominent response being heard is that the small brewers of Ontario ought to be able to replicate the model to create boutique craft beer shops. It appears the idea would be sell Ontario made craft beer to Ontario through shops run by Ontario craft brewers. This appears to be adding a small oligopoly to a tiny oligopoly to defeat the evil forces of oligopoly.

-> Ontario is very comfortable with fairly dull macro beer. Nowhere in this discourse is there a great public outrage at the quality of most of the beer consumed in Ontario. The vast bulk of beer consumed in Ontario is frankly bulk beer. Most people I know who buy beer buy slabs of 24 bottles of lighter fairly flavourless stuff that gives them a mild buzz and cuts the crap out of your mouth when you’ve been physically active. It reminds me a lot of ship’s beer in fact, one of the functional classes of everyday beer that fell out of flavour somewhere between the Georgian and Victorian colonial eras. For many, talking about more interesting beer is like talking about more interesting ketchup.

-> Ontario is very comfortable with fairly not inexpensive beer. For a while there was a trend of “buck a beer” discount products but that’s been gone for the best part of a decade now. No one moved forward to fill the market and Ontario’s beer buyers have found themselves buying beers for $1.50 to over $2.00 a bottle at the shops without much quibbling. No one is looking for a better retail experience and no one really is looking for a price cut. Bulk beer in Ontario is comparable or even a bit higher than craft in nearby northern NY.

These are just themes I see. I didn’t want initially to drill into news articles, blog posts or the details of history to create a mess of links mainly for one reason. Even having studied 400 years of beer culture, law and politics in the place it still surprises me and sometimes leaves me shaking my head. But there are reasons it is like this. Ontario was set up as something of a conservative utopia that reaches back to the 1780s with the resettlement of the Loyalists running from the newly created USA. This lasted until the reforms of the 1840s when we were then introduced to the new trend in temperance. After the flop of Ontario’s version of prohibition ended in 1927, we have had the control system of alcohol retail that we have today. Three forms of restraint. Three eras of doing what one is told. Three eras of being concurrently happy and prosperous, too. It might, given all that, be more reasonable to ask why wouldn’t things be as they are in today’s discussions about retailing beer here. Me? I just want beer in grocery stores and gas stations like people in all the nearby provinces and states enjoy. Not likely going to happen.

I may layer more into this but for now this is the best I have to explain the culture I live in to myself. It’s a bit weird, isn’t it. But in a weird way it also works for most people.

Origins Of Ontario’s Beer Wholesaling Cooperative

Jordan has posted an excellent article this evening on the current state of the sale of beer in Canada’s biggest province, Ontario. Thirteen and half million Ontarians are served their beer through two large entities: (i) The Beer Store which is owned by the big brewers and (ii) the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, a provincial Crown corporation. Sure, you can buy your beer at a microbrewery, you can home brew and you can even still go to a brew-your-own place. But you really buy beer from the big two outlets. Brew-your-own or “U-brew” businesses are good to keep in mind as we think of how to move forward. In our book Ontario Beer, we pointed out that in the mid-1990s, “brew your own beer” businesses held a position comparable to small breweries today until they caught the attention of big beer. At a 1996 Federal hearing on taxation of major Canadian industries, Sandy Morrison, President of the Brewers Association of Canada complained about the lack of any imposition of taxation or regulation on these businesses:

These brew-on-premises outlets now have an 8% share of the British Columbia market and a 3% share in Ontario, which is the largest beer market in Canada. In total, they account for about 10 million dozen-cases of beer a year. The production from these unlicensed, unregulated mini-breweries exceeds that of the micro-breweries across Canada, and certainly in the two provinces concerned.

Brew-on-premises business were full-scale commercial operations that focused on government alcohol tax avoidance. Lost tax revenues in Ontario and BC totaled $69 million according to Morrison. Soon thereafter the law was changed. Regulations as well as taxes were applied. As can be expected, market share collapsed. The interests of the government and big brewing aligned to pressure the young upstarts.

There are echoes of more than the mid-90s in the situation today. The immediate origins of both the LCBO and The Beer Store date to the mid-1920s. After a series of elections and referendums, in 1927 Ontario’s experiment with prohibition ended with the repeal of the Ontario Temperance Act and its replacement with the Liquor Control Act. Along with the new law, the Liquor Control Board was founded. The province was once again drinking full strength booze in their homes – albeit after purchasing their drink at a government controlled store and transporting it in a sealed package. In the same year, Brewers Warehousing Co. Ltd. was founded as a brewers’ distribution collective. The provincial government retained control of the sale of wine and spirits through the LCBO, but beer was retailed by hundreds of mom-and-pop stores. Initially, the brewers were involved only in wholesale operations, jointly warehousing and distributing their product to stores operated by private contractors. In 1940, the brewers bought out the retailers and took over the stores, changing their name to Brewers Retail Inc and, more recently, changing again to The Beer Store.

Another thing was happening at the end of the 1920s. A corporate giant was starting out his career. Starting with next to nothing other than a few years in the financing business, E.P. Taylor had a plan to acquire and merge a large number of regional and local brewers with the goal of controlling half the brewing capacity in the province. Virtually all Ontario’s firms but Labatt and the breweries controlled by the Doran family in the north were his targets. His goals made perfect sense for the times. Breweries were operating at under 25% capacity. They were technological dinosaurs. By 1931, Taylor already controlled 27.5% of all Ontario beer sales. By 1950, he controlled 50% of the provincial beer market compared to 20% for Labatt. His deal making reached beyond Ontario. He shared a correspondence with H. William Molson, president of Quebec’s most famous brewery which dated back to 1932 and, in 1942, Taylor suggested quite an arrangement:

Don’t you think for the duration of the war we should arrange to divide the business in the two provinces in a fixed proportion and cut out most of the waste? I fully realize that your Company is not as extravagant in Ontario as some of the rest of us and you are certainly in an enviable position in that regard. At the same time I think that if you gave leadership to a proposal for pooling the business until after the war, everyone would feel inclined to work something out.

“Waste” was a theme for E.P.Taylor. In September 1939, he spoke to a meeting of the Brewers Warehousing Company. As war had just been declared, the tone was certainly patriotic but it was also entrepreneurial. Taylor argued that the lowest price possible for beer should be established to decrease “wasteful selling expenses” while increasing sales, volume and taxes for the war effort. Profits would also rise. While not the start of the concept of commodity beer and radically controlled distribution, this statement certainly places it at the centre of Ontario’s way forward. When you think of The Beer Store today you need to hear E.P. Taylor’s words from 1939 – “wasteful selling expenses” – ring in your ears. As Jordan put it today:

The Beer Store’s organization is such that it works in your favour if you are a very large company. The fact that your beer can only be sold in predetermined locations and that the organization that runs those locations stocks those stores from centralized warehouses means that you don’t have to pay for delivery, storage or a sales force. It’s a gigantic savings. The large breweries don’t generate profit from owning and running The Beer Store and this is something critics frequently fail to understand. The monopoly is not profitable for the owners because it extracts profit on sales. It is profitable for the owners because it saves a frankly ridiculous amount of money on outlay.

By the late 1950s, E.P. Taylor was arguably the most famous Canadian before Pierre Trudeau came on the scene a few years later. His positive effect on the economy of Ontario and Canada cannot be underestimated. But he stepped away from his role as corporate leader before 1970. In another ten years, loyalty to ale and even Ontario’s beer brands was fading fast. We now live in a marketplace where the best selling beer is Coors Light and The Beer Store is owned by foreign brewing corporations. That all being the case, why retain a distribution model set up in the late 1920s to balance the needs of local brewers with the majority of the population which still had strong preference for temperance principles? None really. None at all. Unless, like in the mid-1990s, the interests of big beer and government revenue are all that matter.

How I Feel Now That I Have Nickelbrook’s Wet Hop Ale


That’s a new photo for me. It is from Halifax’s Victory in Europe Day parade in 1945 apparently before it became the VE Day Riot. Click for more of the photo. I have mentioned the Halifax riot of 1945 somewhere around here but can’t find the link. [Later: here it is.] If you don’t believe things got bad, here is an image of the spot later in the day when the jeweler had been hit by looters.

Why do I mention this? Because above is about 10,000 times how I felt when I saw Nickebrook’s Ontario Wet Hop Ale finally on my local LCBO shelves this morning. I say 10,000 times in the best sense as the guy is clearly ecstatic from the destruction of fascism, the coming years of peace along with the successful defense of freedom. I just found a beer in a store. It is, however, a very good beer. It pours a light greenish-gold. On the nose, a very attractive mix of spicy, bitter and sweet greens. Romaine lettuce, arugula and honey. In the mouth, a light crisp body. More honey with a nip of hoppy heat. Bitterness both on the roof of the mouth and under the tongue. A little lighter finish. Reminds me of one of those confident light white wines in the sense that it makes its case calmly.

Local in the sense of 100% Ontario grown ingredients. Ontario is rather big, however, so you will have to judge what local might mean accordingly. $7.95 for 750ml of 5.3% ale. Unduly tepid praise from the BAers. RBers have a little more sense. PS: a post I wrote in 2006 about wet hop beers.