Manitoba Historical Society
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Manitoba History: The Early History of Brewing in Winnipeg: From Hudson’s Bay to Patrick Shea, 1668-1902

by Graham Stinnett
Thomas J. Dodd Research Centre, University of Connecticut

Number 74, Winter 2014

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In April of 1880, last call was made at the Lower Fort Garry brew house. [1] The unmistakably sweet smells of caramel and roasted grain ebbed from the causeway, the woody character of aged oak casks on racks and earthy hop odours of grass and pine hung in the rafters. The aromas embedded in the brew house represented a storied craft, perfected over the Hudson’s Bay Company’s (HBC) two hundred years in Rupert’s Land. That spring, 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. The decline of the HBC’s dominance in the beer economy was passing and one can only speculate what these men would have drunk after this historic day of labour: a bottle of Whiskey Thomas’ strong ale maybe, or an Assiniboine Brewery lager, or perhaps their own home recipe. What is certain, however, is that beer was no longer coming from the landmark “Stone Fort” brewery, once a pinnacle of the craft during the fur trade and an icon of settlement life in Red River.

Beer had arrived on Winnipeg’s business scene ripe for investment like the frontier viewed through the eyes of the speculator. By 1874, a year after incorporation as a city, Winnipeg and its surrounding area was home to seven licensed craft-production breweries that catered to a population of 1,869. [2] Fifty years earlier, the Red River settlement had only two sources of beer, the HBC brewery and home-brewing. The demolition of the brew house at the old Stone Fort represented the victory of a third way, one fuelled by the growth of industrial capitalism in the west. The old monopolistic beer production by fort craftbrewers in small manufactories had become outmoded in a financiers’ boom era and resulted in a stifling of individual settler initiatives. The home brewer was viewed negatively by the newly formed state, which sought to codify ways of producing and consuming beer, ultimately building a racial and evangelistic temperance framework that exists to the present day. [3] Winnipeg’s early brewing history is the story of home-brewing, small-scale commercial craftbrewing, and large-scale commercial brewing, along with their negotiations in all things beer.

Early brew. An 1882 view of the Red River looking south featured the brewery opened in 1877 by businessman, city councillor, and MLA Edward L. Drewry (1851–1940). A brewery would remain at the site until well into the 20th century.

Early brew. An 1882 view of the Red River looking south featured the brewery opened in 1877 by businessman, city councillor, and MLA Edward L. Drewry (1851–1940). A brewery would remain at the site until well into the 20th century.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Winnipeg - Buildings - Drewrys Brewery 1, N16511.

History, much like the brewing of beer, is the measurement and observation of change over time. Winnipeg’s early beer brewing becomes knowable by recognizing its historical descendants and the craft-brewing renaissance that occurred on its doorstep. From the days of the early European fur trade, to cottage-economy homebrewing and expansion through industrial breweries, the history of Winnipeg brewing is the history of control. Today, this control continues to permeate the supply chain as macro-breweries abroad attempt to capture local consumer allegiance. What follows is a recounting of the early history of brewing in Winnipeg and its antecedents, from the first “small-beer” made by the crew of the Nonsuch on the shore of James Bay, to the hundreds of home batches crafted by countless woman brewers of the Red River Settlement, and the beginnings of Shea’s Select on Colony Creek.

Does Winnipeg have a unique brewing history? With the increasing popularity of craft beer and home brewing today, what are the local traditions regarding brewers, beer styles and brewing techniques? This article will investigate the legacy of brewing in what is now Manitoba from 1668 to 1902, its role in the colonial fur trade, and the beginnings of the commercial brewers who began the mass production of the beer with which we are familiar. The politics of beer as a manufactured commodity has been wrapped up in issues of class, gender, the state, and ethnic group relations, and these issues have affected our understanding of a seemingly untroubled Canadian pastime. [4]

This history also portrays the public’s relationship with brewing and their eventual alienation from it. The landscape of Winnipeg brewing has changed through the 19th and 20th centuries in a circuitous way, making this story relevant to our present role as consumers and craft brewers in a globalized market. It portrays this industry as it changed from the home, to the factory, to the periphery and back again. A socio-economic history such as this starts with the introduction of western European spirits, as the northern plains were a unique region of North America where crops were not grown for the production of fermented beverages as they were in regions like Sumeria, Eastern Africa and the Andes. [5]

The story of the imperialist expansion into the “New World” by the British Empire and its mercantile spearhead, the HBC, can be told in conjunction with the introduction of beer to Rupert’s Land in 1668. [6] Beer is the term popularly used today to describe an undistilled malt beverage of relatively low alcohol-by-volume that has fermented through the introduction of yeast. [7] Historians, archaeologists and anthropologists have debated for decades the true beginnings of beer; whether it was the driving force behind sedentary agriculture or if it began as an accident in the baking process. [8] Regardless of its genesis, for the past 5000 years humans have been making beer out of any starch that produces sugars. A standard was imposed on the craft in 1516, in Bavaria, called the Reinheitsgebot (German Purity Law), which required that all beer of that region be made of three ingredients: water, barley and hops. [9] This successful regulation worked on two levels: it made essential the use of hops (a rarely used ingredient in beer outside Bavaria) which could then be taxed by the state, and it also standardized the profession of brewing which set the craftspeople of the commercial enterprise apart from the home brewers. [10] If it were not for the requirement to use this new ingredient, beer would not hold the historical place it does in European colonial expansion. [11] For French and English seafarers, small-beer was more reliable on the long voyage than water due to the boiling of the wort (the liquid extracted from mashing during the brewing process) and the natural preservative quality of hops that could keep during long trips. Beer brewing then was a vital craft that helped sustain these expeditions.

Brewing historian Richard Unger describes the development of the beer industry in six distinct stages as they occurred throughout the European Middle Ages and Renaissance. [12] These six stages, which serve as indicators of economic and social change in the industry, can be applied to the history of brewing in Winnipeg to form a different analysis of how we view beer today. Winnipeg’s brewing history skips Unger’s first four stages, which establish the origins and formation of European brewing in the home by women for domestic consumption. The male-dominated realm of the fur-trade post little resembles a home and more the compartmentalized manufactory where the primary goal is to facilitate the “artisanal extraction of resources.” Unger’s fifth stage, already established in 17th-century Europe, best describes the first beer economy in Rupert’s Land where brewing occurred under the direction of a male artisan who specialized in this task. [13] Therefore, from the outset, beer had an atypical beginning in Rupert’s Land.

Captain Zachariah Gillam of the Hudson’s Bay Company ship Nonsuch introduced beer to the first HBC post at Rupert House on 29 September 1668. [14] His crew made a strong beer for the long voyage home the following year and proceeded to bury the kegs underground to protect them from freezing. Spirits such as whisky, rum, and brandy, as well as wine, which all have a greater alcoholby-volume content than beer (or any indigenous alcoholic beverage made from spruce needles [15]), were transported to Rupert’s Land as gifts to smooth trade relations with First Nations and as commodities in the fur trade. [16] Beer, however, was shipped to, and brewed, at all HBC posts in Rupert’s Land for consumption by employees. Wine and brandy held greater currency than beer as trade goods, a fact understood by French fur traders who competed with the HBC for the furs of interior First Nations. Due to the unpasteurized nature of beer at the time and the not-yet-established role of hops as a preservative, beer’s shelf life was much shorter for hot, transatlantic voyages than that of malted grain. Records of recipes for post brewing are scant. However, in 1685 forty gallons of malted barley were sent out from England to each post for this purpose. [17] The cost of shipping vast quantities of raw ingredients for beer production to the North American interior, which could then be traded, was far less effective than importing shiploads of rum from the West Indies. As the HBC expanded its operations in Rupert’s Land in the 1700s and solidified its holdings through trade, beer production remained a mandated provision at post breweries but rarely a traded commodity.

It is worth placing beer within the context of the global market of alcohol in the 17th and 18th centuries to demonstrate the role it played in the transatlantic economy. Western European empires required land to assert global dominance, followed closely by the trade in humans. The slave economy out of western Africa represented a profitable commodity “exchange” for privileged individuals seeking wealth and future security. After capturing slaves in west Africa, [18] British voyages would operate the triangular Atlantic course to the Caribbean, unloading their human cargo and reloading with sugar and rum for the European market. [19] Over sixty percent of all slaves captured in Africa during the 18th century were brought to the tiny British West Indies to plant, then work, the cane fields. [20] To contrast the relative value of sugar and rum production with the fur trade, journalist Adam Hochschild notes that in 1773 British imports from the small island of Grenada were worth eight times those from all of Canada. [21] In addition, the British Empire depended on the strongest naval fleet in the world, and the British navy depended on the strongest alcohol on the seas. With a daily ration equivalent to six double whiskys [22] a day, British sailors making the voyage to Canada came with a thirst and expected strong drink, but beer could not satisfy their need. [23] Beer, in the hierarchy of desired alcohol, was at the bottom of the ladder.

The establishment of posts at the mouth of the Nelson River by the HBC and rival French and American firms led to a greater frequency of shipments of malted barley for the brewing of beer. The HBC’s York Factory was the most prominent of these posts and in the late 17th century mentioned a brewmaster named William Clarke. In 1694, Clarke was tasked with producing beer for employee consumption. [24] Fort Albany, Rupert House, Moose Factory, Nelson House and Fort Severn all had active post breweries producing beer prior to 1694 in Hudson Bay. Whisky production, however, took precedence as the more desired craft by both traders and drinkers alike, leaving little record of beer. The HBC continually sought a proper location and technique for the distillation of grains to increase competitiveness with their trade rival’s monopoly on brandy, as very little that could be produced on-site was considered suitable for the fur trade. Distillers, such as Joseph Colon in 1791, were sent by the HBC to Rupert’s Land on contract in order to produce a spirit similar to brandy, but these attempts were often unsuccessful and Colon was recalled from York Factory four years later. [25]

Whisky and beer have a similar relationship in that they both require malted cereal ingredients and storage over time to produce. However, whisky remained the fortunate son of the empire as it had already been established as the preferred beverage of Rupert’s Land. [26] Whisky could be made in small batches and hauled great distances by York boat or decanted into flasks or bottles for travel. [27] The prevalence of watering down whisky for trade was also a relatively undetectable practice compared with that of beer, making the small amount go that much further. [28] One famous whisky recipe from the early 1800s demonstrates the desire to produce rather than to consume:

1 qt. alcohol, 1 lb. black chewing tobacco, 1 handful red peppers, 1 bottle Jamaica ginger, 1 qt. black molasses; add water, mix well, and boil. 1 gal. of alcohol per 3 gal. of river water, plus one bottle of red ink for colour. [29]

Regardless of these concoctions, drinkers neither sought beer nor did they exist in large enough numbers to merit its growth as a desired product beyond post- or homebrewing. HBC posts lacked the major ingredients required for mass production of both substances. They were not like colonies where surplus barley could be harvested and where malting houses could prepare the grains. Beer production in the fur trade would never reach a scale large enough to become a mainstay commodity in comparison to shipments of whisky.

Hoofing it for deliveries. Wagons drawn by heavy work horses, such as this 1915 example at the Drewry Brewery, were the means by which beer was delivered to thirsty Winnipeg patrons well into the 20th century. Patrick Shea assembled a team that became an award-winner at horse shows. In the 1930s, the Shea Brewery sold eight of its show horses to US brewer Anheuser-Busch, whose brand Budweiser is still synonymous with the image of Clydesdales pulling a delivery wagon.

Hoofing it for deliveries. Wagons drawn by heavy work horses, such as this 1915 example at the Drewry Brewery, were the means by which beer was delivered to thirsty Winnipeg patrons well into the 20th century. Patrick Shea assembled a team that became an award-winner at horse shows. In the 1930s, the Shea Brewery sold eight of its show horses to US brewer Anheuser-Busch, whose brand Budweiser is still synonymous with the image of Clydesdales pulling a delivery wagon.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Winnipeg - Buildings - Drewrys Brewery 3, N16513.

Beer did, however, produce a moderate allowance on behalf of the company, consolidating bonds throughout the fur trade. In many instances, whisky would be granted to post employees on holidays; however, beer was a daily ration that was deemed moderately inebriating to the point of contentedness. In addition, the consumption of alcohol was a major player in helping to define masculinity in the fur trade’s male-dominated, rugged-individualist culture. Drinking was a mutually bonding affair. As historian Craig Heron states, “these practices involved more than a fondness for the taste of spirits or desire for the alcoholic buzz, and had little or nothing to do with a desire to escape misery or despair.” [30] Many instances of severe drunkenness, like that of a Christmas celebration at Moose Factory in 1735 where the entire post was set ablaze, were regarded as incidents to be endured by post superiors rather than regulated. [31] As will be demonstrated, the colour of one’s skin and the station of his employment would make all the difference.

Post life provides us with an important sketch of brewing and beer consumption during the period of the colonialist fur trade. However, at the same time that company men were drinking small-beer at York Factory, beer was also becoming a part of the culture of New France. Jean Talon, the first Intendant of the colony, was appointed in 1665 to maintain order and respectability throughout Quebec and the surrounding territory. [32] Talon’s growing concern for the population’s disposition toward drunkenness, due to the accessibility of spirits imported from the West Indies, led to his promotion of beer to be brewed locally and funded by Louis XIV. [33] Talon’s preference for beer, because it was both lower in alcohol and an economical solution to surplus grain, sprang largely from a misinformed conception that cold beer, “not having vapors that deprived men of judgment,” would make beer drinking the preferred sociability. [34] From New France to The Forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, the proliferation of spirits worked as a foil for beer’s subtle rise to dominance through to the end of the fur trade.

The history of settler home-brewing in Winnipeg begins with the arrival of the Selkirk settlers and the establishment of their agricultural colony adjacent to Fort Douglas in 1812. [35] Arguably, an earlier Métis population may have produced a rudimentary beer from small-plot agriculture outside Fort Rouge since the French and Scottish had long traditions of brewing prior to Fort Douglas. It is more likely, though, that the Métis position in the fur trade, as producers of pemmican, guides and boat operators, allowed for greater access to brandy and whisky. [36]

Unger’s development model of brewing asserts that the household economy was the basis of early beer production; yet the post brewery was well advanced by the time European domestic settlement took root on the banks of the Red River. At the time of the 1821 merger of the Hudson’s Bay and North West companies, when former post employees began migrating to the Red River Settlement, an English pamphleteer and radical journalist named William Cobbett was putting quill pen to paper on how the home brewing of beer was a radical act of independence. [37] Cobbett, a general agitator on most topics, but particularly those relating to the British Parliament, was an early opponent of large-scale manufacturing. In his treatise entitled Cottage Economy, Cobbett sought to combat the rise of a state-economy that taxed farmers’ produce beyond their means through the use of paper currency. [38] A massive taxation on malt and hops by the British Parliament following the American independence movement of 1776 led to a decrease in the home production of beer in England:

These [regulations] have quite changed the customs of the English people as to their drink. They still drink beer, but it is of the brewing of common beers, and in public-houses, of which the common brewers have become the owners, and have thus, by the aid of paper-money, obtained a monopoly in the supplying of the great body of the people with one of those things which, to the hard-working man, is almost a necessary of life. [39]

Cobbett’s commentary and foresight into the economic forces, which would shape the brewing industry over the next one hundred and fifty years, served as a cautionary tale for the settlers of Red River and later the early inhabitants of Winnipeg.

Instructional guides, such as Cottage Economy (which today would be considered a do-it-yourself publication), served to challenge law and governance in the formation of the state. As the archival record demonstrates, laws imposed by the HBC and the Council of Assiniboia in the colony sought to regulate the production of beer within Red River. [40] Despite the ability to be self-sufficient, colonists continued to rely on the products sold at the fur-trade posts and general stores, including beer. From the earliest years of the Red River colony, a series of disasters prevented any real farming progress. Lack of food in winter, especially pemmican, drought, plagues of grasshoppers, and the great flood of 1826 combined to reduce agricultural sustainability. [41] However, agricultural production slowly improved and by 1833 Red River governor Donald MacKenzie, wrote to Hudson’s Bay House in London that “settlement was going most thrivingly forward” and portrayed with enthusiasm “the large and flourishing harvests.” [42] Agricultural success, despite two decades of hardship, helped to pave the way for the growth of cottage brewing in the settlement.

Beginning in 1831, George Simpson, the HBC Overseas Governor, pursued whisky production in Rupert’s Land. [43] With the official mandate by the British Parliament to cease the trade in liquors with indigenous peoples following the merger of 1821, Simpson promoted the cost efficiency of locally produced spirits “for consumption by the company’s servants.” [44] The HBC wavered in its decision to underwrite a distillery; their position was renegotiated several times, being initially offered by the Council of Assiniboia, then rejected, and again later agreed to and granted as a sole privilege to the company at the expense of “other entrepreneurs who might be so inclined.” [45] Confronting issues of public image, economic viability, access to barley, and a fickle local government, the Company’s whisky production remained an underground enterprise. However, by 1843, after some settlers urged that a distillery be built in order to increase the amount of liquor available in the colony, the HBC decided to hire “respectable” contractors to produce “Native Malt Spirits” under the Company’s management, yet keeping their liability at a minimum.

Construction of a whisky still began at Lower Fort Garry in June 1845 following the Council’s request for the HBC to begin distillation. [46] In addition, an expanded brewery was built and a malting house erected which would service both production lines. The Lower Fort was chosen because the higher ground helped protect it from flooding, as well as “being less exposed to the view and visits of settlers and Indians.” [47] Completion of the distillery at the fort was due in part to the arrival of the British Sixth Regiment of Foot, the Royal Warwickshires, in 1846. Simpson had requested from the company that troops be stationed at the Lower Fort in an effort to bolster British dominance in the settlement in the event a US invasion were to follow the Oregon boundary dispute of 1846. [48] For the HBC, the creation of a distillery at Lower Fort Garry would help police whisky “smugglers” through the threat of military intervention. It would also serve to corner the whisky market from “clandestine manufacture” by selling the company product cheaply. [49] Economic growth would be encouraged by providing a suitable outlet for settler wheat and barley. Simpson’s plan, however, was hindered by a barley shortage in the settlement and the slow construction of the distillery, leading to an increase in beer sales by the HBC brewery and by home brewers. [50]

The arrival of the Sixth Regiment created an opportunity for brewers to produce beer on a scale yet unseen in Rupert’s Land. Although the HBC and the Council of Assiniboia frowned on the home sale of beer—largely because it meant the loss of taxation and was a threat to the company’s control of the brewing monopoly—the risk of an unsatisfied military detachment loomed larger. However, the barley shortage played a significant role in preventing beer production from reaching its potential as a dominant commodity in the colony. As indicated in a letter from Simpson to Chief Factor Christie when it was realized that the still would not be ready during the occupation of the troops, two thousand bushels of barley were to be converted into beer “for the use of the troops, not stronger than 8 gns. Beer to the Bushel.” [51] The inability of the Lower Fort brewery to provide for the regiment led to rationing beer in the canteens “in the proportion of about one pint per man.” [52] Christie noted that “all we can do is insufficient to meet the demand for drinkables both for officers and men.” [53] Despite the sixteen thousand gallons (516 barrels) brewed, this shortage produced a draw on the company’s stores for imported wines and spirits as well as an increase in home brewing in the colony. [54] The economic return for a cask of beer was far greater than that of a bushel of barley and continued to be so, making home brewing a more profitable enterprise. In 1847, when brewing at Lower Fort Garry was again threatened by a scarcity of barley, Simpson implemented a price increase on the grain to “3/[shillings] or 4/[shillings] charging a corresponding increase in the price of beer.” [55] In an attempt to control the existing homegrown barley in the colony, Simpson’s Lower Fort Garry brewery was now in direct competition with colonists who continued to produce their own beer and serve the needs of the local troops.

Very little historical record exists of home brewers in the Red River colony. Indeed, as Manitoba brewing historians Norm Gorman and William Douglas have pointed out, the few records that do exist are the result of individual brewers being caught! Until home brewing became a codified act, its existence in the colony was accepted as a regular practice as prevalent as baking and other “women’s work.” [56] Due to the lack of value placed on women’s voices during this time, little is known about the day-to-day domestic activities of female home-brewers, also known as brewsters. [57] However, the cook book, a distinctly gendered product of women’s domestic labour, predicated on oral traditions in the home during colonial times and earlier, can be used for a general understanding of the brewing of beer. For example, The Home Cook Book (Tried! Tested! Proven!) compiled in 1877 provides us with Mrs. Dickenson’s Hop Beer recipe:

One handful of hops, boil an hour, strain, and add one pint of molasses, and enough water to make two gallons. When milk warm, add one cup or cake of yeast : let it stand overnight ; skim and pour it off from the yeast carefully ; add one tablespoon of wintergreens, and bottle for use. [58]

This task of brewing was managed by women in the home as a food preparation activity varying in seasoning and technique. It was woman home-brewers who undermined the company’s brewing monopoly.

In addition to the silence of brewsters, the perspectives of indigenous brewers and beer drinkers are conspicuous by their absence in the archives. The Red River Settlement’s first laws regarding the brewing and sale of beer were recorded in the minutes of the Council of Assiniboia on 13 June 1836 and read: “It being found that the public tranquility of the settlement is greatly endangered by the sale and traffic of beer to the Indians, RESOLVED that such sales or traffic be prohibited…and that anyone who may sell or traffic beer with the Indians, be liable in a penalty of twenty shillings.” [59] These laws established the ongoing legal regulation of beer production and consumption in Winnipeg. A legal framework imposed temperance moralities on those who drank, on how they drank, what they drank, and where they drank, and exemplified a colonial power over Indigenous peoples. The enforcement of racialized drinking laws by the government was critical in building settler hegemony. As Heron writes, “When they turned Native people into the equivalent of children under the law and closed off indigenous peoples’ legal access to alcohol, they were constructing rigid racial hierarchies.” [60] To be a Métis brewer and drinker would be a subversive position indeed. [61]

The introduction of spirits, particularly brandy and rum, to Indigenous peoples in the Canadian northwest was a key component of European colonial conquest dating as far back as the 16th century. However, personal rebellions existed wherever law and religious doctrine attempted to regulate livelihood. Alex Grisdale, a prolific storyteller from the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation, recorded his family’s employment and interactions with the HBC:

This is maybe 1843. My grandfather was young man freighting with York boats for Hudson’s Bay Company. He worked with boats for twenty-four summers. It was very hard work. Each man had so much to carry over portages where boats cannot go. He also have one barrel of whiskey—thirty gallons in one barrel—to carry. He have very small wages and start from Fort Garry first day of June and get back home end of October… Sometimes when near home the Indian would drop a barrel of whiskey on a big rock shaped like a frying pan and drink from this and fill his clay bottle. Of course the Indian would make some lie—the barrel fell overboard or was all smashed. Sometimes they would throw a barrel over board when near home and it would float to the land and Indians would find it later. [62]

For white European men working the HBC trade routes, drinking was not only a performative rite but also an act of sociability that relied on personal liberties around how money and leisure time were spent. [63] In the case of an indigenous man working the trade routes for the HBC, the racial and cultural juxtaposition of hauling on one’s back a barrel of whisky that cannot be legally consumed by the worker reduces labour relations beyond a classical political economy to a prohibitive regulation imposed by the colonial regime.

Small rebellions such as these against the HBC were seen as marginal losses to the project of colonization. The use of racialized beer regulations became further elaborated thirty years after the initial law went into effect when in 1862 the Council of Assiniboia passed the following mandate: “If any person, without distinction of race, supply or sell to any person popularly known as an Indian, or any member of an Indian nation the means of intoxication, he shall, on being convicted before a Petty Court, on oath of one or more witnesses, be fined for each offense.” The law encouraged a conspiring culture to watch neighbours closely and offered all fines paid to be awarded to the informant. The legislation also operated as a catalyst similar to that of the Reinheitsgebot in that it began to regulate and stratify beer production.

But it was piety that served as a greater driving force than legislation in the policing of alcohol in the settlement, especially among Indigenous peoples. In their sermons, the prominent ministers Reverend John Black of Kildonan and Archdeacon William Cochran of St. Andrew’s railed against the sins of intoxication in their attempts to keep liquor out of the settlement. [64] A remarkably telling editorial was published on 25 May 1860 in The Nor’Wester. The editors drew attention to views expressed about the cottageeconomy network that transgressed these racial boundaries of beer production:

Gentlemen, not long ago, the people of this Settlement were remarkable for sobriety; but alas! this characteristic is fast disappearing. Drunkenness is on the increase…and the same degenerate feeling which prompts settlers to insobriety makes them free to give as much as they can to the Indians. If they would confine their drinking practices to themselves, it would be so much; but the poor Indian is dragged down too… I have authority for stating that in this parish some of the farmers furnish barley, hops and everything else required for brewing, to the Indians. This very week an Indian asked me for hops, expecting to get them as a matter of course. I felt very like making the fellow hop about his business for daring to make such a request… - M. Lowman [65]

The liberty of Indigenous peoples to gain the means of production for home brew was greatly curtailed several decades after the passing of the initial laws regulating consumption, and brewing without consuming required a legal remedy.

Restrictions imposed on indigenous brewing were founded on the kind of racialized paternalism demonstrated in the above editorial. However, white settlers themselves could continue home brewing only if they followed the moral codes and invested in the proper business channels. Only men, similar to those handpicked by the Council and HBC decades earlier for whisky production, would be issued brewing licences if they were “upstanding members of morals, sober, and property owners.” [66] Home-brewed beer for family use could not exceed eight gallons and could not be made available for barter or sale. In addition, those who received licences and wished to sell the allotted amount could do so only on the premises of its origin, never on the Sabbath, nor between ten at night and six in the morning or to an “uncivilized or unsettled Indian.” [67] The desire for temperance became a public spectacle as petitions were drawn up weekly for the Council, requesting regular increases to licensing fees and penalties for drunkenness. Those applying for licences to operate a public house or brewery had to post their applications on the front doors of the local church for all to see and decide by vote on its approval. Although the opportunity to brew was given to the individual, it was heavily mediated through the legal framework and influenced by the authority of the church. Due to the aggressive petitioning of the Lord Bishop of St. Boniface in 1861, a Special Police Officer named Nicolas Mousard was appointed to work the liquor beat. [68] The stringent regulations set to limit home brewing were balanced out with exemptions made for wholesalers and distributors. Those producing more than eight gallons of beer while holding the proper licences and fitting the racial, class and social guidelines prescribed by the moral authority of the day, thus controlled much of the beer production in the settlement.

A handful of the earliest farmhouse home-brewers managed to walk the line between legality and social stigma, for a time at least. Brewers and general bootleggers such as Henri Joachim, aka Whiskey Jack, and Celestin “Whiskey” Thomas set the model for brewing in their homes at a quantity not yet reached by individuals. [69] Thomas, born in Frémonville, France, began brewing in 1859 at his log cabin in St. Paul settlement. [70] However, his business began to grow once he bought a small river plot in the Middlechurch settlement three years later where he opened what was recognized as the “first brewery in the West.” [71] A popular 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. [72] Surprisingly, abundant information from multiple sources exists to help construct Thomas as the most notable beer baron in Winnipeg’s early history. Records indicate that he brewed for the HBC in 1866 (either by contract or at Lower Fort Garry), being celebrated locally as an agitator against the company and the Council’s liquor laws. Thomas agreed to multiple deals whereby investors leased his brewery and paid him to operate it only to go out of business and sell the company back to him at a fraction of the cost. [73] Eventually Thomas established The Winnipeg Brewery in 1873, the same year that Winnipeg became a city. This brewery (and its future incarnations for the next 90 years) was located at Dingman’s Crossing, at the southeast corner of Broadway Avenue and Colony Street. Colony Creek, a small stream that once flowed into the Assiniboine River, was the main water and ice source for “lagering”, but its remnants are now noticeable only as a slight depression on the east side of the intersection.

The beer industry began to thrive commercially with small shop operations in Winnipeg setting the standard for output and reducing the need for imports. This moment in brewing history mirrors the transition toward an investment capital model, whereby the brewers no longer owned the means of production. Rich men, with the ability to purchase larger production lines and to compete through advertisements and horse-trailer deliveries, put their faces on the brand. Their perspectives on the beer industry are revealed in Winnipeg’s earliest business newspaper, The Commercial. Described in several articles, although particularly in one entitled “The Hop Industry,” the production of beer represented a profitable industry:

That the soil of Manitoba is especially adapted to hop culture is abundantly proven by the profusion with which wild varieties of this useful plant grow in various parts of the province. Boys and women form the army of hop-pickers generally, as it is necessary on the ground of cheapness. Male labor would be altogether too costly in this country to be used with profit. There is plenty of the class of labor wanted in our towns, and in the Indian reserves which could be made available. The demand at home is increasing every year, and a considerable local supply could be easily disposed of. – 13 March 1883 [74]

This excerpt also indicates the transition from the cottage economy of earlier times when individuals produced their own beer to the wage labour that characterized the growth of the brewing industry.

After its fourth change of ownership by 1886, The Winnipeg Brewery was no longer a simple farmhouse plot operation. According to the lease to Cosgrove and Blackwood by Thomas, the brewery contained the following: 1200-gallon mash tun with two iron false bottoms, four “bad order” tuns, stone cellar and five fermenting tubs. [75] This setup was greatly improved by June of 1886, allowing for a daily production of 5000 gallons with a 150,000 gallon storage tank and requiring some twenty workers. [76] One year later, Cosgrove & Co. relinquished ownership and posted the brewery for sale by sheriff at $8,550; but would receive only $5,000. By September 1887, Thomas had made his final profit from the brewery by transferring the land deed to a pioneer banker named Duncan MacArthur while two Irish speculators, Patrick Shea and John McDonagh, then owners of the successful Waverley Hotel, purchased the brewery. By then a city of 21,257 people, Winnipeg had both the population to ensure a profitable return on beer and several breweries backed by financial capital to lock down the local market.Whiskey Thomas relocated across the border in Pembina, North Dakota and opened what was then called the Pembina Brewing Company. He operated as brewmaster and owner for eight years before the state enforced prohibition. [77]

Prohibition was a deeply contentious issue, making the brewing industry in Winnipeg a precarious enterprise. In 1892, Manitoba became the first province to hold a referendum on prohibition. Those able to vote did so in favour of a ban on alcohol; however, legislation would not come into effect until passage of the Manitoba Temperance Act of 1916. By 1902, McDonagh and Shea’s Winnipeg Brewery dug its own private well, no longer relying on the Colony Creek water supply and maximizing its output to 36,000 barrels a year. [78] McDonagh and Shea’s operation of the brewery produced one of the city’s largest icons of industry throughout the first half of the 20th century with its successful Shea’s Select lager delivered by Clydesdaledrawn beer trucks. [79] However, the iconography and advertising of Winnipeg breweries, beginning with this transition to large-scale production, became their primary distinction in an increasingly competitive market.

The history of beer in Manitoba, beginning with a London-based fur-trading company, and continuing into the 19th century with multiple, large-scale Winnipeg breweries whose stocks were eventually traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange, presents a certain historical continuity. Brewing in Winnipeg had its background in an imposed morality and a monopolized economy. But as demonstrated, there were brewers who challenged the monolithic HBC and paternalistic Council of Assiniboia to form an unregulated home-brewing cottage-economy in Red River and later in Winnipeg. The transition period between the fur-trade era and the rise of industrial capitalism were the glory days of Winnipeg’s brewing history. And it is between the lines of codified brewing that we must look for the true traditions in the history of beer in Winnipeg.

“Brewers of high class.” An advertisement in The Commercial, an early Winnipeg trade newspaper, for local brewer John Woodley.

“Brewers of high class.” An advertisement in The Commercial, an early Winnipeg trade newspaper, for local brewer John Woodley.
Source: The Commercial (Winnipeg), No. 26, 27 March 1883.


1. Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, “Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History,” No. 4, Department of Indian Affairs & Northern Development. Ottawa: 1970, p. 69. HBCA FC 16.C3L no. 4

2. Labatt’s Manitoba Brewery Limited, “Truly it was a time of Beginnings,” Winnipeg, 1973.

3. The argument made here regarding indigenous peoples and women home brewers is not to portray beer and alcohol, often considered enslavers of the less privileged, as liberation. It does not deny the havoc that alcohol reaps on homes, women and the colonial subjects of Canada. It does, however, address the utilization of a commodity that was transformed various times throughout the colonial expansion of England and France into Cree land and introduced through homesteaders who had a very different use for it.

4. Heron, Craig, Booze: A Distilled History. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2003, p. 14.

5. Coutts, Ian, Brew North: How Canadians Made Beer and How Beer Made Canada. Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2010, p. 7.

6. Gorman, Norm, A List of Manitoba Breweries & Their Locations, 1980, p. 1.

7. Unger, Richard W., Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004, p. 4. Historically beer has also been used as a term to indicate a lager: a bottomfermenting beverage as opposed to top-fermenting ales.

8. Smith, Gregg, Beer: A History of Suds and Civilization from Mesopotamia to Microbreweries. New York: Avon Books, 1995, p. 7.

9. Unger, Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, p. 24. Though integral to the development of fermentation, yeast was not identified scientifically as a living organism until Louis Pasteur’s work with microorganisms in fermentation in 1857. See also One Hundred Years of Brewing, New York: Arno Press, 1974, pp. 109-112 (reprint of original 1903 edition in The Western Brewer [Durham, NC], under different title; refer to

10. Ibid., p. 110. Sam Calagione, brewmaster of the Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton, Delaware, USA, lambastes this law as an artificial imposition to which modern macro-breweries point for their adherence to “tradition” in brewing history. Calagione argues that the “concept of tradition and traditional brewing is one that is manufactured by big breweries for the consumer. When people talk about traditional brewing [they refer to] the Reinheitsgebot of 1516. The Bavarian government said it was illegal to make beer with anything other than water, hops and barley. Breweries around the world reflexively recognized that as tradition.” When, in the eyes of the craft brewers, this was a limiting, state-driven market imposition on the industry. The Authors@Google lecture with Sam Calagione, New York City, 26 March 2009, accessed 14 March 2012.

11. India Pale Ale (IPA) is the most prevalent style reflecting this imperialism. Twice as much hops is used in the recipe, making the beer twice as likely to hold its shelf life on the voyage to the subcontinent at the behest of the East India Company in the late 18th century.

12. Unger, Beer in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, p. 11. Unger adopts D. P. S. Peacock’s eight stages of production devised to analyze the pottery industry in Medieval Europe and describe the hierarchical changes in the workplace.

13. Ibid., p. 12.

14. Gorman, A List of Manitoba Breweries, p. 1.

15. Pashley, Nick, Cheers! An Intemperate History of Beer in Canada. Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., 2009, p. 9. See also Eberts, Derek, “To Brew or Not to Brew: A Brief History of Beer in Canada,” Manitoba History, no. 54, February 2007.

16. Heron, Booze, p. 43. In addition, spirits were also used in noncommodity exchanges as described by early Kildonan settler Mrs. W. R. Black, regarding Louis Riel, père, “On his way back the Nor’Westers were on the lookout for him and had offered the Indians two kegs of rum, a cash reward of twenty pounds, and a lot of tobacco, for his capture.” See also Healy, W. J., The Women of Red River. 3rd ed., Winnipeg: Peguis Publishers, 1977, pp. 58–59.

17. Gorman, A List of Manitoba Breweries, p. 2.

18. Marx, Karl, Capital. vol. 1, London: Penguin Classics, 1976, p. 915.

19. Hochschild, Adam, Bury the Chains: Prophets, Slaves, and Rebels in the First Human Rights Crusade. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2005, p. 54.

20. Ibid., p. 55.

21. Ibid.

22. The accepted spelling of the Scottish and Canadian product is “whisky” (Canadian Oxford Dictionary); the “Whiskey” spelling is reserved here for verbatim quotations and for personal monikers.

23. Ibid., p. 70.

24. Gorman, A List of Manitoba Breweries, p. 2. Derived from the Hudson’s Bay Record Society publication, The History of the Hudson’s Bay Company, 1670-1870, Vol.1: 1670-1773. E. E. Rich, ed. London, 1958.

25. Ibid., p. 3.

26. Heron, Booze, p. 18.

27. Alex Grisdale, “This Is My Story,” transcribed by Nan Shipley, 1971, Nan Shipley Fonds, MSS 21, Box 9, Fld 1, University of Manitoba: Archives & Special Collections.

28. Hannon, Leslie F., Forts of Canada: The Conflicts, Sieges and Battles that Forged a Great Nation. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1969, p. 200.

29. Ibid.

30. Heron, Booze, p. 40.

31. Ibid., p. 41.

32. Douglas, William, The House of Shea: The Story of a Pioneer Industry. Winnipeg: Bulman Bros. Ltd, 1947, p.5.

33. “One Hundred Years of Brewing,” op. cit., p. 620 (see note 9).

34. Ibid., p. 5. As the historian Francis Parkman mentions, “the brewery was accordingly built, to the great satisfaction of the poorer colonists.” Shortly after Talon’s term as Intendant ended in 1672, Frontenac arrived and converted the brewery into a prison, most likely not to the great satisfaction of the poorer colonists.

35. Ibid., p. 227.

36. Caribou is a Québecois alcoholic beverage usually mixed with red wine or port, whisky or brandy and maple syrup.

37. Cobbett, William, Cottage Economy. 17th ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

38. Ibid., p. 3. “The laws, the economy, or management, of a state may be such as to render it impossible for the labourer, however skilful and industrious, to maintain his family in health and decency; and such has, for many years past, been the management of the affairs of this once truly great and happy land. A system of paper money, the effect of which was to take from the labourer the half of his earnings, was what no industry and care could make head against.”

39. Ibid., p. 12. Despite Cobbett’s clairvoyant insights into brewing, he did fall quite short in many aspects in this treatise, particularly his patriarchal and hetero-normative perceptions of the “pernicious practice of drinking tea” as an effeminate degradation of manhood carried out by ‘old hens’ at the gossip table, among others.

40. Heron, Booze, p. 12. Legal implementation beginning in the 1830s set about constructing a “moral dominion” for the middle classes to self-regulate.

41. Healy, W. J., Women of the Red River: Being a Book Written from the Recollections of Women Surviving from the Red River Area. 3rd ed.. Winnipeg: Peguis Publishers, 1977, p. 12.

42. Ibid., p. 12.

43. The Lower Fort Garry, also known as the Stone Fort, was built that same year after the devastating flood of 1926 displayed the susceptibility of the Upper Fort. See Hannon, Leslie F., Forts of Canada, p. 183.

44. Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, “Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History,” No.4, Department of Indian Affairs & Northern Development. Ottawa: 1970, p. 69. HBCA FC 16.C3L no.4.

45. Ibid., p. 73.

46. Ibid., p. 74.

47. Ibid., p. 71.

48. “Sketches by Lieutenant George E. Finlay, 6th Regiment, 1846-48,” in Manitoba Pageant, Spring 1969, vol. 12, No. 1, 18 July 2009,, accessed 26 April 2012.

49. Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, “Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History,” No.4, Department of Indian Affairs & Northern Development. Ottawa: 1970, p. 74. HBCA FC 16.C3L no.4.

50. Ibid., p. 76.

51. Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, “Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History,” No.4, Department of Indian Affairs & Northern Development. Ottawa: 1970, p. 76. HBCA FC 16.C3L no.4. This amount equals 1600 gallons of beer. Simpson indicates here the process of brewing and alcohol content in a nutshell: the more barley mashed per gallon of water, the higher the sugar content thus the higher level of alcohol. However, the higher the alcohol, the less water, meaning the barley would not go as far if weaker beers were being made.

52. Ibid.

53. Ibid.

54. Compare this amount to Half Pints Brewing Company whose annual capacity is 211,337 gallons (6,817 barrels). Geoff Kirbyson, “Half Pints Brewery tanks up,” Winnipeg Free Press, 7 October 2010, p. B4.

55. Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, “Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History” No.4, Department of Indian Affairs & Northern Development. Ottawa: 1970, p. 76. HBCA FC 16.C3L no.4.

56. Smith, Beer, p. 32

57. Hoverson, Land of Amber Waters, p. 21.

58. Mrs. Dickenson, “Hop Beer” in The Home Cook Book. 7th ed. Toronto: Rose Publishing Co., 1889, p. 352. This cookbook was compiled largely from an earlier edition compiled by a Chicago women’s group which promoted to English speaking women the duties of a housewife.

59. Douglas, The House of Shea, p. 90

60. Heron, Booze, p. 11.

61. See Renisa Mawani’s Colonial Proximities: Crossracial Encounters and Juridical Truths in British Columbia, 1871–1921. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2009.

62. Journals of Alex Grisdale, 1971., transcribed by Nan Shipley, Nan Shipley Collection fonds, MSS 21, Box 9, Fld 1, University of Manitoba, Archives and Special Collections.

63. Heron. Booze, p. 11.

64. Healy, W. J., The Women of Red River, p. 34.

65. M. Lowman, “Selling Liquor to Indians,” The Nor’Wester, 25 May 1860.

66. Douglas, The House of Shea, p. 97.

67. Governor and Council of Assiniboia, Laws of Assiniboia, 11 April 1862, p. 7.

68. Douglas, The House of Shea, p. 98.

69. Gorman, A List of Manitoba Breweries, p. 10.

70. Douglas, The House of Shea, p. 7. Thomas, according to his great-granddaughter, Corine Tellier, came to Louisiana from France working on the Mississippi river and for a time in St. Louis, possibly applying his trade as brewer. He then moved to St. Paul, Minnesota and married. His son was born on the Red River trail amongst their caravan north to Winnipeg.

71. “remember; Colony Creek,” [Labatt’s Brewery advertisement in] Centennial Edition, Winnipeg Free Press, 30 November 1972, p. 51. Thomas’s brewery was most likely the first in the area now known as Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. British Columbia had a strong history due to US proximity, higher populations earlier and coastal shipping.

72. Gorman, A List of Manitoba Brewries, p. 5.

73. Thomas’ The Winnipeg Brewery operated under the following owners: M. E. Roy & Peter Poulin (1881-1882), Roy & Co. (1883), O. Allaire & Thomas (1885), John Cosgrove & William Blackwood (1886), Shea & McDonagh (1887).

74. “The Hop Industry,” The Commercial, 13 March 1883, p. 468.

75. Douglas, The House of Shea, p. 35.

76. Ibid.

77. Gorman, A List of Manitoba Breweries, p. 8.

78. Douglas, The House of Shea, p. 54.79. Ibid, p. 72. Eight of these horses, all accomplished in the fair circuit, were sold to Anheuser-Busch of St. Louis in 1933.

Page revised: 27 August 2020

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