Blog

The city of London, Ontario has a long, storied history of working hard. Whether it took the form of toiling on the farm or in the factory, London has always been a town that gravitated toward the rewards of hard work. One of the great truths of any city that works up a sweat by the end of the day is that it’s nightlife must be as equally hard working. After a long week, the populace wants to blow off some steam, and so the city must have something to offer those people and their steam. London is no stranger to night life – check out the busy revelry on the Richmond Row on any given night – and it’s no stranger to the libations that fuel the good cheer of that night life either. Beer has a long history in London as well; like any working city the world over, beer has been the grease that moves the wheels of life. The Forest City Beer Fest is a celebration of that fact, and the important role that London, Ontario has played in the development of beer in Ontario, and in Canada as a whole. Taking place, like so many other summer festivals, in downtown London, Forest City Beer Fest celebrates the craft, taste, and history of great beer, and great local beer manufacturers.

Brewing In London

Beer making first came to Canada from the Jesuits. In particular, Brother Ambroise, who opened the first brewery in 1646, shortly after the foundation of New France, is remembered as being the pioneering brewer of Canada. That was a personal brewery, though; the first commercial brewery is remembered as being that of Jean Talon, the Count d’Orsainville. Talon opened his brewery in 1688 in Quebec City, to cut down on the costs of drinking imported liquors. It soon proved so successful that he was exporting Canadian liquor out to the West Indies.

Brewing took a little longer to get out to the pioneering new colonies in Southwestern Ontario. Brewing in London became a commercial concern in 1828, after John Balkwill opened the London Brewery on Simcoe Street. The London Brewery brewed a good product and became quite successful, producing up to 400 barrels of beer a year. Much of the beer was sold through Balkwill’s tavern, of course, but a little beer was set aside to sell outside the region as well. In 1847, Balkwill sold The London Brewery to an entrepreneur named Samuel Eccles, who later partnered with a brewmaster with a famous name: an Irish gentleman by the name of John Kinder Labatt.

Labatt’s Brewery

John Labatt had gone to England to study the craft of beer-making, and when he returned and partnered with Eccles the quality and quantity produced by The London Brewery increased substantially. By 1853 they were doing so well that Labatt could afford to buy Eccles out of the business and put his name on it: John Labatt’s Brewery. By this time Labatt’s was producing over 4,000 barrels a year and was exporting their wares on the growing Canadian railway system to far-flung parts of the country.

John Labatt II, the youngest son of John Kinder Labatt, took the company over in 1866. Under his leadership, the London brewing industry adopted modern measures like pasteurization, and the use of ice. Ten years after his takeover of the company, Labatt’s India Pale Ale won a silver medal at the Canadian Exposition in Ottawa. The Labatt name joined a number of other names that were making Canada a renowned place for the brewing of beer: Molson, Carling, Sleeman, Alexander Keith, and Oland (the founder of Moosehead Brewery). With distribution spread across the entirety of the country, brewing proved to be an industry that could weather almost any storm. Despite economic setbacks during the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century, brewery sales continued to grow regardless. This was true right up until the advent of the First World War.

With the outbreak of war in 1914, the excise duty on malt was doubled as a war measure. In response, a number of provinces “went dry”, prohibiting the sales of alcoholic beverages. This was made worse by legislation passed by the federal government in 1918 making it illegal to brew “intoxicating” beverages until at least one year following the cessation of hostilities in Europe. Complicating the matter further was the activities of the prohibitionist and teetotaler movements, who were successful in the post-world war era in convincing governments in both Canada and the United States to outlaw alcohol for the purposes of morality, decency, and keeping the domestic abuse rates from the heights they were once at. While Prohibition didn’t last quite as long in Canada’s experiment with it as it did in the United States (who kept at it until the 1930s), the effects of what Prohibition we did have combined with the endemic economic problems of the Great Depression and the shortages brought about during the Second World War meant that the Golden Age of brewing in Canada was effectively over.

While it was an era of brewery closings and brewing industry consolidations, this was not entirely the case in London, Ontario. When the government of Ontario imposed prohibition in 1916, right in the furious middle of the First World War, the Labatt brewing company managed to restructure their business in two ways. First, they would continue to manufacture full-strength beer, but aim it for export to the American market. Second, they would continue to manufacture beer for Ontario but would make it at less than 2% alcohol, and market them as “temperance ales”. When the American government embarked on their own ill-fated experiment with prohibition in 1919, the London brewing industry had to adjust, and push endlessly for new markets. Their hard work paid off eventually; when Ontario finally repealed their attempt at prohibition in 1926, Labatt’s was one of only 15 breweries still in operation in the province, and the only one that still retained their original management.

Carling

Labatt’s wasn’t the only brewer during the Golden Age in London, of course, merely the only one that made it out whole and on top of their business. Carling Breweries was the brainchild of Thomas Carling, originally a native of Yorkshire, England. Carling moved to London Township in 1819, married in 1820, and founded a brewery, Carling Breweries, in 1843. The original site for the Carling Brewery was on Waterloo Street, which at the time was directly opposite the British military garrison, which is of course a brilliant place to put a brewery. Soldiering, then as now, was thirsty work, and Carling made a fair bit of money selling his brews to them. That first brewery featured two kettles, a horse that would make the grinding wheel turn, and six hired men whose business it was to work the mash tubs.

The business was enough of a success that a new brewery was opened in Montreal and Carling products were shipped all over the country. Carling himself left the brewery to his son in 1850 and went into politics. He later served in the cabinet of Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, was himself knighted by the British Crown, and later served in the Canadian Senate. Under Carling’s son William the brewery continued to expand. A new Carling Brewery in London was built at the bottom of Ann Street, next to a large spring-water pond near the banks of the Thames River. It was an excellent site for a brewery upon it’s completion in 1875, but in 1879 disaster struck. A massive fire broke out at the brewery and burned the site to the ground. If that wasn’t enough, William Carling himself was injured trying to retrieve files from the burning brewery. He would die two weeks later, from pneumonia brought on by exposure. The brewery itself was rebuilt in massive fashion: 300 feet long, almost six stories high, and featuring a seven-story malting tower. The main building itself was surrounded by a complex of sheds and storage barns, holding coal, ice, and empty barrels. The company had rail lines running at the rear of the main brewery, for ease of transportation, and after the disastrous burning of their first Ann Street brewery the Carling company decided to invest in a private fire fighting force to keep the place safe.

Unlike Labatt’s however, Carling did not survive the era of Prohibition, Depression, and war intact. Prohibition did the biggest initial damage to the Carling business, sharply reducing their production and necessitating actually shutting down production entirely for a time starting in 1920. By 1930 the company was sold off and in 1936 the brewery closed after an amalgamation with Kuntz Brewery, a brewing company based out of Waterloo, Ontario.

The Art of Craft Beer

While both major London brewing companies have survived in names, both are also brands within gigantic international corporate conglomerates. Mass-produced beer is as popular now as it ever has been; the Labatt’s brewery in London is still in full operation, after all, and the downtown’s premier spot for concerts is named after another extremely popular brand of beer. That said, there has been a movement in recent years toward something smaller, a product both more local than international, and more “hand-crafted” and “authentic” than domestic favourites like Labatt Blue and Molson Canadian. This is the push toward “craft beer”, and it is increasingly a key concern in the purchasing habits of the discerning beer consumer. Over the past two decades the craft beer industry has become a multi-million dollar industry. Recent years have seen a number of craft breweries spring up in the city, all of which are staking names for themselves as top producers of quality beer.

Anderson Craft Ales, located at the edge of London’s Old East Village, has become known for their selection of ales, including a very popular India Pale and a delicious cream ale. Forked River Brewing Company, a brewery founded by three graduates of the University of Western Ontario, is another popular local craft brewer. Their iconic Capital blonde ale – that’s the one with the flowing blonde Father John Misty doppleganger on the can – can be found in any number of local eateries, both chain and independent. The London Brewing Co-Op, meanwhile, focuses on making locally sourced, environmentally sustainable beer as a partnership between the brewers and local farmers. Powerhouse Brewing Co. is a newcomer on the scene, having just opened up for business in the old Kellogg factory, alongside the new athletic adventure complex, The Factory. Storm Stayed, a brewery located at the edge of London’s Old South neighbourhood, is one of the few craft breweries to offer the more niche European beer experiences, such as the sour-mash variety of their Berliner Weisse and their milkshake kettle sour. Toboggan, a brewery and restaurant that is a busy fixture in downtown London (located across from Victoria Park), features not only a great blonde ale (their Mr. Insurance Salesman) but also a killer Cuban sandwich. Perhaps the clearest sign that the craft beer phenomenon is becoming big business, however, is the opening of Equals Brewery, a full-time manufactory that will brew beer not for themselves, but on contract for a number of small craft breweries who would not otherwise be able to mass produce their product in sufficient numbers to get them into the hands of consumers outside the London region.

Forest City Beer Fest is a celebration of all these latter-day brewing heroes: the craft brewers who concentrate on the quality and aesthetic of their product, rather than on producing the gigantic quantities of the industrial age. Industrially mass-produced beer fosters the assumption that there’s only a few different ways that beer can taste. Craft beer opens up the availability of taste to the limits of the human imagination. At Rib Fest, another summer festival in downtown London, I happened upon tents run by Powerhouse and Railway City (a brewery based out of St. Thomas, Ontario). Powerhouse was offering a raspberry-flavoured concoction, a specialized German pilsner if I recall correctly, and Railway City had an orange creamsicle ale. The possibilities are endless, and that’s what the Forest City Beer Fest sets out to showcase. If you have a passion for beer, or you suspect that you might enjoy beer beyond the light pilsners of Labatt’s Blue or Budweiser, then the Forest City Beer Fest is right where you need to be.