Lost breweries of Toronto

Pulling a pint of beer (Photo: Ontario Tourism Marketing Partnership)


Jordan St. John

Intangible heritage, Food

Published Date:08 Sep 2017

Photo: Pulling a pint of beer (Photo: Ontario Tourism Marketing Partnership)

As an artifact, beer can tell you a lot about the culture that develops it. Take Molson Canadian as an example. That brand sums up a period of time and a set of attitudes about what it meant to be Canadian. Judging by the commercials I grew up with, that included the vehement rejection of imposed stereotypes and the ability to jersey an office co-worker.

It’s hard to conceive of beer out of nothing. Toronto’s first beer (brewed at Fort Rouillé by French traders) would have been born out of necessity: molasses for sugar, spruce tips for flavour, sourdough starter to ferment the mixture. While not an appealing flavour profile, it was better than drinking the water.

By the time Upper Canada had proper brewers in the 1790s, they were making essentially wheat wine – a style transplanted here by United Empire Loyalists who had been influenced by Dutch brewers from New York State. Each subsequent wave of English brewers brought with them their own informational package. Take the Farr brothers from Weston in Hertfordshire who grew up learning to grow malt barley. In Canada, they would put that skill to use supplying Fort York with beer. The Helliwell brewery at Toronto’s Todmorden Mill had roots in Yorkshire and brewed a 9.5 per cent barley wine through the 1830s, a version of which I have reconstructed. Enoch Turner had been a pub landlord near Burton-on-Trent. I have even money on his beer from the 1840s tasting a lot like Bass Pale Ale.

The same can be said of German brewers. Ontario was one of the first places in North America to have lager, with cold-aging techniques in Waterloo by 1830. The most extreme example of imported culture might be Lothar Reinhardt’s Toronto brewery. Reinhardt would toast to “The Fatherland,” which was fine because the First World War hadn’t happened yet. Having apprenticed at Paulaner, he appropriated their bock beer and renamed it slightly as “Salvador.”

Our culture is made up piece by piece of people bringing their traditions here with them, a fact that is no less true today than it was at the beginning.