Awash in Suds
“The question ‘why printers did not succeed as well as brewers?’ was thus answered: ‘Because printers work for the head, and brewers for the stomach; and where twenty men have stomachs, but one has brains.’”
– The British Colonist, March 19, 1859
That year, would-be prospectors on the way to the gold fields of the Cariboo turned Victoria into a tent-city boom town. Many of them were Germans – including William Steinberger, a businessman in his 20s from Köln, who’d earlier sought his fortune in California’s gold rush. Having witnessed how breweries thrived in San Francisco, Steinberger saw an opportunity to profit from liquid gold in Victoria. He bought up some surplus grain from the Hudson Bay Company’s Craigflower Farm (sales to the Russian enclaves in Alaska dried up during the Crimean war) and, that summer, established western Canada’s first commercial brewery on the shores of Swan Lake.
Clearly demand was strong, because the following year Steinberger moved downtown, establishing a larger operation at the southeast corner of Government and Discovery streets. By 1863, six local breweries were supplying the city’s numerous saloons, packed with sailors of the British Royal Navy, which formally established its base at Esquimalt in 1865. The successful brewers became prominent citizens: Charles Gowen, who founded the Phoenix Brewery in 1868, later became a Victoria city councillor, and Arthur Bunster, who started the Colonial Brewery in 1859, served in the B.C. legislature and the federal parliament.
“These guys had to be good,” says Greg Evans, executive director of the Maritime Museum of British Columbia, who did his M.A. thesis on Vancouver Island’s early brewers. “They were an innovative, pioneering group.” Not only did they have to compete with bottled British ales imported by the Royal Navy, they had to ship in many of their ingredients and equipment from San Francisco, and had few of the tools (such as artificial refrigeration) that modern brewers rely upon today. Nevertheless, in 1886 the Vancouver Brewery, located on Herald Street, received a gold medal at the Paris Exposition for the superior quality of its ale and porter.
The ingredients helped. Victoria’s soft, low-mineral water is especially suitable for mild ales, stout, and lager; indeed, several early brewers made a point of setting up at Spring Ridge (today’s Fernwood district) so they could claim they used only pure spring water. In the 1860s local farmers began planting hops (photo left) to flavour their beer, and by the 1880s their wares were so good that Ontario brewers demanded “Pacific” hops from the Saanich peninsula. Unfortunately, our damp climate has never proved suitable for barley, the grain providing the malt that’s cooked and fermented into beer, so there’s never been a truly all-Victoria brew – but Evans says a local farmer is trying the crop again, so a 100-mile beer may be possible very soon.
In many ways, the local production of beer has mirrored the history of the city. What started out as a pioneer experiment became an industrial enterprise, and by the 1900s breweries were some of the largest businesses in town. Steinberger’s Victoria Brewing Co. had changed hands several times and in 1892 its owners Joseph Loewen and Ludwig Erb constructed a towering stone-and-brick brewery at Government and Discovery streets. (The tower uses gravity to carry ingredients down through each stage of the beer-making process). In 1893 they grew even larger by merging with Charles Gowen’s Phoenix brewery.
Victoria-Phoenix’s closest rival was Silver Spring, started by Robert Tate and his sons in Vic West in 1902, and then incorporated by Harry Maynard into the former E&N Brewery at Catherine Street and Esquimalt Road (see the 1926 photo at right), kitty-corner to the E&N roundhouse. Few small breweries could compete with these giants, and after Prohibition ended in 1919, only Victoria-Phoenix and Silver Spring survived.
Even they couldn’t withstand the onslaught from national brands, however. Struggling to compete with Molson and Labatt, in 1928 the city’s two breweries merged, and in 1954 they became part of a larger company, Lucky Lager Breweries. To no avail: Labatt bought all of Lucky’s breweries in 1958. Labatt demolished the Silver Spring brewery in 1961 – only the brick powerhouse remains – and then concentrated its local production at the old Victoria-Phoenix brewery at Government and Discovery.
It was a lousy time for Victoria beer drinkers. By the 1960s the only choices in liquor stores were the bland national pilsners, and brewery strikes in 1965 and 1978 shuttered many city pubs. Labatt renovated the Victoria-Phoenix brewery (left) – and won a Hallmark Society award for restoring its stonework – but then decided in 1982 to move its production to the mainland, and tear the old building down.
“With the buildings as they are it would be economically impossible to develop the property,” a Labatt spokesman told the Times Colonist. Sadly, this was before the market existed for downtown condos, and the recession-plagued city was more interested in encouraging “modern” developments like the Songhees than in preserving old industrial buildings. (“The heritage people in the community have gone much, much too far,” mayor Peter Pollen told the TC. “It is now becoming an impediment to the orderly development of the city.”) Labatt flattened the landmark to make way for a hideous concrete slab strip-mall – see time-lapse photos of the demolition here – and today all that survives are the brewery's old bottles and labels, which are traded by collectors and reprinted on T-shirts.
In a way, though, we can thank such ignorance for the beer culture Victoria enjoys today. In 1982, when the national breweries simultaneously jacked their prices, the B.C. government accused them of price-fixing, and passed laws allowing Canada’s first microbrews. Spinnakers brewpub opened in Vic West in 1984, and Vancouver Island Brewery started the following year.
“As a result, Victoria is one of the strongest and most knowledgable beer markets – and beer cultures – in Canada,” says Evans, “and in this funny roundabout way, we’re back to the range of choice that our grandparents enjoyed.” With the new Driftwood Brewery we have seven quality breweries in town (maybe eight, if the rumours are true that Hugo’s will be revived in the Strathcona Hotel), turning out some of the best lagers, ales, porters and stouts in the country.
Just last month, in fact, Evans joined members of Victoria’s German community at Spinnakers for a Kölsch especially brewed to celebrate their place in the city’s 150-year brewing history. William Steinberger would have been proud.
PS Some 1960s and 1970s colour photos with the Victoria-Phoenix brewery in the background are posted here and here.
UPDATE (February 22, 2011): Today, Driftwood releases its D’Hiver Cuvée (“Winter Batch”), an effervescent, Belgian-style beer notable because it uses locally grown and malted barley, produced by Saanichton farmer Mike Doehnel – the closest thing Victoria has yet to a 100-mile beer. Cheers!