- - Wednesday, December 4, 2019

The Labatt Brewing Co., founded in 1847 in London, Ontario, was once regarded as an important Canadian institution. It launched many brands of beer for the Canadian public, built parks and buildings, had majority ownership in baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays and sponsored everything from sports teams to Formula 1 racing.

Matthew Bellamy’s “Brewed in the North: A History of Labatt’s” is a fascinating look at a company that was “synonymous with beer in Canada.” Yet in the Carleton University history professor’s view, the “Labatt’s story reads like a classic Greek tragedy in which the protagonist is brought down not by blind accident but by fatal flaws in judgment, by hubris, and by other self-inflicted wounds.”

The story starts with John Kinder Labatt, an Irish lad born in Mountmellick, a “small, rural agricultural centre for the marketing of grain and livestock.” He was “awestruck by the economic development that was taking place around him,” and the “developing capitalist class” that served as a source of inspiration. 

Beer was a vital part of daily life in Ireland. There were five breweries in Mountmellick in 1801, all serving ales and table beers that were “often poor in quality and relatively expensive.” The Irish working class were fond of darker English beers like porters until tariffs were imposed, which enabled Arthur Guinness’ brewery to become a local favorite. An extension of the country’s grand canal ran through Labatt’s hometown, which “was a boon to brewers like Guinness” and likely had an impact on the enterprising young man. 

Labatt left Ireland and settled in Canada. He became a wheat farmer around St. Thomas in Upper Canada (later Ontario) and married Eliza Kell in 1833. The brewing industry was flourishing in nearby London, which had “all the essential ingredients … to brew a quality beer,” including hops, barley and fresh water.

He would form an important association with Samuel Eccles, who ran a brewing company in St. Thomas. In 1847, Eccles purchased the larger London Brewery from John Balkwill around the time Labatt wanted to sell his farm and move into that industry. He approached Eccles, who was open to the suggestion because taking him on as a partner “would reduce his exposure to a potential loss.” 

Labatt gradually became more powerful and dominant as a co-owner, while Eccles expressed concern related to “liquor traffic” and the temperance movement. The former bought out the latter in 1855, and the London Brewery’s direction would dramatically shift.

Brewed in the North followed the Labatt family after its scion passed away in 1866, and recounted the astonishing rise from bootlegging business to multinational corporation.

Labatt’s battled Ottawa during the 1878 Canadian Temperance Act, or Scott Act. John Labatt, the founder’s son, expanded the enterprise eastward to Ontario and westward to Manitoba. He used the railway system to his economic advantage, too. Incredibly, the act that was supposed to harm liquor traffic worked to his benefit “by aggressively getting to establish in new territories and then consolidated his position by wiping out the competition and absorbing their market share.”   

Canada’s economic struggles during World War I forced 67 of 117 breweries out of business, but Labatt’s held on. Prohibition could have been a huge financial setback if not for the efforts of Edmund Burke, the company’s “hard-nosed general manager” who utilized (ahem) creative strategies to export supply and worked with “marginal types” to keep the business afloat.  

Labatt’s mission “to transform the image of the brewery from a soulless bootlegger to a soulful good neighbour,” combined with the return of public drinking, increase its profits and good fortunes. They found a way to get beer “exported to troops overseas” during World War II, and ran memorable ad campaigns to make Canadians feel more comfortable with this product. Labatt Pilsner became Labatt Blue, a powerful marketing tool for decades. As well, they expanded rapidly into sports ownership, TV stations and concerts.

Unfortunately, this expansion also led to Labatt’s downfall. The Canadian beer industry “worked against economies of scale,” Mr. Bellamy writes. Provincial trade barriers also “meant the industry’s production system was hopelessly fragmented in numerous uncompetitive plants across the country.” It was an impossible, restrictive economic situation for even Labatt’s to overcome. 

Labatt’s was sold to Belgium’s Interbrew in 1995. It’s now part of Anheuser-Busch InBev SA/NV. The company is barely recognizable to those who have long memories, but remains Canada’s largest brewer and a historical treasure. 

Let’s raise a pint to them, eh? 

• Michael Taube is a frequent contributor to The Washington Times.

• • •


By Matthew J. Bellamy

McGill-Queen’s University Press, $34.95, 464 pages

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