A Window on Taste: Canadian Beer Labels through History
eer has been a part of Canadian life since the 17th century. The first brewery, “la Brasserie du Roi,” was built in 1671 in Quebec City, under Jean Talon, the Intendant of Quebec. A brewery was operating in Halifax by 1754, and the first Ontario brewery was located in Bath in 1793, with Toronto following in 1805. In the west, Winnipeg had its first brewery by 1872.
Lawrence Sherk has been collecting breweriana, including but not limited to beer labels, for some thirty years. His label collection is one of only three such comprehensive collections of Canadian beer labels, all in private hands. (The University of Western Ontario recently received the donation of the entire Labatt archive, representing the only such collection in a public institution.)
In 2011, Sherk donated his collection of more than 3,000 Canadian beer labels to the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto. The collection consists of printed beer labels issued by breweries across the country from the late 1800s until the 1980s. During this period Canada went from a high of 182 operating breweries in 1862, to 124 in 1910, to just 39 in 1981, of which only eight were not operated by the big three companies—Molson, Labatt, and Carling-O’Keefe.
Printed labels were used as an important means of marketing and advertising. They provide a window into Canadian society and document evolving sensibilities and tastes, as new products were introduced and marketed, from the first lager in 1837 (ales predominated until the 1860s), to non-alcoholic beer during the Prohibition era, to the first conscious effort in 1951 by Labatt to establish a national brand (Blue), to the first “light” beer introduced by Labatt in 1978.
Excerpted from Spring/Summer 2013 Ornamentum. Click here to subscribe.
Anne Dondertman is the Director of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, which has holdings of some 700,000 books as well as manuscripts and other printed material. The Fisher Library collections are freely available to all those with an interest.