The Life and Times of Alexander Keith, Nova Scotia’s Brewmaster
“Today they say of Alexander Keith’s beer, ‘those who like it, like it a lot.’ Well, it would seem that to have known the Honorable Alexander Keith, was to like HIM a lot.”
Alexander Keith and his India pale ale achieved national prominence in Canada due to the phenomenal success of Labatt’s modern mass-market interpretation of this traditional style. “Exported” across Canada under the banner of Oland Breweries of Halifax, a subsidiary of Labatt, which in turn is a branch of Interbrew, the beer has a genealogy that can be traced to a restored historic working brewery.
Its creator, to name only the most significant posts Keith held, was elected mayor of Halifax, Nova Scotia, twice, president of the Provincial Legislative Council, and grand master of the Masons of Nova Scotia. Popular historian and retired teacher Peter McCreath has captured the life and times of this dynamo Victorian entrepreneur in just 78 pages.
The story starts in Sunderland, England, when the young Alexander was apprenticed in 1812 to his uncle to learn “the beer and malt business.” Five years later, Keith emigrated to Halifax, where he worked as a brewer for merchant Charles Bogg. McCreath speculates that Keith enjoyed early success as the town’s first qualified brewer. In 1820, Keith purchased the brewery from Bogg.
With Halifax serving as a major British military base, Keith was assured a thirsty market, as the lads were given a penny a day to purchase six pints of their favorite tipple. In 1821, Keith advertised his strong ales, ginger wine, table and spruce beer. A year later, he moved to the site of the present brewery, building the granite Nova Scotia Brewery facing the harbor in 1836.
By mid-century, Keith was annually converting 18,000 bushels of wheat and 300 bales of hops into more than 22,000 Imperial gallons of beer. Joined by one of his sons, Donald, Keith then built Keith Hall, joined to the brewery by an underground tunnel.
When Keith died, he left an estate valued at more than $300,000.
The brewery remained with members of the family until it was purchased by Colonel Sidney Oland, giving the Oland family a monopoly over the local suds trade. Maintaining the Keith name, Oland was then purchased by Labatt in 1971, and the granite brewery closed.
Good marketing intervened and Labatt launched Alexander Keith IPA across Canada, selling maritime nostalgia and a good story. The brand grew by leaps and bounds. Labatt realized that the beer had a “home” and, after a $4 million retrofit, reopened the old facility as a working brewery and historic interpretation center (www.keiths.ca).
Unfortunately, however, the reader does not learn when Keith launched his now famous IPA. Molson might also challenge McCreath’s claim that Keith’s “is the oldest brewery site still producing beer in Canada,” as they have been at their Montreal location since 1786.
Simply stated, the beer geek will find the book to be “small beer.” The illustrations alone, however, make the book worthwhile and make it a good purchase until a more thorough study comes along.