Beer came to the Canadian wilderness with the United Empire Loyalists who drank it to define their culture from that of their “dram drinking Republican cousins” to the south. Beer also came with the British army who were issued six pints a day for their “health and convenience.”
With On Tap: The Odyssey of Beer and Brewing in Victorian London-Middlesex, Ontario beer writer Glen Phillips has refined and expanded this template for the study of brewing history in Ontario that I sketched out in my first book in 1988.
Providing the history of brewing in and around 19th-century London, Ontario, in a broad social and economic framework, Phillips provides something for everyone, from the brewerianist to the beer geek, in a well-illustrated, well-documented study that I only wish I had written.
Phillips covers the same ground that all beer writer’s travel, with an overview of beer in world and Canadian history, brewing ingredients, brewing technology, brewery wages and workers, beer barrels, bottles, beer culture from bar room ambience to rowdyism, and, finally, temperance. At the same time, he adds a new twist to the old theme by trying to make the history relevant to the contemporary reader with some time travel. Taking the reader to a brewery in 1828 and then 1900, Phillips serves us some history over a pint of IPA with John Labatt.
Cloaked in an academic framework that traces brewing’s economic and social values, the text is brightened with sidebars offering snippets of beer lore. These let the reader reflect on everything from the punishment meted out to 17th-century New Yorkers who dared to “rudely offend the (beer lover’s) palate with inferior brew” to telling us that “The modern word ‘booze’ is a variant of the Middle English word ‘bouse,’ which meant to drink deeply or for the sake of fellowship and enjoyment.”
For the casual reader, the book’s appeal is in its vast array of archival quality photographs that will not only delight but will offer a glimpse of 19th-century tavern, domestic, industrial and urban life.
For the historian, the real strength is found not so much in the story of Carling and Labatt, but in the lesser-known brewers such as Bixels of Strathroy and Brantford and a whole host of smaller players including John Dimond, Joseph Hamilton and Thomas Bryan’s Elephant Brewery, to name just a few. The section on “The Birth of Branding” is nothing less than brilliant!
My only criticisms are the breezy style, which becomes more than slightly irritating, and a certain amount of repetition, particularly in lamenting a scarcity of definitive documentary sources. Phillips in some places has tried to do too much. For example, in a refreshing but rare burst of Canadian chauvinism, he writes that George Rebscher of Berlin (Kitchener, Ontario) brewed North America’s first lager in 1837, three years before the Americans. If this is so, not only was Rebscher the first in North America to brew lager but the first in the world, as the style was not formalized in Europe until 1840.
Would I buy the book? I did, and it was worth every dollar. I now just hope that the author gets out his second volume dealing with the 20th century before too long.