BY PETER WALSH
Thunder Bay has been a hub for many different industries throughout its history, such as shipping, railway, heavy manufacturing, and pulp and paper. Among the lesser known industries is the brewing of beer and ale.
Brewing is one of our city’s oldest industries, and it was once very prominent. One of the most important breweries was located at 154 North Algoma Street in Port Arthur.
Conrad Gehl founded the Superior Brewing and Malting Company in 1876 and operated it out of a wooden-frame building on the banks of McVicar Creek which was the source of his water. He upgraded this to a stone structure in 1892. A stone addition in 1901 measuring 6.4 by 16.5-meters, which was used as a warehouse and cold storage, testifies to the success of his business.
Gehl owned the company until 1904 when he sold it to Allan Guerard who renamed it Diamond Brewing Co. Limited. Ownership changed hands again in 1919 when Harry C. McMahon and Thomas Patrick Kelly assumed control of the brewery and gave it a new name, the Port Arthur Beverage Company.
In 1948, J.J. Doran bought control of the business, adding it to the other breweries owned by the Doran family in Northern Ontario including ones in Fort William, Sault Ste. Marie and Timmins.
In 1961, Doran changed the name for all his breweries to Doran’s Northern Ontario Breweries Limited.
Beer was good business at the time. By the 1950s, Port Arthur’s brewery had an annual capacity of 375,000 gallons (1,419,529 litres) compared to the modest 10,000 gallons (37,854 litres) of the original building. And in 1970 another expansion worth $50,000 was made.
The Doran family stated that they wanted to make the best and purest beer, which meant using no artificial ingredients, only pure water, hops, yeast and the necessary grains.
In 1971, Doran’s Northern Ontario Breweries Limited, along with Doran’s other breweries, were sold to Carling O’Keefe in a power move by the latter. The local brewery, however, was still allowed to make their original beer. Then, when Carling O’Keefe was looking to sell its stake in 1977, the employees of Northern Ontario Breweries decided to buy it.
The corporate structure remained the same, but now the employees were shareholders in the company.
Employees who left the company had to sell their shares, ensuring its ownership status remained intact. There were also rules that ensured that no one employee could be a majority shareholder. The new company kept brewing until the pressures of competing with the much larger breweries in the North American market forced them to close their doors in 1995. The building was then demolished. Today, condominiums are located where the brewery once stood.
Even though the building itself is gone, there are still independent breweries in Thunder Bay such as Sleeping Giant Brewing Co. and Dawson Trail Craft Brewery. They carry the torch of brewing good quality beer and ensure that Thunder Bay still maintains its proud brewing tradition.
Looking Back is written weekly by one of various writers for the Thunder Bay Museum. For further information visit the museum at 425 Donald St. E., or view its website at www.thunderbaymuseum.com.