Labatt’s Replica 1840s Brewery

When we was Craft

In 1967, following two years of research, Labatt Breweries of Canada Ltd. built a replica, called The London Brewery, of the 1847 brewery of John Kinder Labatt and Samuel Eccles in London, Ontario. Their brewery had its origins in a brewery built by George Balkwill in 1828 on Simcoe Street. It was later acquired by Samuel Eccles with whom John Labatt partnered in 1847. Eccles exited the partnership in 1853, whence it was called John Labatt Brewery.

The replica was a centennial project, a popular pastime in sunny 1960s Canada: celebrating in one’s unique way the 100th anniversary of Confederation (1867-1967). Many companies had such projects as a way to boost employee morale, and this was Labatt’s.

In craft beer circles of 2019 The London Brewery, which can still be toured in London, seems of little resonance. This is due I believe to a number of factors. First, London, while an important regional centre, is 120 miles from Toronto, the centre of Ontario’s craft brewing culture.

Second, the exhibit commemorates a pre-craft national brewer, now internationally owned (AB In Bev). Big brewers tend not to enter the preoccupations of the craft bubble, shall we say. Many oppose large companies for their size, or scale, really, which never made sense to us, especially as most big brewers now offer some characterful beer, the type craft enthusiasts said they always wanted.*

Third, since 1993 the London Brewery is part of Fanshawe Pioneer Village, so a visit entails visiting the general attraction itself, which will interest only some beer fans of course.

Yet, as I’ve learned even without seeing it, the London Brewery is well worth visiting. A short article by Bryan Andrachuk, linked in this page on Fanshawe’s website, explains the great historical care Labatt’s took in recreating the pioneer brewery, down to sourcing period logs (from old structures) to build it.

A full brewing plant is included on the second floor – mashing tun, bricked in kettle, underlet, fermenting vat, paddles, wood barrels, all the paraphernalia to brew beer in 1840s Ontario.

We know this from a July 2009 posting on a homebrewing forum, text and numerous images, by an American from Detroit who had visited the site.

Obviously he did not cover everything but what he did show explains much about the depth and authenticity of the exhibit. He even shows a pail of “brown malt”. Hence, even 10.5 years ago, and possibly from 1967, in either case before beer historians revved up interest in authentic porter recreations, Labatt knew that porter malt was used in the 1840s and took care to find some for the exhibit.

I first learned of the replica brewery through the 1975 The Great Canadian Beer Bookwhich I bought in the late 1970s. It pictures a man in his early 20s at the exhibit handling a barrel. He portrayed the brewer and probably led the tour. I think the older man shown in the 2009 posting, in pioneer-era costume, may be the same person, and perhaps has the same job today.

I intend to get down to London soon to visit the London Brewery. The Fanshawe attraction seems well-planned (see website) and worth a visit unto itself. 

A second pioneer brewery recreation in Ontario was Black Creek’s in North York, Toronto, at Black Creek Pioneer Village, which portrays an 1860s Ontario settlement. Black Creek’s was different from Labatt’s effort, focusing more on the beer rather than replicating the fit-out of a Victorian village brewery. Black Creek’s brewery was a valid exercise, in part due to the excellent beer brewed there, which did use period techniques such as natural cooling of the wort. Sadly, brewing ceased onsite at the end of 2018, and has not resumed, to my knowledge.

But it shows a key difference from Labatt’s replica. Neither The Great Canadian Beer Book nor the 2009 account mentions beer being made in the replica or at least available onsite to complement the exhibit historically.

Back in 1967, the replica was housed next to the Labatt brewery, and probably figured in the regular brewery tour. Visitors would get a drink at the end of the tour in Labatt’s bar. Labatt IPA was available then, the latter-day golden ale version, likely quite different from what Labatt and Eccles brewed. For one thing, the Labatt brewery did not brew IPA until John Labatt II introduced it in the late 1860s.

Anyway in 1967 the idea of brewing a genuine 1840s beer would not have occurred to Labatt management, this wasn’t on anyone’s radar then.

The replica brewery was moved to Fanshawe Pioneer Village in London in 1993 according to Bryan Andrachuk’s account. That was a chance to introduce a brewing element and make a genuine period beer. However, being a family entertainment venue, even had the idea occurred to the planners, probably it was dismissed due to not fitting the family ethos. This was a time too when craft brewing had little recognition by the general public.

(There is a cafe for visitors, and licensed receptions and weddings are held in parts of the Village, but there is no public bar, as far as I know).

Black Creek’s brewery started up later, and took advantage of an evolving public attitude to drinking and craft beer. Something similar happened with the start-up of Mill St Brewery in the Distillery District in Toronto c. 2000.

Still, there is much to drink in at the London Brewery today, of pedagogic and entertainment value, which forms its own reward. And if “craft” doesn’t describe Labatt’s 1840s brewery, I don’t know what does.

Note re image above: sourced from the website of Fanshawe Pioneer Village linked in the text.

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*We are also not persuaded by arguments that large companies tend to co-opt craft culture, for example by disguising their ownership of craft-seeming units. Today, anyone with a phone, which is everyone, can at a stroke or two find out who owns a beer label, or brewpub chain. Most patrons probably don’t care, which renders the issue moot for them. For those who do, they can find the information with little effort, just asking staff often explains everything. While we support maximum disclosure, those who skirt the issue are simply engaging in the time-honoured practice of “puffery”, legally permissible exaggeration. And many small brewers engage in essentially similar puffery. As I recall, Creemore in Ontario prior to its sale to Molson-Coors used to say it was “100 years behind the times”. Well, not really. There were no aluminum or stainless steel tanks then, no brewhouse sanitation such as we have today, single cell yeast isolation was in its infancy, and so forth. But Creemore was making a general point, that it made all-malt beer, non-pasteurized, of full taste. I understood the purport of the claim and never felt mislead.