The Henninger beer brand is still sold in Ontario, at the Beer Store, and has a typical German Helles taste. Sales can’t be very high as it is just one of hundreds of imported beers here, but its quiet presence on the shelves hides a much longer history in Ontario, via licensed arrangements.
In 1972 the Frankfurt brewery – now demolished with production elsewhere in Germany, I think Dortmund – granted a license to a local venture in Hamilton, ON headed by Edward (Ted) Dunal, a former Carling sales executive. It was financed in part by an Ontario public offering of shares and debentures. In effect, this was a joint venture of Frankfurt’s Henninger-Brau and local interests.
The brewery was the old Peller, Brading/Carling plant that now in part houses Collective Arts craft brewery in Hamilton. It was started up again by Dunal after a dozen years of use for harbour warehousing.
As numerous Canadian beer histories have chronicled, Henninger was brewed here from 1972 to 1981 when Amstel of Holland bought the brewery. Amstel continued to make the beer (two brands, Export and Meister Pils) along with a Canadianised Amstel and other brands. Amstel brewed here until 1991 when it gave up on its Canadian investment; the brewery was subsequently sold to Bill Sharpe’s Lakeport Brewing and another storied history followed, outside our scope here.
Finally, the pioneering Brick Brewery in Waterloo, ON, now Waterloo Brewery, picked up the Henninger brands. I think by 1997 all production of the Henninger had ceased. Still, it had a run of almost 25 years in Canada, spanning the pre- and post-microbrewery eras.
Under Brick the beers were restored to German Pure Beer Law requirements. During the Amstel period, as related in a 1991 Toronto Star news story (I can’t link it due to paywall), the Henninger beers were not all-malt, but they were when Ted Dunal directed brewing with Henninger, 1972-1981.
The last beer I brewed in collaboration with Toronto’s Amsterdam Brewery, a recreation of an 1870 English pale ale recipe, used Chevalier malt, which existed in 1870, to lend a heritage touch.
What does that have to do with the Henninger lager story in Ontario? Ostensibly nothing, but there is a link of a kind. In 1975, a series of ads in the Toronto Star advertised the use by Henninger in Hamilton of Chevalier. From a July 11, 1975 issue of the Toronto Star:
… it’s [i.e., the Meister Pils] made here in Canada in our small independent brewery in a particular way from very particular ingredients. We use only two row Chevalier barley….
But most important , we use the same yeast that we use in Germany. Not similar yeast, the same yeast. We actually jet it over from our Frankfurt brewery.
Chevalier barley traditionally was associated with English ale brewing and had largely disappeared in maltings by the 1930s. It was revived about 10 years ago from a few seeds stored in a barley seed bank. I refer to the story and much else in regard to Chevalier in an earlier blogpost, see here.
Ron Pattinson set out characteristics of typical 1970s German malting barleys in a blogpost of 2015, see here, but none is called “Chevalier”.
What explains this use of Chevalier malt in 1970s Canadian Henninger? It seems this was German malt as Henninger’s ads in the 1970s Toronto press stress the use of imported ingredients. Indeed a September 9, 1980 story in the Toronto Star on a German trade fair here stated:
Henninger in Canada is made with strict quality control to produce an identical product to that sold in Germany. In fact, hops, malt and yeast are all imported from there to assure consistent taste with the product brewed in Frankfurt.
The many Henninger ads in the Toronto Star in the 1970s insist on the same taste as the German original, e.g., as shown by blind taste tests using the German and Canadian Henningers, but technical details were sparse. The most specific was for the German yeast, as seen above. Still, some ads stated plainly, “We even import malt from Germany”.
Perhaps this did not mean 100% of the malt was German-sourced, but only that enough German malt was blended with some Canadian or other malt – the Chevalier? – to get the desired profile. Or, perhaps the 1970s Frankfurt brewery used a malt it called Chevalier and sent it to Canada, the ads, taken together, seem to state that.
Around 1900 as I documented in my earlier blogpost on Chevalier, the term was used loosely by British maltsters to include some European two-row barley that originated with the Chevalier seed. Danish Chevalier was apparently of this type, and Chilean. But some imported two-row barley was called Chevalier which may have originated with other types, perhaps even Hanna Moravian malt, ancestor genetically to many fine Central European malting barleys.
But the fact remains that a malt under trade description of Chevalier was used not long before the modern craft revival, a Victorian survival in the glam era.
Now as to taste: I am not sure I ever tasted the 1973-1981 all-malt Henninger. I may have in Montreal if I bought the beer in Prescott, ON or Ottawa before moving to Toronto in 1983. I think I must have, but don’t have a clear recollection.
I did buy the beer regularly in Toronto under Amstel and Brick. I recall the taste being “strong”, that grassy Helles taste with possible dimethyl sulphide (DMS) influence. C.1980 North American beer writers, Jim Robertson, say, or Michael Weiner, gave it top marks.
One can see that all the elements were in place for a mid-1970s beer revival in Canada. Henninger then was all-malt, made in a small plant with substantial local ownership, indeed “independent”, now the leitmotif of international craft brewing. The brewery even made a Henninger alcohol-free beer, under a process licensed from Birell in Switzerland. What is more of the moment than N.A. beer?
Yet Henninger never took more than a piece of a very small market. Something like 97% of the 1970s Ontario beer market was shared by the Big Three then: Molson, Labatt, Carling-O’Keefe. For the taste Henninger offered, Ontario consumers did not show enough interest, not in numbers big enough. Had Henninger grabbed 20% of the market, maybe craft breweries a la Anchor Brewing in San Francisco would have started up by 1975. In the event something similar only started 10 years later.
I think the taste of the locally-made Henninger wasn’t right for this market, even an incipient premium (or connoisseur) market. Not because it was different from the German Henninger: by credible evidence it was the same or virtually so, but the signature taste was too different. Had it been German Wurzburger, say, that was brewed in Hamilton it might have done much better, I think. Amstel, seeing what happened to Henninger, modified its recipe* for the Canadian market, yet that too never appealed in large-enough numbers.
Was Creemore Lager in objective terms a better beer than either of these? I don’t think so, but it sold enough to be successful for many years until being purchased by Molson-Coors. Maybe it was the name and advertising that made the difference, it’s hard to say. I don’t think it was price as Creemore was premium-priced. So was 1970s Henninger but only by a few pennies per bottle more, as its ads pointed out.
Note re image: the Henninger label shown above was sourced from the Beer Store listing linked in the text. All intellectual property in the image belongs solely to its lawful owner. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.
*I meant for Amstel Bier, but in effect this applied to Henninger as well when Amstel brewed it in Hamilton. Also, in a Twitter exchange today with a Frankfurt-resident beer expert, he told me a German maltster is again malting Chevalier barley (also spelled Chevallier), so this is further evidence IMO that likely Henninger was using Chevalier malt in the 1970s.