National Breweries Ltd. and the Ontario Market, 1940s

In a 1944 issue of The Review, the house journal of Montreal-based National Breweries Limited (NBL), a detailed article described the Ontario office and sales organization of NBL.

Ontario then was new territory still for the Quebec breweries. Long accustomed to steady markets at home, they didn’t expand as quickly into ROC (rest of Canada) as they should have. Yet Ontario’s Labatt Brewery made repeated efforts, with some success, to enter the Quebec market from the late 1800s. So did other Ontario breweries, as I’ve showed in part earlier.

Molson Brewery finally built a plant in Toronto in the mid-1950s. It was too late for NBL, bought out in 1952 by sharp-eyed E.P. Taylor of Toronto-based Canadian Breweries Ltd. Still, NBL made some efforts to sell in Ontario.

The multi-page article (in French) describes the head office of the Ontario branch, at the Harbour Commissioners Building in Toronto. That historic columned building still stands in a now resolutely modern district, and last sold for $96M some years ago.

The article has a slightly envious tone, or so it seems to me, when describing this outpost. Unlike presumably any of NBL’s Victorian or early-1900s facilities, the Toronto digs were laid out in cool, modern style with a variegated colour scheme. The sleek, new wood furniture was noted as well. The article explained for readers that this was the prevalent style in Toronto. For most of them, Toronto might have been on the far side of the moon.

Even then, land around the Harbour Commissioners Building had been conquis, or reclaimed, from Lake Ontario; the edifice no longer stood as it once did at the edge of the water. Even as the area had changed, many ships still docked nearby to transact commerce, the article noted. This is a change from today except for tanker deliveries to nearby Redpath Industries, which still refines sugar, and perhaps the other odd bulk delivery by water.

The Ontario Brewers’ Retail system is described in detail, neutrally, but in a way that probably struck readers as somewhat regulated (it still is). Photos are shown, only one of which I’ve seen before, the “ice-cold beer” one. A glassed-in example of a Brewer’s Retail is shown. Despite the reputed Soviet-style grimness of these stores, the shop looks quite inviting with its shining glassed exterior – oddly similar to not a few brewpubs I’ve seen! Glassed frontage was continued in modified form into the 1970s, but looked better then.

The writer describes how the beer was ordered. Except for the wartime voucher system, and excepting the self-serve feature now available in many stores, the system is unchanged today, 76 years later. The customer states his request to the clerk. It is relayed by a speaker system to the back. There, an employee sends the packaged beer clattering down metal rollers to the waiting consumer.

Empty bottles were handled then just as today, as well.

Although I’ve read about interprovincial restrictions on beer, which did surely exist, the article makes no mention of this. Perhaps wartime exigencies relaxed the rules. The article makes clear that NBL’s beer was retailed at Brewer’s Retail. The only problem mentioned was long distances to get the products from Montreal to delivery point.

I should add, NBL’s sales force covered all geographic areas where the Brewers Retail stores – there were 130 in 1944 – were located, since store managers had discretion what to buy. There was no centralised buying, according to the article, but it does note that the managers tried to ensure a variety of beers available.

The cover of this issue shows, as another article explains, beer loaded at Canadian Pacific Railway’s Place Viger for shipment to Port Arthur, Ontario. It mentions a cargo of chopines and pintes, which were 12 oz. and 22 oz., respectively. Molson Coors still sells some beer in the old pinte bottles, at its Creemore Batch brewpub in Toronto. (In English, we called the small bottles pints and the large ones quarts, which shows you nothing is simple).

This article noted that the railcars were “heated” to maintain the beers’ condition. This seems odd, but the article, which appeared in March 1944, was probably prepared over the winter. And winters in eastern Canada were, famously we are told, much colder than now…

The main article claimed the beers, still all-malt in the NBL era,* were highly regarded in Ontario. Still, the transport factor alone would have lessened the profitability of these sales, viz. that is the Ontario brewers.

The rationing system was four coupons (free) per month, with one coupon entitling to six chopines. (One for every day except Sunday, right?).

Now, such ration doesn’t seem overly burdensome, particularly for families where not every adult drank beer, but the article described it as only “a little”. A window on Canadian beery proclivities and/or a loyal upholding of the corporate mission, take your choice.

I don’t know if Quebec had a similar system, presumably not as the article makes no mention of it.

NBL beer surely pleased some in Toronto, but not enough to make any difference to the company’s fate, clearly. The home market had to up its game enough, and it never did, at least not the way NBL was structured into the 1950s, with six operating breweries. These were Dawes Black Horse, Dawes Draft Beer Plant (formerly Ekers), Dow, and Frontenac in Montreal, and Boswell and Champlain in Quebec City.

NBL treated its employees well. Reading numerous issues of the house organ, one can tell this from the ambit of activities organized for them and various social benefits including retirement and life insurance plans. This was by no means common at the time. The City of Montreal’s virtual exhibition on Dawes brewery history, in which these magazines appear (covering 1942-1949), states that employee wages had doubled in the 10 years from start of the war.

I hope this largesse, to put it that way, didn’t contribute to the ignominious end of NBL. Certainly under E.P. Taylor things changed, with closures of some plants, paring of brands, and alteration of some recipes, as I will show soon.


*I’ll document this in another post soon.




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