The Ontario Beverage Room

With new liquor control laws in 1934, Ontario introduced or at least enshrined as a cultural touchstone the hotel beverage room. Since 1927, sale of liquor and beer through government stores and authorized beer warehouses (forerunner of today’s Brewers’ Retail aka The Beer Store) was lawful, but public drinking of regular strength beer in the province did not resume until the beverage room system was authorized.

In principle this meant a tavern had to be part of a hotel and lobby which also had a separate dining room. Licensing of clubs, soldiers’ messes, trains, and steamships (the Great Lakes) completed the system. Only beer and wine was supplied, no stand-alone cocktail bars were permitted until the end of the 1940s, the best remembered is the Silver Rail on Yonge Street. We visited it a number of times before its demise about 15 years ago, but in retrospect wish we had gone more often. Think mirrored walls, shiny banquette seating, and the famous long bar.

In contrast, as mandated by Mitch Hepburn’s 1934 government, the hotel beverage rooms were clinical in nature, packed with round tables and chairs, shielded from street view, separated into men only and ladies and escorts sections. There was no standing at the bar, drinks were to be consumed sitting only and from 1946, only one beer could be ordered at a time (served in small measures, no English or even American pints then).

In the 1930s and ’40s journalism regularly investigated the new beverage rooms. Maclean’s magazine ran major features in 1934 and 1945. You may read here Morley Murray’s crisp report of December 1, 1945, notable for its scope and “just the facts ma’am” style, as much of North American journalism then.

In August 1946 Lex Schrag authored three pieces in Toronto’s The Globe and Mail, each successively on the Customer, the Hotelman, and the Law. Sadly he omitted the Beer, but as Murray’s piece shows too, this was the last of the many things to think about when considering the beverage room of Ontario. Schrag did advert briefly to beer, in the sense that with rationing still in force it was often too green from lack of age. Short of that, no discussion was allowed to the type of beer consumed: colour, style, temperature, taste characteristics, none of it mattered.

Murray’s article did not discuss the beer at all, it is more a social and economic analysis of the hotel beverage system without ignoring its nemesis, the Ontario Temperance Federation.

Schrag counterpointed to the beverage room the British pub heritage with its more peaceful, organic approach to community alcohol consumption. In Ontario, exacerbated by rationing shortages but also (wrote Schrag) historical guilt about drinking descended from early Scots and Ulster settlers, beer was consumed mechanically and furtively, sometimes causing the kinds of drunken scenes and rows described by Murray.

It is against this background that the exhibition of a functioning English pub of charming decor at the 1949 Canadian International Trade Fair must be considered, as its 1969 follow-up at British Week in Canada, both mentioned in my recent postings.

Only by the 1970s did rules relax in Ontario to permit stand-up drinking and a pub without benefit of guest accommodations. The English pub phenomenon that burgeoned here from the 1970s, initially in the largest urban centres, was an outgrowth of the new era. These English and Irish pubs still flourish albeit often overlooked by craft beer commentators.

Yet, there are still pubs in Toronto that reflect their hotel beverage room roots. I may visit one soon to report.

The advertisement above is from November 1957, in Maclean‘s again, and reflects the succeeding era. The elegant home setting is notable. As the beverage room of the ’50s and ’60s still largely retained its anodyne, 1934 form brewers used home and recreational backdrops, with the most elegant suiting their most aspirational brands.

Note, too, how the drumbeat of “light” is emphasized, later crowned by the technological achievement (?) of light beer, still after all a major force in national beer sales.

Note re images: The first image above was drawn from Maclean’s archives, here. The second was drawn from, here. All intellectual property in the sources belongs solely to their lawful owners, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.