Victoria Loved Them All

The Cream of Copenhagen Rises in Edwardian Victoria

One of the great porters of the pre-craft era, Carnegie Porter, was a valued import in parts of North America before World War I. By the mid-1900s it was of average or even below-average strength due to Nordic temperance campaigning, but retained the richness associated with Imperial, Double or Export Stout.

An existing porter brewery was purchased early in the 1800s by David Carnegie, Jr., a Scot wishing to capitalize on the Baltic taste for export strong London porter.

The brewery was acquired on the way by a sizeable competitor, Pripps, and is now in the Carlsberg stable. The beer is still made, and is as good as ever, but Carlsberg, despite its large presence in Ontario, has never seen fit to send it here. (Brooklyn Brewery and Carlsberg have a created a small brewery that makes a range of craft beers including a strong stout in the Imperial tradition).

Michael Jackson (1942-2007), the greatest beer personage to dip pen in ink, lauded the inky Carnegie in early writings. This established it as a template, with a couple of other strong stouts he promoted, for “Imperial” or “Russian” stout, now an international craft standby.

Contrary to intuition or at least mine, on the eve of WW I Carnegie Porter was available in remote Vancouver Island as a quality import. It was only 30 years earlier that the edge of the continent in Canada had been opened to settlement by a rail link with the east.

Yet the cream of European beer was now available, at least to the carriage trade and naval officers at the Esquimalt tender base.

It is surprising how sophisticated Victoria’s beer market was. Reputed brands from the U.K. were available (e.g., Bass, Meux, Barclay Perkins, Whitbread, McEwan), from Germany (heard of Humbser? Well-known to Victoria’s beer mavens), the United States, from the Alberta granary, from Labatt in Ontario, and finally the clutch of local breweries I mentioned earlier.

All this for a greater metropolitan area not exceeding 50,000 people. Imported beer was another legacy of The Last Spike albeit not the most consequential (painful as it is to allow).

Carnegie Porter is initially advertised, as expected, as Swedish. After all, David Carnegie first brewed it in Gothenburg, Sweden. See for example here (the colour shading reflects the search terms):


But by 1913, the beer is advertised as from Copenhagen:


At first I thought the Copenhagen Carnegie was an imitation, or knock off in modern vernacular. But no, it was carried by the same importer, a high end liquor and wines dealer called Pither & Leiser. And some ads in Victoria mention that the beer is both Swedish and from Copenhagen, as above. Evidently the Copenhagen version was genuine Carnegie as far as that went.

This is curious, as beer historical studies at least in English has not chronicled a Danish connection.

The Leiser in Pither & Leiser was Max Leiser, a Jewish German who emigrated in the late 1800s with his brothers to trade in British Colombia. The business prospered to the point it was purchased in 1910 by no less than Guinness Brewery according to a University of Victoria historical précis.

From this source:

The 1st business venture of Max [Leiser] here was the purchase of ½ share in the liquor business of Urquhart and Pither, and for several years it was operated under the name of Pither and Leiser. In 1906 they built the 6-storey liquor warehouse overlooking Victoria Harbour. Pither and Leiser prospered until about 1910, when the English brewing family of Guiness [sic] became interested in the wholesale possibilities in this field. They negotiated for the purchase of Pither and Leiser, finally paying more than one million in cash for the business.

Hence in the period we are considering Guinness was doing the advertising. Presumably the agency carried Guinness’ beers too, but anyway Guinness can be presumed to have known and had high regard for Carnegie.

Did Carnegie Brewery establish a branch in Denmark? Or did a Danish brewery, perhaps Carlsberg, obtain a license to brew it for export and the Danish market? The modern connection to Carlsberg perhaps dates back to before WW I. Was Guinness even mixed up somehow in this?

Neither a Swedish nor Danish origin was evidently held to devalue the brand’s appeal, by comparison that is to London or Dublin porter. In fact Carnegie Brewery is described in some ads as “famous”. The fact that it was porter from Europe was warrant enough even though made far from the Georgian Thameside whence porter’s international reputation arose.

Porter in other words was a European by-word for quality in beer as late as the Edwardian period. Ales had gained considerably on porter in Britain, as did lager in North America, but once established in the collective memory a product and reputation can long endure. Pither & Leiser made hay of this. Probably too the British sound of the Carnegie name helped.

Finally, the coincidence of a prominent American, Andrew Carnegie, sharing the same name as the beer cannot have hurt. In fact, I suspect it’s one of the reasons Carnegie Porter had cachet in North America. Few people in the U.S. or Canada, even in obscure Vancouver Island, had not heard the name Carnegie, if only from the lending libraries he established internationally.

A final ad, from 1911, shows Carnegie Porter in context with some of the competition:



Note re images: images above are sourced from the historical newspapers respectively linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.