This Week in History


Labatt's Lager Legacy

This story was initially published in 2007

On October 26, 1866, John Kinder Labatt died at age 63. Labatt was, according to his obituary, “remarkable for his energetic, shrewd business qualities.” His business was to become John Labatt Limited, one of the best-known breweries in Canada.

John Kinder Labatt

John Kinder Labatt
© Labatt Breweries of Canada

John Kinder Labatt immigrated to Canada in 1833 from Ireland. Once in Upper Canada (present-day Ontario), he took up farming, but soon discovered a passion which drew him out of the fields and into a brewery. About 1847, he admitted to his wife that, “I fancy I should like brewing better than anything else.” Samuel Eccles had purchased the London Brewery in February 1847 and formed a partnership with Labatt on October 28, 1847. When Eccles retired from the business in 1855, Labatt became the sole proprietor. He changed the name of the business from Labatt and Eccles to the Labatt Brewery. John Kinder Labatt’s son, John Jr., returned from Wheeling, West Virgina, and joined the family business in 1865. When John Kinder Labatt died, John Jr. took over the business.

John Labatt Jr. changed the name of the brewery to Labatt and Company, and developed India pale ale a product that won the 1876 silver medal at the Dominion of Canada Exposition, among other awards. John died just before the company faced its biggest challenge prohibition.

The London Brewery, c. 1870

The London Brewery, ca. 1870
© Labatt Breweries of Canada

Prohibition a total ban on alcohol began in 1917 in Saskatchewan, spreading from there to Ontario. To combat this economic threat, the Labatt breweries introduced “temperance ales,” with less than two-percent alcohol, thereby permitting their sale in “dry” provinces. The company also exported beer to the United States. As a result of such ingenuity, Labatt was among 15 companies to survive this era.

The 20th century was marked by several firsts. John Labatt Limited became a publicly traded company in 1945. The following year, Labatt purchased Copland Brewery in Toronto the first Labatt brewery outside London. In 1951, Labatt introduced Pilsener Lager. When it first appeared in Manitoba, the beer acquired the nickname “blue” for its colourful packaging and the company’s support for the Blue Bombers (Winnipeg’s Canadian Football League franchise). The name stuck. Since then, Labatt has introduced Canada’s first light beer and Canada’s first non-alcohol beer.

Since 1995, Labatt is owned by the world’s largest brewer, the Belgium-based firm of InBev S.A.  Today, Labatt has a portfolio of 60 quality beers and breweries from coast to coast a far cry from its humble start under John Kinder Labatt. A pioneer Canadian brewer, John Kinder Labatt is a National Historic Person.

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