Salem beer became 19th-century tradition

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

Salem’s four milling industries provided the economic foundation for the hamlet for its first half century.

In the public mind, though, the name Salem suggested beer.

Unlike most small towns, Salem supported a vital brewing industry beginning in the 1860s and, in the decade after 1900, beer-making eclipsed the milling business to become Salem’s leading industry.

Beer is now Canada’s most popular alcoholic beverage, but this was not always the case. Only a handful of breweries operated in Canada before 1860, and these were located in larger centres.

The public preferred the cheap whiskey that flooded the market at the time. In addition, unpasteurized beer proved to be difficult to store and expensive to transport.

Beer began to make some inroads into the Ontario beverage market in the 1860s. Robert Dalby’s brewery in Elora, described in the column last year, was one of dozens established in this period. Dalby’s lack of success with the venture typified the history of most of these breweries.

The first Salem brewery, established by William Tamblyn in 1857 or 1858, proved to be a major exception.

We know little of the activities of Tamblyn, other than the fact that he was one of the first independent businessmen in Salem after Sem Wissler began to release his hold on the community in the 1850s.

Tamblyn operated a lime kiln that supplied area masons and contractors with mortar. As well, he speculated in land, and erected several buildings.

In late 1855, Tamblyn purchased land on the west side of Union Street at the junction with Washington Street. He built a small brewery on the land. Tamblyn vanished from the scene in the early 1860s, and the mortgage holders sold the brewery property to Conrad Doerbecker in 1865.

Doerbecker already owned land adjoining the brewery, and may well have been operating it for Tamblyn. German-born and a brewer by profession, Doerbecker seems to have had at least a modest amount of capital. In addition to his involvement with the brewery, he ran a brick-making business beginning about 1852. Regrettably, its location is not known.

The light German-type beers produced by Doerbecker found a ready market among the thirsty German labourers and workmen who lived in Salem at the time. His beer soon found converts among non-Germans, who began to favour his lagers over the English ales produced by Bob Dalby in Elora.

Though more successful than Dalby’s, the Salem brewery cannot be considered a thriving business in the early 1860s. It employed at most two men, and produced beer in batches as needed.

Looking to the future when he purchased the property in 1865, Doerbecker believed that beer had the potential to become a major beverage.

During the fall of 1867, he rushed to complete a new brewery, built of his own brick.

For several weeks, more than 40 men were employed in the work. In their haste they neglected safety; the scaffolding collapsed when the men were lifting a 60-foot beam, and two men were killed.

The new brewery, two storeys in height, measured 40 by 60 feet. The brewing kettle held 125 gallons, and the building was supplied with spring water. He employed two brewers, plus a number of unskilled labourers. Doerbecker constructed two cellars under the building, which were cooled by spring water.

Nothing of the old brewery building survives, but one of the cellars still exists, incorporated in to the basement of a new house.

At the same time, Doerbecker constructed a new hotel, with himself as the principal supplier of beer. Always restless, Doerbecker sold the brewery in 1868 to Jacob Reuter, had little capital, and Doerbecker took back a mortgage for $3,400 on the property.

The lager produced by Reuter enjoyed local popularity, and he continued the business until the early 1880s.

Doerbecker soon returned to the beer business. After selling out in 1868, he concentrated on his brick business, but this venture came under stress when harder, kiln-fired brick could be brought to Elora with the completion of the railway in 1870.

In 1872, Doerbecker began construction of a new brewery, on the west side of the Irvine River and upstream from the Elora cemetery. Rejecting his own brick, Doerbecker constructed his new building of stone.

The main building, three storeys in height, measured 91 by 40 feet, with a wing 32 by 28 feet. He built five cellars into the side of the hill, and artesian springs fed fresh water to all floors of the building. The business employed six men.

Doerbecker’s new brewery provided stiff completion for his old employee, Reuter, and was probably a major factor in the permanent closing of Dalby’s brewery in the 1870s. Setting his sights on a regional market, Doerbecker placed Irvine Brewery wagons on the road, and began to cultivate the market in the norther part of Waterloo County.

Conrad Doerbecker retired from the firm in the late 1880s, with control passing to his son, Mike, who had trained as a maltster. Through the 1880s, the Irvine Brewery produced its own malt.

About 1890, Mike Doerbecker hired George Reuter, the son of Jacob, as his brewmaster. The younger Doerbecker followed an expansionary policy in these years, attempting to establish a major presence in this part of Ontario.

Smaller firms were experiencing problems at this time, as the brewing industry went through a period of consolidation. The Korman brothers, operating Jacob Reuter’s brewery, were only one of many brewing firms to fail.

Doerbecker was now competing with firms such as Huether’s and Kuntz’s in Waterloo, and Sleeman’s in Guelph, for a share of a market that went beyond the borders of Wellington and Waterloo counties.

As well, beer was fast coming to dominate the alcohol market, as consumers switched from hard liquor. We have no data for the Elora area, but national figures show a per-capita decline in hard liquor consumption of 10% between 1885 and 1895, and an increase in beer consumption of 40% in the same period.

It is unlikely that changes in consumption locally differed greatly from these figures.

Employment at Doerbecker’s Irvine Brewery increased from four men in 1881 to 12 in 1891, and production was stepped up by a greater amount. There was also a full-time traveling salesman. Three wagons delivered beer in barrels, kegs, and bottles to retail and wholesale customers. The firm took over the old Reuter brewery, which was used for stabling and storage. At full capacity, the brewery could turn out over 9,000 gallons of beer each week.

Despite the increase in production, the business was not a profitable one. Doerbecker placed the property on the auction block in 1892, but the highest bid, at $3,300, fell far short of the reserve.

Rumours circulated that a Buffalo firm would take over, but the property was eventually purchased by George Reuter, who leased it to Christian Otterbein and Co. for a couple of years, and then took over management himself.

Reuter continued Doerbecker’s pursuit of a regional market, but the ledgers continued to show too much red ink. The financial situation worsened in 1903; by this time, Reuter had $8,000 of bills payable and no money in the till.

Though it pursued a regional market, the Irvine Brewery did not neglect local customers. The firm’s popular Bohemian Lager could be found on tap in the Elora and Salem hotels, and in several Elora grocery stores. As well, the firm obligingly delivered a dozen quart bottles of Bohemian Lager to any Elora address for one dollar.

After 1897, householders could even telephone their order (the number was 32 on Elora’s old switchboard).

Unable to resolve his financial difficulties, Reuter offered the business for sale, and the Buffalo brewers appeared again as potential purchasers. The new owners, Edward and William Andrich, had spent their adult lives in the highly competitive American beer industry. Aided by a period of general prosperity, they operated the brewery profitably and successfully. To the annoyance of the Waterloo breweries, they began to sell aggressively in North Waterloo and into Perth county.

A fresh round of mergers and consolidations occurred in the brewing industry after 1900, as several brewers attempted to establish themselves as provincial brands. The names of several are still familiar: Carling, Labatt, O’Keefe.

As well, there was pressure on the industry from temperance agitators and from pure-food advocates. The major breweries began to advertise their beers as wholesome and pure beverages, emphasizing their modern equipment and the cleanliness of their production process.

This placed additional pressure on small operators such as the Andrich brothers.

Despite the highly-competitive business climate, the Irvine Brewery, operating as E.G. Andrich and Co., prospered for seven years.

Early in 1910, the Kuntz Brewing Co., of Waterloo, made an offer to purchase the business. For Ed and Bill Andrich, it was an offer they could not refuse.

The Kuntz firm closed down the Salem operation, consolidating production in Waterloo. They opened a distribution warehouse in Harriston to serve the northern part of the Andrich market area. The Salem staff consisted of only a local agent and salesman. The Kuntz Brewing Co. found business far easier with the aggressive American-born competitors removed from the marketplace.

The closure was a major blow to Salem — the end of its last major industry.

Salem had become synonymous with beer in the public mind, and local residents believed the hamlet would lose its identity without the brewery.

Today, only the old Reuter cellar and part of a wall of Doerbecker’s brewery remain as artifacts of Salem’s breweries. A few glass bottles also survive as prized keepsakes of local history buffs.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on Oct. 27 and Nov. 3, 1992.

Thorning Revisited