If you’ve been to Newfoundland you’ve likely taken note of a fairly strong connection to British and Irish traditions within the province’s music, culture, and perhaps even in its beer. Popular places to grab a pint are regularly decked out in Irish garb – places like Bridie Molloys, The Republic, or Christians to name a few – or, like the famous Duke of Duckworth, more grounded in the British pub experience. But what about Newfoundland beer? In this post, a reappraisal of Webb and Beaumont’s classification of Newfoundland as having weak “British Traditions” in the light of the history of German-Newfoundland brewmasters.
In Tim Webb’s and Stephen Beaumont’s excellent should-be-on-your-self reference The World Atlas of Beer (Sterling Epicure, 2012), they describe Newfoundland as having a “weak British influence.” In a wonderful map showing where immigrant populations brought their beer traditions from the old world, the authors illustrate how Canada was colonized by Old World beer. They write, on page 206, that in the Atlantic Provinces “beer drinking is arguably a more social act than anywhere else in Canada, ‘sessionable’ English and Irish beer styles – those with a lower-alcohol content – have long held sway.”
I don’t particularity want to dispute Webb’s and Beaumont’s assertion, surely it holds for some of they Atlantic provinces, and as much as I would like to imagine a Newfoundland full of pale ales, bitters, and stouts, with the exception of Yellowbelly’s recent arrival, it does not seem, historically, to be the case. Newfoundland’s beer – or at least the beer traditionally associated with Newfoundland – seems to be dominated by generally fizzy yellow, crisp and clean, stuff. Even the great Michel Jackson once wrote that “Newfoundland is particularity proud of its full-bodied local beers, which tend to be darker and heavier and more bitter than elsewhere,” yet he puzzled at the notion that “the much-vaunted Dominion Ale” was “in fact, bottom-fermented” (The World Guide to Beer, Prentice-Hall, 1977, page 201). One way to see it might be to think that Newfoundlanders, more than most, fell for the ‘lite’ lager beer proffered by American and Canadian macro breweries. History, however, provides a more subtle story.
While Newfoundland’s culture might provide the logical jump to imagine Irish red ales and British best bitters, our brewing history shows a deeply Germanic influence. In his book Vikings to U-boats: The German Experience in Newfoundland and Labrador (McGill-Queens University Press, 2006), Gerhard P. Bassler has undertaken a great deal of research into the history of German-Newfoundlanders and their contributions to the province’s history. Among their many contributions, brewing expertise and knowledge stands out.
Bessler describes his own sence of historical surprise at Newfoundland’s lapse in historical memory when it comes to German brewing. When arriving in Newfoundland in 1965, just years after all of Newfoundland’s breweries were bought by Canadian ones, Bassler describes the “paradox that Newfoundlanders, who claimed to be British to the core, consumed a superb-tasting German-style lager beer brewed by a local so-called Bavarian Brewery” (ix, he is likely referring to Blue Star). For a full account of the German experience in Newfoundland, of course, you ought to consult Bessler’s book. Here, to make the point that Newfoundland is perhaps more German influenced than British, I will just jump through some of his account of German brewmasters.
The J. Lindberg Brewing Company, founded in the early 1880s on Signal Hill, was one company which lead the first charge towards lagers over the ales which likely would have dominated the scene. While it is difficult to estimate the Lindberg Brewing Company’s impact, Bassler does report that the brewery employed around twelve men and “had an annual output of 8,000-9,000 gallons,” mostly of a self-proclaimed “Bavarian” lager (116). Lindberg was listed in the press as a “German beer baron” in 1885 despite also being the importer for several imported brands like Guinness and Bass. The company was also involved in a legal case – “the famous Bavarian beer case of Sergeant M. Kearney versus John Lindberg” – where beer was first licensed as distinct from malt liquor in Newfoundland. Bassler even notes that Lindberg was awarded a medal for his beer at the Paris exhibition of 1891.
While, as noted elsewhere on this blog, the Lindberg Brewing Company disappeared before the First World War, likely due to the dance of restrictive liquor laws leading up to the eventual prohibition of liquor in Newfoundland, other German brewmasters would have “a profound impact” on Newfoundland “beer brewing and consumption” after the Second World War. Bassler explains the conditions of Newfoundland beer between prohibition and the Second World War:
During the nine years of prohibition in Newfoundland (1915-24), only so-called near-beer (a beverage not exceeding 2 per cent alcohol content) was available, and thereafter the choice of local brews seems to have been limited to either a low-alcohol English pale ale or a strong, but bitter draft beers. All Newfoundland beer from the time of World War I was brewed by English or local brewmasters in two breweries (the Bennett and the Newfoundland Brewing companies) designed on the English ale system. They had no quality or standards control. Then virtually overnight in 1932 all Newfoundland breweries reintroduced and begun brewing lager. German brewmasters were brought in to be in charge. (170)
This change fits into the wider trend for lager beers within the United States (as discussed in other posts on the blog), but the suddenness of the change is remarkable. Bassler attributes it to Garrett Brownrigg’s attempts to add a new, “modern brewery to his soft drink business” which then set of a competitive explosion between the breweries for “the best German-type and quality beer” (170). Thus, after a scouting trip to Germany where a brewmaster named Brehm was hired and blueprints were acquired, the Brownrigg Brewery was founded on Leslie Street. Brownrigg, unable to afford the massive costs of a modern German brewhouse, eventually went into foreclosure and his brewery was acquired by Albert E. Hickman, who renamed the brewery Bavarian Brewery as a sign of quality.
Bassler goes into some detail about the brewmasters of the brewery. Hans Schneider (until 1938) apparently lived in an apartment above the brewery, formulated Jockey Club, and made “Bavarian Newfoundland’s largest, wealthiest, most modern brewing operation” (172). Max Weber succeeded Schneider in April of 1938 but was older and slightly more curmudgeonly than his predecessor and, with the outbreak of World War Two, was sent to an internment camp where he died (Bassler goes into much more detail on this matter elsewhere in his book which is very much a social history, so do check it out). A German-American brewmaster, Valentine Foltz, replaced Weber and after the war in 1946 Jake Guehring took over brewing command into the 1950s.
The Bennett Brewing Company also began to switch to German brewmasters in the 1930 by first employing a brewmaster named Scheuermann to remodel the plant and then bringing a brewmaster named Hans Wich from Germany to manage the plant. Again, Bassler goes into detail about Wich’s much more fortunate life in Newfoundland – he was one of the few people who became wealthy enough to own one of the nation’s fifty licensed cars in the 1930s – and Wich’s investment of much of his wealth in the nation before eventually leaving Bennett after a failed attempt at partial ownership for a brewery in the New York.
The Newfoundland Brewing Company also went German in the 1930s going through a list of brewmasters: “Otto Scheffhauser, Allan Hann, Hank Frolich and Fritz Neumeister” (175). The brewery was also, like the other two, modernized with new equipment designed to improve quality and to better produce the German-style beers favored by the new brewmasters. It was, Bessler reports, not uncommon to hear loud German banter ringing out of the brewery to celebrate the arrival of new supplies from German-American salesman.
There is much more to the story of the German brewmasters outside of the beer they brewed which Bessler aptly recounts in his chapter on the internment of the brewmasters during the war. There, he describes the fears of poisoning beer and consumer perceptions of German beer put these new immigrants into very difficult situations. The competitive aspect of their profession is not to be forgotten either, as many of these men could not openly talk to each other despite being a part of a very small contingent of German-Newfoundlanders.
The impact of German tastes on Newfoundland beer is still difficult to tell. While German brewmasters continued to be employed by the three Newfoundland breweries until they were bought in 1962 (and after), it is hard to say wither American and Canadian lagering tastes or Germanic brewmasters were more pivotal for ending the British ale tradition in Newfoundland. It’s likely that both mattered, but what is clear is any “British tradition” in Newfoundland’s beer culture and tastes was in decline in the 1930s. From then on, it was, at least weakly, German.
While Newfoundlander’s might be sipping a beer sitting in an Irish Pub – though let’s not forget, the oldest Irish pub on George Street is still younger than the Avalon Mall – that beer, if it’s one of the nostalgia macros like Blue Star, Jockey Club, or India Beer, is steeped in German brewing traditions. It is surely plausible that these beers have been lightened over the years since 1962 when they became part of larger breweries from Canada, there is evidence that these beers have always been deeply shaped by the lager suitabilities of German brewmasters like Jake Guehring and Hans Wich, rather than ale experts from England. So, with respect (and lots of it) to Webb’s and Beaumont’s efforts, remembering Newfoundland’s brewing heritage shows a weak German tradition which ought not be forgotten despite the Irish and British pub pump and circumstance.