Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Jordan St. John

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Jordan St. John

Alan McLeod and Jordan St. John just might have your dream gig, if you are a beer lover. They are the authors of The Ontario Beer Book: A Heady History of Brewing from the Great Lakes to the Hudson Bay (Dundurn), where their research took them to Ontario's breweries, from the smallest craft brewery to multinational conglomerates.

Today we speak to Jordan, who tells Open Book about beer's important role in Ontario's history, the relationship between beer and local identity and the importance of making something.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, The Ontario Beer Book.

Jordan St. John:

Our book charts the development of brewing in Ontario from the earliest settlers to the modern day, focusing on the ways in which it impacted society along the way. It’s a journey that sees significant shifts in attitude towards beer and brewing as Ontario’s society changes from a mercantile venture with fur trappers and loggers to an agricultural powerhouse with incredible potential for development. Plus, there are pictures!


Ontario has a number of beloved craft brewers as well as a long history with larger breweries. Why, in your opinion, does Ontario love its beer so much?


I think that while Ontarians love beer, it wasn’t a natural marriage. Prior to about 1860, whiskey would have been the beverage of choice. An interesting thing happened in terms of societal development where temperance became a legitimate and probably necessary movement. Prohibition was a poor way of facilitating societal change.

This is where beer comes in. Ontarians are a little repressed and beer is seen as the safe beverage. It’s not morally suspect in the way that liquor was. It can be produced here, so it’s not seen as putting on airs in the way that wine was (before we started growing it here. It’s fine now). By the 1950s, the advertising had sunk in and the cold stubby of Blue or Canadian or Black Label was a necessity at the family barbeque. It was ok. We decided as a society that beer was probably the level of debauchery we were comfortable with. It may have all been the same strength and very similar tasting, but that was the point. It was manufactured fun: Safe, reasonable, predictable.

Now we’ve got a slightly more permissive society and craft brewers are experimenting with bigger beers and different flavours. In some ways, we’re revisiting the brewing industry at the time of confederation. At one point there were 155 breweries in Ontario and we’re coming up on that at the moment. It’s decentralized and the experience across the province is non-standardized. We’ve got such a rich mix of cultures and interests in Ontario that homogeneity of experience isn’t really possible in the way it was in the 1950s. Craft Beer reflects that diversity.

Ontario still loves beer, but Ontario has changed.


The rise of small breweries has changed beer drinkers' options in Ontario considerably. Can you tell us a little about how these smaller labels came about and why they are thriving?


I think that it has to do with having a sense of geographical place. If you look at Molson Canadian as an example, that’s an almost impossible expression of place. Canada is huge. Canada is a vast wilderness when you get ten klicks north of town. There are parts of Canada where there’s no one for hundreds of kilometers. You can’t claim a beer represents the mountains, the prairies, the great lakes, the Maritimes and everything else. For one thing, it’s from Montreal originally, so that’s a non-starter.

Molson’s ads have always dealt with defining the Canadian identity, but if you look at the I AM CANADIAN ad from the late 90’s, it’s about what we aren’t. That’s because Canada’s too big for a uniform identity. If you look at England, it’s the same. People aren’t from England. They’re from Manchester or Liverpool or Essex. Well, Southern Ontario is the size of England.

It’s very different if you’ve got a brewery that’s from Toronto. You can represent Toronto. If it’s a smaller town, so much the better. The first one was Brick in Waterloo. You would have bet against Brick because it was right next to the much bigger Labatt plant down the block. Brick is still there, but Labatt is gone.

Brick makes Waterloo Dark and at one time made a world class Bock. Labatt made Blue and 50, which were named after an out of province CFL team and an ownership anniversary. There’s this dichotomy between local and corporate there. That’s the difference. I’m writing this in my apartment at Yonge and Davisville. If I go up the street to The Granite Brewpub, I get beer that I cannot get anywhere else. It is a unique experience and one worth having, if you’re curious. Try the Butter Chicken and a pint of Best Bitter Special. People come from all over the city to go there for that combo. You’ll maybe meet the owner or the brewer.

There was a time in Ontario when a smart move would have been to drink the same beer for 30 years; Buy a case of Blue a week. If anything craft brewing represents local pride, but it’s not at the expense of national character. Hell, we’ve never been able to decide as a nation what the national character is. The diversity makes us stronger.


Why was this the right time for this book?


We’re at an odd crossroads where there are going to be as many breweries as there have been since rail became widespread in the 1860’s. That’s an interesting milestone and it’s one worth recognizing. I think that from a global perspective, people are worried about the idea that we’re increasingly a service economy. If England was a nation of shopkeepers, we’ve become a nation of middle managers. We don’t make much stuff anymore.

I think that the book is partly aspirational: You too can make something. Throw down the Johnson report and the excel pivot tables and go make something. The ascendance of craft brewing in Ontario has something to do with that. If you’re standing in a flea market and your eye lands on an old beer tray from a brewery you’ve never heard of, there’s this sense of loss that you never got to try the beer but it also has to do with the fact that they were making something.


How did you approach the writing process, both in terms of what you wanted to cover and how you divided the work?


Well, the mission brief is pretty straightforward, but we both gravitated towards certain parts of the history. Alan was very interested in the early history of Ontario up until 1800 and the period between the start of prohibition and craft brewing. I ended up with the 19th century and craft brewing because I saw the parallels in there. I think there are some parallels between the early days and the 20th century as well. It’s a sort of monolithic corporate dominance in terms of Ontario.

Partly, I think the division reflects our personalities. I suspect that Alan has always wanted to own huge swathes of Upstate New York, so the Loyalists make more sense to him than they do to me. In my case, I want there to be order and good government so the development of Upper Canada was my specialty.


What is the book you're most looking forward to reading while enjoying a cold beer?


I’ve been writing and researching for about 9 months now, so I’ve got something of a backlog. I keep meaning to finish Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, and I think that will probably end up going with something generic like Heineken since so much of it takes place in hotel bars where that would be the best option.


What are you working on now?


Alan is working on a history of brewing for Albany, New York which should be really interesting. I don’t know anything about Albany, so that should be good.

I’m working on a book about the breweries in Toronto in the 19th century. It’s called Lost Breweries of Toronto and should be available in September. It’s nice to be a researcher on a full time basis for that one because I’m making connections that fall outside of “they made this much beer” or “this is what the label looked like.” Beer doesn’t exist without people, so I’m talking about both beer and people.

Jordan St. John

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