Back to Beer ... and Hockey

The Story of Eric Molson

Reviewed by Mark Reid

Posted March 18, 2020

A double review with

In the 1670s, Quebec’s intendant, Jean Talon, opened a brewery to serve the Canadiens of New France. There were many reasons for doing so — for instance, beer was often safer to drink than the available microbe-ridden milk or water, and Talon believed the new industry would promote farming while bolstering the economy. He also believed that beer, with its weaker alcohol content, would help to cure the community’s addiction to the much stronger brandy.

Over the centuries, beer has been the subject of both controversy and celebration, seen by abstainers and teetotallers as a demon drink and by everyone else as a refreshing symbol of friendship and celebration, as in sharing a beer or raising a glass. Two new books examine the business side of the Canadian brewing saga. Their subjects, Labatt’s and Molson, each have histories that span centuries.

Brewed in the North: A History of Labatt’s, by Matthew J. Bellamy, explores the story of the Labatt family, which began brewing in the 1840s in London, Upper Canada. Bellamy follows the company through the lows and highs of brewing, from the industrial revolution to prohibition and beyond. He explains how the company navigated myriad challenges, faced down competitors, and survived two world wars and the Great Depression to emerge as a company that, by the 1970s and into 1980s, had become virtually synonymous with Canada itself.

Bellamy, an associate professor of history at Carleton University in Ottawa, also explains how this quintessentially Canadian company came to be sold to international interests. “This book is structured around the rise and fall of Labatt,” Bellamy says in his introduction. “What did the decision-makers at Labatt do right and what did they do wrong?” Brewed in the North is enhanced with images and contains extensive footnotes and source citations.

A second book, Back to Beer ... and Hockey: The Story of Eric Molson, by Helen Antoniou, takes a much more personal approach to its subject. It’s the story of an iconic brewing family as told by an insider — Antoniou is married to Andrew Molson, Eric’s son, and has unique access and insights into the book’s subject matter that greatly enhance the story.

The Molson Brewery was founded in 1786 in Montreal by John Molson, and, like Labatt’s, it emerged from prohibition to become a titan of the Canadian brewing industry. Eric Molson’s rise through the company is a fascinating tale, and Antoniou’s talent for storytelling makes the prose come alive.

More than just a business history, Back to Beer ... and Hockey has plenty to offer to readers looking for new and personal insights into a business family that has made significant contributions to the growth and development both of Montreal and of Canada.

Buy this book from Chapters-Indigo

This article originally appeared in the April-May 2020 issue of Canada’s History.

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