The possible site of Cranbrook’s first brewery in Slaterville.

The possible site of Cranbrook’s first brewery in Slaterville.

Roll out the Barrels

"Cranbrook Beer Proves a Nectar Fit for the Gods:" The history of Cranbrook's brewing industry

Jim Cameron

“Cranbrook Beer Proves a Nectar Fit for the Gods. The first product of the Cranbrook Brewing and Malting company was placed on the market Monday last, and while the public were hoping for the best no one expected the superior article served up to them at the hotel bars. The liquid is of a beautiful amber tint, clear as crystal and pleasant to the taste and in the opinion of connoisseurs is equal to any beer on the market, not excepting the famous product of Milwaukee.”

So spake the Cranbrook Herald newspaper of August 11, 1904. High words of praise, although the newspaper praised just about everything in Cranbrook in those days, the better to attract business. Of course, being newspapermen they probably knew their beer pretty well.

In fact, a great many people knew their beer pretty well, what with typhoid making regular rounds thanks to the often polluted water. Beer was a cheap and reasonably safe beverage.

In those days every town worth its salt had a brewery: Fort Steele, Moyie, Nelson, Rossland, Fernie, and Trail, for instance. Cranbrook was notably absent from the list.

It’s not that Cranbrook didn’t have beer. Cranbrook always had beer. One of the first business enterprises in town was a liquor store. And the hotels, of course; every hotel had a pub and every pub had beer.

In August, 1898, Joe Mitchell of the poetically named Drewry Brewery of Winnipeg arrived in Cranbrook to break ground for a wholesale liquor warehouse on Durick (7th) Avenue, filling the cellar with Redwood Brewing Company ales, porters, lagers and aerated waters. Mr. Kaiser who, with partner Mr. Sick, ran the Fort Steele Brewing Co., paid tri-weekly visits to Cranbrook to sell their product. That is, until the following year when Kaiser took sick and Sick, who wasn’t, took over his shares in the company and was joined shortly thereafter by Mr. Mutz.

Sick and Mutz moved their brewery to Fernie where it remained in business into the 1930s.

In the tradition of brewers with one-syllable names, Messrs. Blue and Dias of the Red Lion Brewery of Rossland arrived in 1900 to establish a cold storage plant in association with James Kerrigan, manager of the local East Kootenay Bottling Co. By then a number of leading Cranbrook citizens, including John and Jake Fink (Cranbrook mayor 1908-1910) had purchased the New York Brewery of Spokane for something in the order of $150–200,000, and it is likely that their product was filling Cranbrook tankards.

It seems that it took the appearance of Carl Band of the Kaslo Brewing Co., and formerly of the New York Brewery of Spokane, to truly spark the local liquid flames. He hit the city in late December, 1903, had a good look around, gave a thumbs up, approached a few leading citizens — hotel owners James Ryan, L.B. VanDecar, Joseph Brault, and Vic Rollins among others — and immediately formed a company to construct a local brewery with a capacity of 30 barrels a day to be built somewhere to the north of town near Joseph Creek.

Construction began almost immediately although not on the site originally proposed but rather in the neighbouring community of Slaterville.

There is little information concerning the exact location of the brewery. According to Dave Kay and D.A. McDonald, authors of a local history column many years ago, it was “…in Slaterville on what is now Third St. W., back of the old Spence home … close to the hill.”

So, too, there is little known of the design of the brewery. One of the buildings was at least 18 feet high because that is the distance that Carl Band plunged on January 5, 1904, landing head first on the frozen ground. He was helping the carpenters on the roof when he slipped while attempting to grab some loose shingles during a sudden high wind. He seemed fine following the fall, asking for only a wagon ride to his room at the Cranbrook Hotel. He was later taken to the St. Eugene hospital where he lingered through the night, died the next morning of what seems have been a severe concussion and was buried in the Old General Cemetery.

For whatever reasons; perhaps common sense given the time of year, but more likely to take the necessary time to find another brewmaster, work was suspended on the project until early February. At that point, Fred Geiler, a brewer of long experience, arrived to spearhead the project.

As construction renewed, Mr. Geiler, now a large stockholder in the company, travelled to Vancouver to purchase the necessary brewing equipment with a capital authorization of $25,000.

The company, now including Frank Clapp and local wholesale liquor merchants Alex McDermot and Aulder Bowness (Cranbrook mayor 1912-13 and 1915), expected to open for business in May but it took until mid-June to start the first brew and August until “the beer that will make Cranbrook famous” made its debut.

The brewery’s capacity was 60 barrels per day with storage for 800 barrels to allow for up to six months aging and was brewed from fresh spring water taken from the Baker estate.

The first annual shareholder meeting of the Cranbrook Brewing and Malting Co. was held in March, 1905, with all reports showing a profit “far beyond expectations.” Perhaps not, for in February, 1906, the brewery was put up for public auction to meet mortgage payments. It was purchased by the aforementioned Mr. Mutz and, despite his pledge of continuing the operation, appears to have shut down shortly thereafter; such was the rather short shelf-life of Cranbrook’s first brewery.