It took the town of Cranbrook six years before the first brewery was constructed: the Cranbrook Brewing and Malting Company. Sadly, for fans of home-brew it was a short-lived affair. In business from 1904–1906, it closed due to financial difficulties, leaving Cranbrook beer drinkers to depend on numerous out of town suppliers for their suds.
In April, 1912, excavation began on a two-acre site outside city limits in Slaterville for the construction of a new brewery under the management of Messrs. Andrew Mueller and Harry Hesse, both of the former Moyie Brewery. Local contractors Christian and Jones signed on for construction beginning in early May although it was to be almost a year before it was complete.
Originally standing three storeys high — one of the tallest buildings in the area — it consisted of a 35-barrel-a-day-capacity brewery measuring 38 feet by 50 feet, with water supplied by a deep well on the site, an additional 30-foot by 50-foot cold storage plant, an ice house to provide cooling in hot weather and an adjoining office. The beer was flowing by the autumn of 1913.
“Have you tried Cranbrook Brewery’s beer or porter yet?” asked an advertisement of the day. “It is fine. Phone 177 and we will deliver at your house.” It was business more-or-less as usual for the next 12 years.
There was the odd burp now and again: A fire quickly snuffed out by alert Slaterville residents when the boiler house threw sparks into the surrounding bush and a court case in 1917 — during the four years of prohibition in British Columbia — when the alcohol content of beer was limited to 2.5 percent and the brewery was found to be producing a product of over 6 percent. The case was eventually dismissed due to insufficient evidence with a sincere promise from the brewers to never ever ever do that again, a moot point when prohibition was repealed in 1921.
The brewery halted production abruptly in the early morning hours of Sunday, August 2, 1925, when Charles MacDonald of the CPR rail yards, the Catholic sister supervisor at the St. Eugene Hospital and the night watchman at the Sash & Door Lumber Co. in Slaterville, all phoned the telephone night operator to report that the structure was on fire.
The height of the building and its position in Slaterville gave first-rate sightlines throughout the city to view the ensuing blaze, one of the most spectacular in many years.
With only two fire hydrants available, one of which was malfunctioning, there was not enough pressure to successfully fight the blaze. A water pipe in the building also burst which further lessened the pressure.
The fire was joined by numerous explosions from the bursting of both the vats and the compressed air tanks within the building. The grass to the rear of the brewery ignited and it was generally considered a wonder that both the adjoining office and nearby houses were saved.
As it was, the majority of the plant and machinery were completely destroyed. Principal owner Joseph Brault of the Canadian (now the York) Hotel, J.E. Kennedy and others faced a loss of over $35,000 dollars, with the insurance covering only a portion of that.
There was much speculation that the fire was an act of arson and that a hydrant had been tampered with but nothing came of it.
For the fifteen men, suddenly unemployed, the only bright light once the blaze was extinguished was the possibility that the brewery might be rebuilt. In fact, a new brewery was soon under construction although this time on Joseph Prairie, immediately east of the railroad tracks and north of the city. There appears to be little on record of the construction undertaken by local contractor V. Liddicoat, save for a mention or two in council minutes as the brewery owners bargained with the city to have a water line extended to the site. The installation of the plant’s machinery began in January, 1926, with the hope that brewing might begin very shortly under the guidance of W. Schwartz, a brew master formerly of Philadelphia and recently of the Saskatchewan Brewing Company of Saskatoon.
In February, 1926, Cranbrook’s city council agreed to float a loan to the Cranbrook Brewing Company in the amount of $1,200 at 6.5 percent interest in order to assist in the excavation for the new pipeline with the city “reserving the right to tap into the brewery line at any time,” by which it is understood to mean the water rather than the beer lines.
The Cranbrook brewery was noticeably north of the city and alone on the prairie when completed but within a short time it was joined by the Imperial Oil Company who erected their storage tanks and warehouse immediately adjacent to the brewery and joined by North Star Oil to the north in 1932, thus helping to define the Cranbrook Street “Strip” of the future.
The Cranbrook Brewing Company continued unabated through the Depression, the Second World War and into the 1950s. In 1957, the Fernie, Nelson, Trail and Cranbrook breweries amalgamated to form the Interior Brewing Company, consolidated into a single plant at Creston, the present day Columbia Brewery.
The old Cranbrook Brewing Company building still stands on 6th Street, North, near the 7-11 store, its third and fourth floors, save a single south wall, torn off in the 1960s in order to facilitate removal of the tanks. It has seen use off and on over the years, generally for bottling works and recycling. Nowadays it evokes thoughts of ruin and decay, a shattered testament to the more self-sufficient communities of yore.