All aboard the beer train

Brewers Retail had an interesting location strategy, especially in Northern Ontario.

A classic Brewers Retail Store in South River, Ontario featuring the 1980s-era branding

While taking a geographic analysis program during my undergraduate years at university, I developed a fascination with retail geography. My 2005 Masters’ paper examined the geographic distribution of payday lenders — which combined my interests in retail geography, urban planning, and social justice. Though my career took me in a different direction, I have maintained my interest in the role of geography in the success — or failure — of retail businesses.

Despite being one of Ontario’s oldest and most influential retailers, there is very little written about the history of The Beer Store. Contrary to common belief, The Beer Store is a private company — not a government monopoly. Following the end of prohibition in 1927, the provincial government established a crown corporation to distribute wine and spirits — the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, or LCBO. However, the province’s breweries were granted authorization to establish their own corporation — the Brewers Warehousing Company Ltd. — to distribute their own products. At first, alcoholic beverages were only permitted to be sold for at-home consumption (while customers were required to obtain licenses to purchase beer, wine, and spirits), the rules were slowly relaxed to permit drinking in hotels, restaurants, and taverns. Eventually, the company became known as Brewers Retail.

Though the number of breweries declined since the 1930s due to consolidations and bankruptcies, Brewers Retail expanded its retail operations in the 1960s and 1970s. It produced highway maps showing all the locations where thirsty Ontarians could buy “ale & beer.” Customers, freed from having to write out and sign purchase orders by 1971, would place their order with a clerk, then wait for their case(s) of beers to roll out from the cold storage in the back. Though a self-serve store was introduced in December 1971, it proved to be an unpopular concept, especially as the beer was kept warm, rather than in a cold warehouse in the back.

In 1985, Brewers Retail began rebranding its stores as “The Beer Store” with bright orange signage. Two further rebrands have occurred since (it now uses a grey and black colour scheme), yet the 1980s look can still be seen at many stores, especially in northern Ontario.

Though the rise of small independent craft breweries in Ontario, the LCBO’s expanded beer selection, and the recent moves to allow supermarkets to sell beer in limited quantities (singles and six-packs) have made it easier to purchase beer, The Beer Store remains the dominant player in the distribution of suds.

Brewer’s Retail, Eglinton Avenue East, 1974. Though the location has seen several renovations and rebrandings, this beer store still stands near the corner of Eglinton and Brimley in Scarborough. Toronto Archives Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 8260.

Not only does Brewers Retail sell direct to consumers, it also delivers bottles and kegs to businesses, so it had to establish a distribution network across the province. Most of the large breweries were located in Toronto or in southwestern Ontario, though there were smaller, regional brands such as Soo Falls Brewing and Sudbury’s Northern Brewery. Those products had to be shipped hundreds or even thousands of kilometres. Empty bottles had to be returned to the breweries for cleaning, re-labelling and refilling. Most large breweries, like Labatt’s in London and Molson’s Fleet Street plant, were located next to rail lines for easy shipping.

This is why, in Northern Ontario, many beer stores are found adjacent to rail lines. Though rail shipments to local beer stores have ceased — with one notable exception — this legacy can still be seen, from Pembroke to Kenora.

In some cases, such as in New Liskeard, The Beer Store is out of the way, an unusual strategy for a consumer-focused retailer. But since Brewers Retail holds a monopoly on bulk beer sales (not needing an especially visible location), and since rail access was important for the chain until the 1970s, the location makes sense.

In larger cities, such as North Bay, Sudbury, and Sault Ste. Marie, one Brewers Retail store would handle rail shipments, distributing products to restaurants and bars and to nearby beer stores. Thunder Bay had its own dedicated distribution centre in Port Arthur, next to the railway.

Since the 1960s, refrigerated trucks took the place of dedicated box cars. The railway spurs are gone and the loading docks have since been covered or bricked up. Yet in many cases they remain visible, especially during this time of year, such as North Bay’s Main Street store, below.

There were a few regional warehouses in Southern Ontario that had rail loading docks. Ottawa’s Bank Street Brewers Retail location, built in 1958, was designed by John B. Parkin and Associates and backed on to a Canadian Pacific freight spur. The warehouse was moved to a modern suburban location and the rail line was removed, though the building survives, with a beer store still operating at the front.

Similarly, the Ritson Road store in Oshawa was built next to the Canadian Pacific Railway, and saw rail service in its early years as it also functioned as a regional distribution centre. The store has since moved to a new big-box plaza built on an old General Motors plant to the north, with the old location now a local craft brewery.

In Oshawa, the old railside Brewers Retail store and warehouse is now a craft brewery. The shuttered rail docks -covered with metal sheeting – are barely visible behind the trees to the rear.

Interestingly, one Brewers Retail store still ships beer by rail — the Cochrane, Ontario location. Mike Robin kindly sent me photographs of Ontario Northland Railway box cars parked on the beer store’s spur. This allows for beer bottles and kegs to be shipped north to Moosonee, which is accessible only by rail or by plane for most of the year.

Cochrane Beer Store, November 21, 2020 – Courtesy Mike Robin

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