Saanich’s claim to brewery fame still a mystery, says historian

Despite boom in local breweries over the past 15 years, Island’s most populous municipality remains without a brewery of its own

Despite a boom in local breweries in Greater Victoria over the past 15 years, the Island’s most populous municipality remains without a brewery of its own.

While it’s only a matter of time before such an establishment puts down roots in Saanich, rumours have long circled that the District was home to the first brewery in the region – and possibly in B.C.

The tale goes like this: German-born William Steinberger started brewing beer in a log cabin on the east shore of Swan Lake in 1858, soon after he showed up on the shores of Vancouver Island during the Fraser River gold rush. But instead of chasing gold nuggets, Steinberger opened a brewery instead.

However, the region’s lead brewing historian, Esquimalt archivist Greg Evans, believes the Swan Lake brewery story may not hold water.

“The earliest documented instance for a brewery here is (Steinberger’s) Victoria Brewery in 1859, which was downtown,” Evans said. “I believe Victoria Brewery was producing earlier than 1859, (but) I’m still working on pinning that down.”

For decades, Evans has remained unquenched in his thirst for the knowledge of who brewed the first batch of beer in the region, and where they did it.

Most suspect Steinberger relocated his operation to downtown Victoria, which opened as the Victoria Brewing Company at Discovery and Government streets. Newspaper ads show up as early as March 1859.

“We know it was Steinberger, but the more I look at notes and drawings of Swan Lake from 1858, there’s nothing to suggest anything there other than a glorified trail,” said the sleuthful Evans. “Until recently, I bought into the belief (the first brewery) was at Swan Lake as well.”

When he’s not working for Esquimalt, Evans is busy documenting the history of breweries in other parts of B.C. He plans to turn his focus to the mystery of the Swan Lake brewery one day soon and solve it for good.

“One of the reasons I have a hard time believing it was Swan Lake is because it was reported in those days that the lake was polluted, which is perhaps why Steinberger moved downtown,” he said. “Why would he brew his beer four miles from town, keg it and drive it into town on an uneven trail and risk having it topple over?”

Prior to Steinberger, there were reportedly other attempts to brew beer in Victoria. Would-be brewers were tempted by the Hudson’s Bay Company’s surplus store of grains in the 1850s. During the Crimean War (1853 to 1856), it was reported HBC was forced to stockpile grain it had been selling to Russia due to the Island’s colonial allegiance to Britain.

But the facts are blurred between legend and truth.

A Colonist article from March 10, 1957, states Kenneth Mckenzie’s Craigflower farmlands (the Puget Sound Agricultural Co., a subsidiary of HBC) was successfully growing grain, and suggested that beer could be produced locally from this grain. But HBC, which reportedly wasn’t interested in supporting a brewery, is said to have refused to allow Mckenzie to use the grain for that purpose.

The story also states that hops still existed at Swan Lake in 1957 and were planted by Steinberger.

This is some of the strongest evidence for a Swan Lake brewery, but Evans’ remains skeptical as there are no supporting documents.

Aside from when his brewery started, Steinberger has a well-documented history of brewing in Victoria and farming in Saanich. He may have started with a partner to get Victoria Brewery started, and certainly took one on by the time he sold it in 1860. The brewery merged with Phoenix in 1893 and became the Victoria-Phoenix Brewery, which continued to change hands and brewed until 1981 in its iconic six-storey brick building at Discovery and Government streets. It was producing Lucky Lager in the latter part of the 20th century and its building was demolished in 1982.

As for Steinberger, the British Colonist documents that he married and kept a farm in Saanich near Elk Lake. That supports a possible theory by Evans – just a guess for now – that Steinberger’s first brewery may have been at Elk Lake, but was mistaken for Swan Lake. Newspapers of the day commonly referred to Elk Lake as ‘the lake.’

This would make sense because Elk Lake was next to the more established roadway (now the Pat Bay Highway), and Victoria later drew water from Elk Lake by pipe until 1873.

Evans is befuddled by the absence of any photographs of Steinberger, despite his many ventures on record.

“It strikes me as odd we can’t find pictures of this guy,” Evans said. “Why are things so hard to pin down with him?”

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Zoning is one of the hurdles to establish a modern brewery in Saanich, says Joe Wiebe, Victoria-based author of the Craft Beer Revolution.

“A lot of the recent breweries have chosen Rock Bay or Esquimalt because of the zoning,” Wiebe says. “Saanich is such a big municipality, there are bound to be many good location options, perhaps the Vanalman area. It’s a matter of getting the right zoning in the right location.” Wiebe’s 2015 update to the Craft Beer Revolution – a guide to all the breweries in B.C. – added 40 new breweries after its 2012 first run. The Thirsty Writer, as he’s also known, has visited most B.C. breweries and believes there is still room for producers in the Capital Region.

“There’s still tons of room in the market,” he says. “It’s all about focusing locally now so each region, town or neighbourhood can have its own brewery.”

People love to have a place to walk to fill their growler (two-litre jug), or to stop by on the commute home, he adds.  The next brewery planned in Greater Victoria is the West Shore’s Loghouse Brewpub.

Prohibition short-lived

  • Prohibition in B.C. was enacted from 1917 to 1921, but it gave the B.C. Liquor Control Board ample opportunity to set strict controls once the drink flowed freely. Saanich and Esquimalt opened beer parlours in 1925 following 1924 provincial plebiscite to sell beer by the glass. While Saanich and Esquimalt were in favour of the relaxed laws, Vancouver and Victoria were not. The votes were said to be close.