My Canada, 69/150: The beer sellers

In my small hometown, my dad was “the beer man” and I, “the beer man’s daughter.”

He worked for what was then known as Brewers’ Warehousing, which became Brewers’ Retail, now rebranded to be what everyone called it, anyway: the “Beer Store.

68 Beer Store
The latest branding for the “Beer Store” in Cabbagetown, Toronto. Photo: Kelley Teahen

Most people assume the Beer Store (all 450 of them in Ontario) is the beer-arm of the government-owned-and-controlled Liquor Control Board of Ontario. Most people are wrong. Brewers’ Warehousing began in 1927, after the formal end of prohibition, as a private venture jointly owned by a consortium of Canadian breweries that included Molson and Labatt. Today, Labatt is owned by the world’s largest beer company, Belgian-based Anheuser-Busch InBev, and Molson is now 50/50 Canadian / U.S. as “Molson Coors”: those two companies in their modern form own 98 per cent of The Beer Store.

My father’s store in Elmira, pictured in the main photograph, still has three large windows along its face, although these days metal security screens draw across them when the store is not open. My father, each fall, used to pot up slips from his garden geranium plants and then grow them all winter on those window ledges. By the time spring came, the plants were a good size and ready to go back into our flowerbeds. He also had quite the collection of indoor plants in the store — there were no displays, can sales cases, or other stuff cluttering up the public area. One jade plant grew old enough, and happy enough, that it regularly produced clusters of tiny, five-pointed white flowers.

Then, as now, you order what beer you want and a store employee goes back into the cooler to pull it out. My father had a small office to the right side of the sales counter, the cooler door was behind the counter and a second door on the left side led to the largest part of the store, where the empties stacked up, waiting to be taken away. One of the great treats of my childhood was when my dad let me ride on the pallet truck he used to move stacks of cases from one part of the warehouse to the next.

It wasn’t so fun to be the “beer man’s daughter” as a teenager. There is a cohort of classmates out there who to this day likely still hate my guts because they could never get away with buying beer underage. “Aren’t you in my daughter’s class?” my father would say to some teen guy trying to bluff his way to a 2-4 of Molson Canadian.

My father worked for Brewers Retail until the early 1980s, when he took an early retirement after being robbed at gunpoint at the store. While the robbery shook him more than he would talk about, it also prompted one of the funniest stories from my parents’ marriage.

Dad’s Brewers Retail closed at 6 p.m. on weekdays and my father worked alone on lower-traffic days, having part-time help only for busy Fridays and Saturdays. Just a few moments before closing one winter weekday, two men came in wearing balaclavas — not something alarming at a time and in a community where, when snowfalls were heavy, people would travel on snowmobiles to go about their business.

However, these were not snowmobilers, but thieves. They ordered a case of beer and my father went into the cooler to get it. When he returned, they pointed a gun at him and forced him into his office, where they cut the phone cord, tied his hands together, and shoved him under his desk.

In a few moments he broke free of his bindings and went to the house next door to call the police. He then called my mother, who prepared dinner to be served each work night at 6:30 p.m. “Honey, I’m going to be late for dinner tonight,” he said. “I’ve been held up.” My mother didn’t quite get it. “Oh that’s all right dear!” she blithely said. “I’ll just turn the temperature down on the oven.” “No, no, no!” my father said. “I’ve been held up! With a gun!” My mother loved this story and would tell it on herself, often.

69 David and Chris July 2013 copy
Dave, the beer man’s son (my brother, left) and Chris try two “Club Ale” stubbies we found in my parents’ home in 2013 when clearing it for sale. “Club Ale” hasn’t been made since 1970. It turned out to be water on top, sludge on bottom. Photo:  Kelley Teahen

From 1961 until 1982, all beer bottles were the same, what became known as the Canadian “stubby”: a short, squat bottle holding 11.5 ounces. This style of bottle didn’t break easily and the uniformity made bottle re-use easier.

The marketers, alas, will have their day and in the 1980s breweries starting bottling their beer in a variety of bottle styles, often the “long neck” bottle already in use in the U.S. which, supposedly, was more appealing to female drinkers.

Today, even though the Beer Store’s ownership is a bi-company monopoly (with two per cent owned by the Japanese-controlled Sleemans), there are dozens of bottle styles as the Beer Store sells a range of international brews and products from the relatively recent surge of smaller “craft” breweries. The Beer Store also has a government contract to be the central depot not only for beer bottle returns, but also for all bottles from liquors and wines (and some beers) sold at the LCBO. No wonder people get confused. It makes for stores far more chaotic than the orderly and plant-filled place my father presided over for his many years.

But the smell of those stacks upon stacks of beer empties — the smell of fermented grain — remains the same. And even though I’m not much of a beer drinker, when I’m at a Beer Store to drop off empty bottles, that smell makes me a happy child again, giggling as we whiz around the warehouse on a pallet truck, just a daddy and his little girl.

Main photo: Kelley Teahen









Main photo: Kelley Teahen

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