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Oakes Weekly - April 21, 2005
THE LIFE AND DEATH OF THE SAPPERTON BREWERY
April 21, 2005
It struck me as a bit odd that with me being a beer writer I hadn’t ever set foot in my neighbourhood brewery. The truth is, that brewery hadn’t belonged to the neighbourhood in a long time, at least in spirit. Physically, though, it stands where Brunette Ave meets Columbia St near the banks of the Fraser River since 1879. Today it is scheduled to be closed, leaving Sapperton without a brewery for the first time in 126 years.
Founded in 1879 by a man named James Gibson, the Sapperton Brewery rose to prominence in 1896 when one Nels Nelson, who had been a brewer with the company for ten years already, purchased it. Nelson bought the City Brewery, which operated in downtown New Westminster, and merged the two operations.
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Sapperton Brewery, 1898. Courtesy New Westminster Public Library
The brewery survived a Prohibition from 1916-1920 by getting a special license to keep brewing. Theoretically this was for export, but with a compliant local government, Nelson kept New Westminster from going dry, a unique distinction in English Canada.
When Prohibition was lifted, the brewery was one of two to be granted exclusive brewing rights in British Columbia. With such generous government support, Nelson became one of the province’s wealthiest men and a leading figure in New Westminster. He built for himself a stately home in the posh Queen’s Park area.
In 1928, the next phase of the brewery’s life began when it came into the fold of Coast Breweries, along with three other west coast breweries, the largest of which was the Victoria Brewery. In the 30’s and 40’s, three American breweries joined the group. One of those was Lucky Lager Brewing Co from San Francisco (alternately known throughout the years as General Brewing). In the 1950’s, Coast changed its name to Lucky Lager Breweries and was subsequently purchased by Labatt’s in 1958.
The consortium was broken up in 1971 when Labatt’s sold off its US properties. Lucky Lager was for a few decades the product most associated with the Sapperton Brewery as not only was it a west coast-only product but there was a huge Lucky sign on the top of the brewery building. The sale of the US properties left Labatt’s with two breweries that were part of the original Coast Breweries. The Victoria Brewery was soon closed, leaving Sapperton as the main Labatt’s Brewery for BC. The other was Interior Breweries (now known as Columbia Brewing) in Creston, BC. The latter was famous for Kokanee. At the time, Lucky was a major brand and Kokanee a regional oddity.
Times changed, however, and strong marketing made Kokanee British Columbia’s designated regional beer by the mid 80’s, with Lucky reduced to being a bit of a fringe brand. The Sapperton Brewery, now minus its trademark Lucky sign, was primarily producing Blue and contract Budweiser.
In 1995, another big change occurred when Interbrew bought Labatt’s. The late ‘90s and early 00’s saw expansion at the facility. By all accounts, the plant produced good beer. At Anheuser-Busch’s in-house tasting awards, Budweiser from Sapperton was deemed the world’s best. But a pair of issues came up. First was the layout of the plant. Wedged in a triangle between two busy streets and a major hospital, there was little room for expansion. So the plant’s configuration was convoluted. Staff reported that is was easy to get lost in the complex. This inefficiency, combined with lack of expansion room, appear to have been factors in the decision to close the plant. Indeed, it was expansion at the Edmonton plant and a new canning line at the Creston plant that were credited by Labatt’s as making Sapperton redundant.
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Sapperton Brewery, 2005
Another factor has to be the arrival in 2002 of the Skytrain station adjacent the brewery on the other side of Brunette Avenue. The old neighbourhood, lost in a sea of suburbia some twenty-five kilometres from downtown Vancouver, is now connected to the main transit conduit. With spectacular views over the Fraser River, down the valley and of the Coast Mountains to the north, the land on which the brewery sits always had a certain potential. With Skytrain’s arrival, that potential is ready to be unlocked. While there is no official word on plans for the site, new residential development seems inevitable. Within a stone’s throw of the brewery, the former BC Penitentiary and sprawling campus of the Woodlands School, both dating back to the time of the original brewery, have been or are being developed for residential use.
While the history may romanticize the brewery, it has to be known that it had not been a part of the neighbourhood for quite some time. There is no pub on site, and only 13 of the 180 employees actually live in New Westminster. It has as long as I’ve known it been a standoffish facility, with stark brick walls, barbed wire and security guards. I have a tendency to sort of wander into breweries unannounced and that most certainly has never happened at the one that was five minutes away. Still, it was BC’s oldest brewery and a big part of the history of BC’s most history-rich city.
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