Nineteenth-century Toronto was nicknamed Hogtown in honour of the meat processing industry, but it could just as well have been Aletown (or Beerville, or Hop City), because we had plenty of breweries here as well. In fact, it would be fair to say that the recent boom in craft brewing isn’t an innovation; it’s more of a renaissance.
There were 300 breweries across Ontario in the 19th century, and by 1881, employment in the industry accounted for 1.5% of Toronto jobs. At Todmorden Mills Historic Site at the foot of Pottery Road in the Don Valley, you can still see the remains of one historic brewery building, part of the Helliwell family’s once-thriving complex.
“Only a small portion of the original brewery structure remains,” says site administrator Ulana Baluk. “It originally consisted of a brewery, a distillery and a cooperage, as well as a private residence, so the complex was quite large, and obviously they made their own barrels.” Today, the modest little brick building is less impressive than it once was; its original ground floor lies underground, and only the upper storey is visible; it’s used for storage, office space and occasional programming.
“The brewery was established in 1821 by Thomas Helliwell, Sr.,” says Baluk. The beer was distributed fairly widely. The family’s diaries and some of the company’s ledgers reveal that the Helliwells had the contract to supply beer to the garrison at Fort York, which might in itself have been quite a lucrative business; it’s known that in 1792, each British soldier was allowed six pints of beer per day.
Also, “They were supplying out to along the shores of Lake Ontario,” says Baluk. “They had their own wharf that enabled them to do that; it was right near the St. Lawrence Market, near the [present] Starbucks.” In those days, the Lake Ontario shoreline came right up to Front Street, and the Helliwells could take advantage of the Don River to transport kegs to the wharf via dugout canoe when they were not being shipped in a horse-drawn wagon.
Thomas Helliwell, Jr. joined his father’s business and worked with him. After his father’s death in 1823, the brewery passed into the hands of five sons: Thomas, John, Joseph, William and Charles, but the brewing was actually handled for many years by Sarah Lord Helliwell, his widow. (This was apparently not a rare occurrence amongst brewing families in those days.) In 1832, the second-youngest son, William Helliwell, travelled to England to learn more about brewing, and he took over the operation of the business from his mother upon his return.
Baluk doesn’t know how many and what types of beer were brewed on the site, but she does know that descendants of the family still own some of the recipes.
Under the direction of the second generation, the Helliwell brewery continued in operation for another 15 years. Then, on January 10, 1847, a fire broke out. Most of the brewery buildings were destroyed and little was saved beyond 50 sacks of flour and – much more important – the lives of all the brewery workers, who were actually housed on the site. The loss amounted to about £16,000 in damages (a substantial sum for the time), of which only £1,000 was covered by the insurance, and the family never resurrected the once-profitable business.
These days, although the main brewery building still stands (and every once in a while someone proposes reintroducing a brewing operation, or at least a pub, to the site), “there’s very little left to indicate anything,” says Baluk. “More of its time has been spent as a storage space and even as a museum now than as a brewery.”
Nonetheless, if you happen to pass by in the summer, you’ll spot a bright green vine twisting along the split-log fence leading up to the door: hops! They’re not left over from the brewing days, of course, but planted in a much more recent era by Baluk, who was “just trying to make it a little more evocative of its past.”
Sarah B. Hood is a Toronto journalist who has been shortlisted for the National Magazine Awards and the Kenneth R. Wilson business writing awards. Her preserves have won prizes from Canada's Royal Agricultural Winter Fair and the Culinary Historians of Canada. Her latest book is We Sure Can! How Jams and Pickles are Reviving the Lure and Lore of Local Food (Arsenal Pulp Press).
The image at the top of the post is Todmorden Mills chimney by Jeremy Burgin on Flickr. The chimney is part of the paper mill that is also located at the Todmorden Mills historic site.