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The ‘beer castle’ then and now

The Edmonton Brewing and Malting Co. Ltd. building
has guarded the west end of Oliver since 1914
By Rudy Howell

GUARDING THE corner of 121 Street and 104 Avenue is the Edmonton Brewing & Malting Co. Ltd., a building that looks more like a medieval castle than a brewery.

The origins of this feudal style “beer castle” can be traced back to 1904, when Strathcona entrepreneur, hotelier, and politician, William Henry Sheppard, built his first brewery down near the riverbank, in Rossdale. Known today as the Rossdale Brewery, it served as the primary production facility for Sheppard’s company, Edmonton Brewing and Malting.

When business began to boom for Sheppard, he found that hauling beer up the hill and into the city was expensive. So, in 1913, he bought 24.7 hectares of land in what was then the far west-end of the city, where he could build a new brewery.

To design his new facility, Sheppard hired acclaimed Chicago architect and engineer, Bernard Barthel. The German-born Barthel developed his practice at home before moving to the U.S. Midwest, where he built a reputation for himself as an elaborate designer of industrial buildings – particularly breweries.

Constructed out of local red brick, steel and concrete, the five-storey building was almost complete when it nearly burned to the ground, when a cement kiln overheated and ignited the wooden floor in the early hours of Feb. 12, 1913. Thanks to the quick response of the Edmonton Fire Brigade, the building was saved, and opened that spring.

Situated next to the rail yards and a major roadway, the site was ideal for efficient shipping and receiving. It was also accessible to workers, as it was located near residential neighbourhoods and streetcar lines.

The enactment of Prohibition in Alberta in 1916 put a cork in profits. However, ever the entrepreneur, Sheppard survived the ban by exporting his beer to less puritanical jurisdictions.

When prohibition was repealed in 1923, business surged and Sheppard commissioned architect Ralph H. Trouth to design an administrative office building adjacent to the brewery. Constructed with matching red brick, the detached facility was completed the following year.

Three years later, in 1927, Sheppard sold Edmonton Brewing & Malting Company to Lethbridge brewer Fritz Sick. The new business was named Associated Breweries, and Sheppard stayed on as president.

In 1958, Montreal-based Molson Brewery purchased the site, planting a two tonne neon Molson “M” sign on the roof two years later. This in inaugurated what was perhaps the brewery’s most successful period. Most Edmontonians will remember the three-by-two metre landmark, which graced the building for more than 50 years.

For reasons unbeknownst to most, in 1961, Molson constructed a hospitality lounge out of logs, meant to resemble a fur-trading fort. Erected south of the brewery, Molson House, as it was called, was used to entertain customers and clients. The lounge was also available for rent by community groups, businesses, and individuals. However, its real claim to fame was that it was where Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington announced in 1988 that Wayne Gretzky had been traded to the Los Angeles Kings.

By the 2000s, it was becoming apparent that the small and aging complex was in need of repairs. In 2004, it underwent a $12 million upgrade. But all the money in the world couldn’t prevent a workers’ strike, a shift in consumer preference from bottle to can – which the brewery did not produce – and the company’s losing the contract to brew the Australian beer, Foster’s.

No longer financially viable, the brewery closed in 2007, laying off 136 workers and marking the end of a 94-year Edmonton tradition.

In 2008, the company – now called Molson-Coors after a cross-border merger in 2005 – offered the log annex, Molson House, to anyone willing to move it off  the property. It was eventually purchased by an anonymous family, dismantled, and hauled away in 2011.

For nearly 10 years the site sat empty, and its future seemed uncertain. But in May 2016, both the Edmonton Brewing and Malting Co. Ltd. Building and its adjacent administrative offices were spared from demolition when they were designated as Municipal Historic Resources.

Sun Life Financial and First Capital Realty purchased the site in 2017, creating an $8.4 million heritage restoration project in conjunction with the development of the Edmonton Brewery District.

Completed in spring of 2018, the project returned the 105-year-old site to its former glory with the addition of four floors of office space, a restaurant, an outdoor patio, and, ironically, a Molson micro-brewery targeting craft beers.

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