Tapping the History of New West Brew

Nels Nelson on Brunette Street at the Westminster Brewery in 1911 (IHP 8356)
Nels Nelson on Brunette Street at the Westminster Brewery in 1911 (IHP 8356)

This is a guest post from Ken Wilkinson of the Friends of New Westminster Museum & Archives Society.

The Brewery District is a new development being built in Sapperton on the corner of Brunette and Columbia Streets. Its name remembers beer brewed successfully there for 110 years. New Westminster beer has been on tap since 1862 for thirsty residents who have always enjoyed it.

As American gold miners flooded up the coast in the 1850s, the new Colony of British Columbia was created and Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie was called from England to help control the new settlers. Very unique laws never seen in Canadian colonies were introduced to heavily tax alcohol and only allow beer to be sold where food was served. Along with miners’ taxes, alcohol taxes created great revenue and quickly spread across Canada. After two breweries on Vancouver Island, New Westminster got the third license in 1862. The City Brewery started the corner of Carnarvon and Eighth Streets and thrived there for almost 40 years under several owners. The Jamieson brewery started at Brunette and Columbia in about 1890.

City Brewery beer flowed freely throughout New Westminster by 1880 when an alderman complained because for every 28 residents there was one place serving alcohol. Some of the famous early saloons included the “Eldorado”, the “Pioneer”, the “London Arms” and the first in Sapperton was the “Retreat”. Smart saloon keepers knew just how to treat the Police enforcing Judge Begbie’s strict laws. Officers would drink where there wasn’t a license and lay charges. Too often they were dismissed because officers “consumed the evidence” (Jack Peden, Labatt’s personnel manager in the Columbian Centennial Edition).

The most successful brewer in New Westminster was Nels Nelson, a Danish immigrant who first arrived and worked in Victoria breweries. In about 1882 Nelson moved to New Westminster and became brew master at the City Brewery. After it became the Westminster Brewery, he bought and expanded it in the 1890s. Nelson was one of the first in Canada to use glass bottles sometimes instead of beer kegs or barrels. During the great fire of 1898, Nels quickly brought out fire hoses and used brewery water to protect modern new machinery while the building burned around it.

People could enjoy beer for 5 cents a glass at places like Sapperton’s first Saloon, the Retreat (IHP 7776)
People could enjoy beer for 5 cents a glass at places like Sapperton’s first Saloon, the Retreat (IHP 7776)

The New Westminster Brewery was rebuilt at Brunette and Columbia on the site of the defunct Jamieson brewery for better access to trains bringing barley and hops, and Brunette River water. During Prohibition (1916-20 when alcohol was banned in Canada and the U.S.A.), Nelson was allowed a unique allowance to produce beer for export, but much was also sold in New Westminster illegally. Many people in the city prospered during prohibition and when it continued in the U.S. until 1933. From the 1890s until he sold the Brewery in 1928, Nels Nelson became a rich, powerful and active man in the city. He built one of the largest homes at 125 Queen’s Avenue in 1912 for his extended family and in retirement bought an orange grove in California for winter retreats.

The Coast Company bought the Westminster Brewery from Nelson, expanded and in 1941 it became Lucky Lager. It was a very popular western brand and expanded again into the largest and most modern brewery in B.C. with Labatt’s purchase in 1958. Labatt’s kept selling Lucky Lager Brew that challenged Molson’s eastern brands until the 1970s. As Brunette Street grew more into a highway and Sapperton began to make a shift from industry to a residential and commercial centre, the location of the large brewery became awkward for Labatt’s and it was closed for redevelopment in 2005.

7 Replies to “Tapping the History of New West Brew”

  1. Thanks Jen. The staff at the Museum and archives are a great source for lots of stories and pictures. They're all doing a great job helping with the articles. Let me know what else you'd like to see in the future!

  2. I really like the story about Nels Nelson !

    Funny how those who peddle dependency go to such lengths to protect their livelyhood. Seems like nothing has changed much now the governments on the take, and those who deal in prohibited intoxicants continue to prosper at the expense of society.


  3. A very entertaining piece of history. I hope that, in addition to all Westies, the students at NW Secondary get a chance to see your posts. You make history relevant and alive!

    1. Is there a blog or Facebook page for NWSS Students? I'd love to find a way to share the articles with Students and help them learn in a new way about history!

  4. Great post Ken. I for one am keeping my fingers crossed that someone (ahem, Mark James) keeps the ‘essence’ of the brewers history alive and opens a brew-pub at the new development.

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