Corktown Brewing

A brief history of early breweries in Corktown

As I noted last week, the earliest breweries in Toronto arose from a need to provide the city's British soldiers and Canadian militia with their daily rations of beer. By the mid 1800s, however, brewing in the city had really begun to take off and the industry was beginning to help shape entire neighbourhoods, like Corktown in Toronto's east end.

As you may have guessed, the founding of Corktown, as well as significant growth that was made in the city's brewing and distilling heritage, is thanks in large part to the Irish. There is, in fact, some dispute as to whether the neighbourhood's name derives from the fact that it was largely populated by Irish emigrants from County Cork in Ireland or if the name is in reference to the early and dominant presence of distilleries, breweries, and cork-stopper manufacturers.

Regardless, these newly-arrived Irish immigrants benefited from the availability of jobs in these industries just as those who owned companies benefited from the arrival of a new and ready-to-work labour force.

One such man was Thomas Davies. In 1849, Davies established the Don Brewery, which was built on the Don River and drew from it for brewing and malting.

An early account of the Don Brewery describes the scene:

"Thousands of dozens of prime ales and porters are ranged on shelves in a large room, and thousands of gallons in casks on racks, ready for bottling. Here the interesting process of washing the bottles by machinery, rinsing and draining them, then bottling the ale, corking and tinfoiling... is carried on with wonderful rapidity. The corking machine is of English make specially imported for the firm, and excited the admiration of all beholders by its perfect working. Their malting department is also very extensive, two large kilns being kept constantly going night and day drying the malted barley. Hops form a very heavy item of expense in such breweries as Messrs. Davies, who largely use English and Bavarian hops."

Davies operated the Don Brewery with his son, Thomas, Jr. until Davies died in 1869. At that time Thomas Davies Jr. was joined in running the business by his brother Robert Davies in 1871. Seven years later, Robert left the family business to found his own brewery, the Dominion Brewery down the road from the Don Brewery on Queen Street East in Corktown.

Robert Davies and his Dominion brewing had such a widespread effect on Corktown that his influence can be seen even today. At the peak of his success, Davies owned over 140 separate brewing "houses" (essentially taverns). He also owned Valley Brickworks (now The Brick Works). As a result, a large part of Corktown was built by Davies, whose bricks were used not only to build his many brewhouses and taverns, but also the homes of his many employees. Much of the distinctive 19th century brick architecture that remains in Corktown today is a direct result of Thomas Davies' companies.

Brewing in Corktown is also indirectly responsible for the city's first "free school." In 1846, the Common Schools Act was passed, giving municipalities the ability to collect taxes for the purposes of providing public education. However, when municipalities proved reluctant to do so, it was a local brewer, Enoch Turner, who provided the funding to build a school on land donated by Little Trinity Anglican Church.

Turner put up the funding to ensure that the poor, immigrant families that lived in the area surrounding his brewery could go to school and he continued to pay the operating cost of the school for the first three years of its operation. Today, Enoch Turner School still stands at 106 Trinity Street--as does the adjacent Little Trintiy Anglican Church, the oldest survivining church in Toronto.

The imposing Dominion Brewery, which operated until 1936, also still stands on Queen East, though today the building is used for office space and retail (and, appropriately, The Dominion Pub).

The site of the Don Brewery was established as a heritage site and was fairly recently converted into loft-style condos.


Oliver Dawson, beer aficionado and host of The Beer Lovers Tour, a historical exploration of Toronto's brewing heritage (with beer!)

Timberlake, J. Illustrated Toronto: past and present: being an historical and descriptive guide-book. Toronto: PA Gross, 1877

Sneath, Allen Winn. Brewed in Canada: The Untold Story of Canada's 350-Year-Old Brewing Industry. Toronto: Dundurn Press Ltd., 2001

Image credit: City of Toronto Archives, Series 496, Sub Series 4, File 3

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