History of the Victoria Brewing Company
The Baker Says, "I've the staff of life,
And you're a silly elf;'
The brewer replied, with artful pride,
'Why, this is life itself!'
-in In Praise of Ale, 1888
William Steinberger became Victoria’s first commercial brewer when he established the Victoria Brewery in 1858 (Evans: 1991, 20). Steinberger was from Germany and he came to Victoria in search of his fortune in gold. He came with a great many other entrepreneurs, who all had the same goal in mind. Steinberger ended up following the path of a golden liquid rather than that of the golden metal he came for. Steinberger brought brewing experience from Germany and decided to look into setting up a brewery of his own. The gold seeker turned brewer secured a grain supplier in the Puget Sound Agricultural Company at Craigflower Farm (Evans: 1991, 21). At this time the Crimean war was in progress, and thus the Company was no longer selling grain to Russia leaving them with a larger surplus of grain. Steinberger set up his brewery, in a small log building, at the nearby Swan Lake, where he also grew his own hops. So began the long history of the Victoria Brewery and brewing industry on Vancouver Island.
The Victoria brewery was a small enterprise in its early days but it “provided a staple item in a growing community” (Evans 1991, 21). A Times Colonist article from the 1950’s described the value of beer in a community that was growing rapidly with the gold rush:
The idea of beer watered by Swan Lake is not exactly to my sophisticated taste but…this was an age where men were men. Palates were not over refined. Beer of any kind was a god-send no doubt to Steinberger as well as his customers
-Daily Colonist, April 5, 1954
Steinberger had found his goldmine in the brewing business. After one year of success at the Swan Lake site Steinberger moved the brewery closer to his market and built a new and larger facility at Discovery and Government Streets. Steinberger also obtained a partner at this time, Chris Oschner. Victoria brewery also switched to Spring Ridge as its water supply as Swan Lake was already known for its impurities (Evans 1991, 22).
Steinberger left the brewery in 1860 and Charles Gowen and Frank Laumeister entered the brewing business when they bought shares in the Victoria Brewery (Evans 1991, 27). By 1866, Gowen, who was also in the saloon business, was the sole owner of the enterprise. Gowen sold the brewery that same year to three new brewers, John Vogel, Jacob Loerz, and John Himmen who ran the brewery for four years (VCA Chronology).
Victoria Brewery changed hands again in 1870 when it was purchased by Ludwig Erb and Joseph Loewen. Both men were from Germany. Loewen, like so many others, had arrived in Victoria via the San Francisco gold fields. Erb was a practical brewer who had attended brewing college in Belgium, and thus brought with him the knowledge that would make Victoria Brewery prosper. Thus began the Island’s “longest and arguably most successful brewing partnership”(Evans 1991, 28).
One of the major factors in the success of the Victoria Brewery was it's contract to supply the imperial forces at Victoria with ale. In 1886 the Victoria Brewery was producing 150,000 gallons of ale and porter annually, the “greater part of which [was] consumed in Victoria,” while the rest was exported to the mainland and to the east (Daily Colonist, Jan. 1 1887).
In 1891 the Victoria Brewery was incorporated as Victoria Brewing and Ice Company Limited Liability, with Erb and Loewen as provisional trustees along with Andrew Hienrich (VCA Chronology). The following year was an eventful year for Victoria Brewing. The old brewing facility was demolished and a new one built. The corner stone was laid in March and the machinery began operation in May. It cost the company $120,000 to build and equip one of the most modern breweries on the Pacific Coast. The new building was immediately hailed as "A Handsome Building."
In 1893, Victoria Brewing and Ice merged with the Phoenix Brewery to form the Victoria-Phoenix Brewing Company Limited Liability. The trustees were now Joseph Loewen, William Parsons Sayward, Charles Gowen, William Wilson, and Frank Stillman Barnard (VCA Chronology). With the two smaller companies combined it would be possible to compete with the many other breweries in town, mainly the aggressive Union Brewery. The newly formed company used the new building on Government Street and slowly phased out the old Phoenix facility at Yates and Blanshard.