Homebrewing in the 1950s: How my Grandma Became a Homebrewer

My grandmother was a homebrewer over 60 years ago. Her interest in homebrewing was not born solely out of a love for beer as it was for me; she wasn’t a big beer drinker. It developed from a disruption in the distribution of beer in Ontario that occurred during a worker strike at Brewers Warehousing Ltd in 1958. As a result, retail beer sales were no longer available, layoffs at unionized breweries soon followed, and supplies of readily available beer quickly dried-up in Ontario. Beer drinkers cleaned out the Liquor Control Board of Ontario’s stock of British, Danish, Dutch, and German beers in just a few days. Many started purchasing beer smuggled in from the US and Quebec. Bootleggers could fetch up to $20 for a case of 24 pints which normally sold at Brewers Retail for about $4.25.

Lillian Ballyk in her kitchen. Photo courtesy of Matt Ballyk.

Formosa Springs, a non-union brewery located on the eastern shores of Lake Huron, was the only brewery still operating in Southern Ontario during the strike. At that time, Formosa would draw over 500 customers per day. Cars from all over Ontario lined up in the town’s narrow streets to compete for the brewery’s modest daily output of 800 cases. Ultimately, Formosa rationed supplies to one case per customer. Clearly, getting your hands on a bottle of beer in Ontario became very challenging indeed.

My grandma was a registered nurse, had a keen interest in math and science, and was a very fine cook; a pretty good set of attributes for a novice homebrewer. Although she was not an avid beer drinker herself, she did enjoy a pint with my grandfather from time to time. At the time of the strike, my grandma was the mother of four children under 5 years old, ultimately raising nine, while my grandfather had a busy medical practice in St. Catharines, Ontario. As such, a pilgrimage to Formosa for a case of beer was out of the question for either of them. My grandma, never one to shy away from a challenge, set out to take on the task of brewing beer at home.

During this period, brewing beer at home for personal consumption was not legal in Canada without written authorization from the federal government, and obtaining permits was not an easy task. The Department of National Revenue, Excise Duty, where permits were acquired, had a local branch in St. Catherines. The strike started on August 7th, 1958; my grandmother had her signed official permit by August 29th.

Excerpt from the Excise Act of 1955. Photo courtesy of Matt Ballyk.

The permit she obtained was quite prescriptive, stipulating that only “kitchen utensils” and a “5 gallon stone crock” were to be used in the production of her beer. A rather limiting set of tools, and prior to the internet era and without the wealth of knowledge shared by members of the homebrewing community today, sources of information on the subject were scarce. Although all of this was daunting, it did not deter my grandma. She began brewing beer in her kitchen and fermenting in the basement.

Lillian Ballyk’s Application and Letter of Consent to Brew Beer for Home Consumption, August 29th 1958. Photo courtesy of Matt Ballyk.

Sadly, my grandma passed away in 1998. I was 12 years old at the time; long before I took an interest in homebrewing. I have fond memories of her, having spent many weekends travelling to St. Catharines to visit my grandparents throughout my childhood while growing up nearby in Hamilton. It was only after I took up the hobby myself in late 2015 that I heard about her homebrewing adventures from my grandpa. There were stories of a mishap (exploding bottles) and perhaps some less than ideal homebrew initially, but she kept at it, refining her approach, and in time, they did get to enjoy her beer. When asked if he knew any details about her setup or process, he said he didn’t really know; he just drank the beer, and that, “she was the brains of the outfit!”.

Eventually, the employers and distribution workers came to an agreement. The strike ended after 48 days and in due course the supply chain recovered to normal levels. It would be yet another 27 years before the Excise Act of 1985 would finally relax federal restrictions on the production of beer for non-commercial purposes, no longer requiring permits for homebrewers.

My grandma was very active in community service, Save the Children Canada, Ozanam (the local soup kitchen), Bethlehem House (a women’s shelter and home for single mothers), the Niagara First Nations community, and the local district school board among others. In particular, she was a staunch and life-long supporter of equal rights. My aunt discovered her approved and stamped Application and Letter of Consent to Brew Beer for Home Consumption just prior to the passing of my grandpa and presented it to me. It will always remain a very meaningful remembrance of my grandma and stands as an example to me of the contributions of women, both within and outside of brewing.

Although I never had the opportunity to ask her about her homebrewing experiences, given the chance, I’m sure we would have enjoyed those conversations. Last year I brewed a brett farmhouse saison. I named it “Lillian” in honour of my grandma. This year, I took International Women’s Day as the opportunity to first try the beer I named after her. This is the beer I wish to have brewed alongside and shared with my grandma.

Lillian M. Ballyk
1929 – 1998

“Lillian” Photo courtesy of Matt Ballyk
Matt Ballyk

Matt Ballyk is an avid homebrewer, BJCP judge, and member of the Hamilton HOZERs, GTA Brews, and Canadian Homebrewers Association. More on Matt’s homebrewing can be found at: instagram.com/mattballyk.

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