HISTORY: Bubble, bubble, beer and trouble

With the arrival of the new Refined Fool Brewing Company in May, a colourful 150-year tradition will have returned to Sarnia.

George Russell founded Sarnia’s first brewery in 1862, an act for which grateful residents named a street in his honour. Russell sold his ales and porters on Front Street until another Sarnian, the tea-totalling Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie, imposed the 1886 Temperance Act.

Mackenzie’s just-say-no government outlawed drinking at local taverns, which sparked anger and outrage. The home of one Sarnia temperance advocate was bombed and another’s set on fire. Hotel owner Charlie Hand was tried and acquitted.

The Lambton Brewing Co. started in 1891 when Peter Heuser of Marine City, Michigan formed a partnership with a local farmer named Benbennek, who supplied the grain. Their lagers and ales were enormously popular and the venture was later sold to a consortium of local hoteliers.

Prohibition in the U.S. in 1925 gave birth to the infamous Sarnia Brewing Company.

Wily businessman Casimir Kocot took advantage of Michigan’s proximity to “export” his product at night on flat-bottomed river scows and occasional railcar through the St. Clair River Tunnel. His beer labels aped those of popular but prohibited U.S. brands.

Another Kocot company, the improbably named of Sarnia Wine and Cognac Company, made a cheap knock-off gin that also found its way to thirsty Detroiters.

Prohibition’s repeal in 1933 took the fizz out of Sarnia’s brewmeisters. But Kocot may have seen it coming. He sold off all his ventures a year before the collapse and reportedly retired a rich man.

– George Mathewson