Alexander Keith, Brewmaster and Politician
An expert in brewing and business, Alexander Keith was also a politician. Elected mayor of Halifax several times, he was offered a Senate seat on the Confederation of Canada.
Working for his uncle in northern England, Alexander Keith was only 17 years old when he was introduced to the fine expertise of brewing beer. Keith’s father sent him from his home in Caithness-shire, Scotland in 1812 to gain the skills that would serve his son well for his lifetime. Keith refined his new-found knowledge with practical experience in breweries in London and in Scotland.
The wilderness shores of colonial Canada called to Keith. He set sail for Nova Scotia when he was 22 and on arrival, “was quickly employed as brew master and business manager by Charles Boggs, the owner of a small Halifax brewery,” says Allan Winn Sneath in “Brewed in Canada” (Dundurn Press, Toronto 2001). Three years later, Keith purchased the facility, making the “Nova Scotia Brewery” his own. It was a risky decision for the young man; the colony in 1820 was still economically tormented by the repercussions of the War of 1812. Keith’s decision was worth the hazards. In a short time, Halifax was enjoying a boom that lasted a decade.
Keith Brewery Built in Ironstone and Granite
Gaining a reputation for taste-enticing strong ales and his own unique mild ginger and spruce beers, Keith was able to enlarge the brewery a time or two. First moving to Lower Water Street, Keith then built a new brewery in 1836 on Hollis Street in Halifax.
Surviving the severe financial downturn and cholera epidemic of the 1830s, Keith’s brewery came out even stronger afterward. In his fearless but calculated way, Keith took advantage of low costs to enlarge the brewing facilities. Sneath notes that the new brewery was “constructed of local ironstone and granite as protection from the ravages of fire, the buildings were designed with substantial storage vaults and lautering cellars below.”
Lautering is the process of separating the mash into two parts: the liquid wort (the raw beer) and the remaining grain. Keith’s home nearby the facility, “in 1863 he began construction of Keith Hall which was connected by a tunnel to his brewery,” Sneath said.
During the years of building his business, Alexander Keith was also building a family. Married to Sarah Ann Stalcup in 1822, Keith was widowed ten years later. A year after his first wife’s death, he married Eliza Keith. The new family grew to six daughters and two sons. In 1856 his son, Donald, joined Keith’s business as a partner. The brewery name was changed to Alex. Keith & Son.
Alexander Keith Chosen Halifax Mayor – Three Times
Interests in business and politics drew Keith into the public service. Failing at his first attempt at election in 1840, Keith was elected to the first Halifax city council a year later. “In 1842 he served as a commissioner of public property and in 1843 was selected mayor of Halifax,” said K. G. Pryke in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online entry, “Keith, Alexander”.
Chosen as a member of the Nova Scotia Legislative Council, Keith was as well elected mayor again in 1853 and 1854. (Mayors often served one-year terms in that era.) On Confederation, the Conservative Alexander Keith was offered a post in the Canadian Senate, but he declined the rare, prestigious offer.
While busy with politics and beer-making, Keith found time to participate in the insurance business, becoming a co-founder of the Halifax Marine Insurance Association in 1838. He held directorships on the boards of the Bank of Nova Scotia, the Halifax Gas, Light and Water Company, and later, with the Provincial Permanent Building and Investment Society. Aiding with the incorporation of the Halifax Water Company in 1844, Keith became a director of the board in 1856.
Freemason Grand Master of Nova Scotia
One of the wealthy elite with an estate valued at over $250,000 by 1873, Keith not only spent his energy on commerce, he was a devoted community leader. President of the North British Society, he as well participated with the Halifax Mechanics Library, said Pryke, and the Nova Scotia Auxiliary Colonial Society. A member of the Freemasons, Keith was “provincial Grand Master for the Maritimes under the English authority in 1840 and under the Scottish lodge in 1845,” according to Canadian Mason. Keith became the Freemason Grand Master of Nova Scotia in 1869.
Born on October 5, 1795, Alexander Keith died on December 14, 1873 in Halifax, Nova Scotia at age 78. He was buried in the Camp Hill Cemetery. The brewery that began under Keith’s experienced direction in 1820 flourished and prospered. “Alexander Keith’s Nova Scotia Brewery” continues today, still using the great brewmaster’s perfected recipes. The flavourful products of Keith are popular with beer lovers across Canada.
- Sneath, Allen Winn, Brewed in Canada: The Untold Story of Canada’s 350-Year-Old Brewing Industry, Dundurn Press, Toronto 2001, pg 32-35.
- Pryke, K. G., “Keith, Alexander,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online Accessed March 28, 2011
- “Masonic News, Resources and Fellowship,” Canadian Mason Accessed March 31, 2011
- Alexander Keith Brewery Accessed March 31, 2011
This article first appeared on Suite101 in April, 2011. Copyright Susanna McLeod