This past weekend Andrew and I had the opportunity to attend the soft opening of The Public Brewhouse and Gallery on Main Street in Steinbach. Not only was the art fantastic and the beers delicious, but I felt we were also participating in a historic occasion — the opening of the first brewery in a community known for being dry — Steinbach, Manitoba. (The Public officially opens to the public TODAY!)
This comes just as Preservings magazine is set to release an issue on Mennonites and alcohol and I’m sure I’ll learn a lot from that issue, because the topic is much more complex than it seems.
Many people, in Manitoba at least, get the idea that “Mennonites don’t drink” simply because Steinbach has frequently made the news over the years for its liquor referendums. But the idea that Mennonites don’t drink, or even that Steinbach was historically dry, is far from accurate.
The traditional teachings of most Mennonite churches would have been moderation — not complete abstinence from drinking.
Here are a few examples. Mennonites in the Vistula Delta of Prussia were famous for distilling Goldwasser, which was made for over 200 years until the 1940s. Then in the late 1700s, when Mennonites negotiated with Catherine the Great to come to Russia, one of the things they negotiated and had guaranteed in the Privilegium was the right to distill liquor. And, indeed, there were many taverns in the Molotschna and Chortitza colonies of Russia, including the famous Three Roses pub in Einlage.
So where does the idea that all Mennonites were teetotalers come from? Well, specific groups of Mennonites did, indeed, teach abstinence, particularly the conservative Kleine Gemeinde, which is, as its name suggests, a small minority in the larger Mennonite community. However, this just so happens to be the group that left South Russia en masse and founded Steinbach in 1874. Other groups, however, such as the Bergthaler, had no such prohibition.
In fact when Canada adopted prohibition in 1918, Mennonites were primarily opposed to it. And even Kleine Gemeinde villages such as Steinbach did, in fact, have taverns in the early 20th century. Ralph Friesen writes about them in his fantastic history of early Steinbach called Between Earth and Sky. As early as the 1920s, Steinbach was home to the Coote’s Hotel with a men’s only beer parlour and, of course, the famous Tourist Hotel, which existed until the 1970s. Steinbach voted to become dry in 1950, but the Tourist Hotel was allowed to remain. Weird to think Steinbach was only dry for about 40 years, between the closing of the Tourist Hotel and the 2003 referendum (“dry” in terms of sales, not consumption of alcohol). But the Steinbach referendums got a lot of press and spread the idea that Mennos don’t drink.
So here we are AT LAST with a locally owned and operated microbrewery right here in downtown Steinbach. To quote Miriam Toews, “What would our ancestors think?” Even though Steinbach was not really ever totally dry, I certainly can’t find any evidence of a brewery in town. So, yes, this is a historic occasion. I’ll drink to that!
P.S. Andrew Unger will be reading, along with a special guest (not me), this upcoming Tuesday, Dec. 21 at 7 pm at The Public. Spaces are limited, so reserve your spot by messaging The Public peeps direct via https://www.instagram.com/thepublicbrewhouseandgallery/ or https://www.facebook.com/thepublicbrewhouseandgallery