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Sleeman: A Family Recipe for Success

written by: Kelly Waterhouse

No Canadian city has a history quite like ours, because none can lay claim to the Sleeman dynasty. We can tap our history back to the beauty of true beer craftsmanship, rebellion, bootleggers, forward thinking politics and industrial masterminds.

Even before we were officially a city, the Sleeman family understood the inherently unique nature of Guelph. The Sleeman family poured their success into the arts, sports and streetscapes of a city. The values of work hard but play harder ring true today. We value the sustainability of the city’s resources and preserve the quality of life that is distinct to this place. We value innovation and support local.hist-40-2

(Silver Creek Brewery Delivery, photos courtesy; Guelph Museums and Guelph Public Library)

The Guelph you experience today is not just who we are now; it’s who we’ve always been. This is Guelph, Sleeman style.

1847 – English immigrant John H. Sleeman moves his family to Guelph from their former homes in Southern Ontario and New York State, with good reason. Guelph’s water was the perfect place to brew a quality beer.

1851 – The Silver Creek Brewery is established on Waterloo Avenue.

1859 – John H. Sleeman’s son George, at the age of 18, steps in to run the brewing operation, which would later become Sleeman & Son.

1863 – The Guelph Maple Leaf Baseball Club is formed with George Sleeman Sr. on the pitcher’s mound.

1846 – Canada Temperance Act passes. Things are about to change.

1867 – The same year Canada became a country; George Sr. became the sole owner of Sleemans.

1874 –George introduces bisulphate soda to his beer recipes to act as a stabilizer and preservative, changing the future of beer.

1879 – Elected to Guelph Town Council and later the Deputy Reeve, George Sr. chaired the Inauguration Committee to transform Guelph from a town to a city.

1880-1882 – George Sleeman Sr. becomes Guelph’s inaugural mayor after the city’s incorporation. He would be elected to this post 4 times.

1886 – George’s son, George A. joins the family business.

1894 – A fan of invention and keen to bring hydroelectric power to Guelph, he developed and funded the Guelph Railway Company.

1898 – George A. finishes his now legendary Sleeman Family Recipe book , with meticulous attention to detail. Sleeman Cream Ale was created. In the pages of the leather-bound book was legacy that would live on.

1900 – Sleeman Brewing & Malting was incorporated. George Sr., his wife Sarah and three of their sons were together on business. They used the clear bottles that remain a family trademark.

1905- George Sleeman Sr. retires. But not one to be idle, he runs and wins the Mayor title for one more term. The sons take over the family business.

1916 – The Temperance Act is passed, prohibiting the sale of alcohol, but not the act of brewing or distilling liquor or alcohol. The family was limited to selling malt and ginger ale.

1919 – The United States enacts National Prohibition, and the bootlegging from Guelph to the American border begins. The Sleeman brother’s were meeting market demand with smuggling beer through the city’s underground tunnels and stowing clear bottles under the vegetable and coal carts of willing farmers.

1926 – George Sleeman Sr. dies.

1933 – The Sleeman brothers were caught and charged with smuggling and tax evasion. The story goes they could have exported the beer legally with a permit, had they agreed to pay taxes on the sale. They refused.  They were forced to sell the brewery to pay the taxes. The Sleeman family’s brewing license was suspended. It was the end of an era.

1984 – A knock on the door of John W. Sleeman’s home and a visit from his Aunt Florian changed everything. Unbeknownst of his family heritage, she handed him a clear, tall beer bottle and a leather-bound recipe book and said, “It’s time you found out about your heritage.”

1984 – John W. Sleeman revives the family business with the original patent, bottles and recipes. He incorporates Sleeman Brewing and Malting Co. Ltd.

1988 – The first bottle of Sleeman Cream Ale comes off the production line, with the original recipe, the first bottle of the family’s brew since 1933.

1999 – Sure to have the last word, George Sleeman Sr. is inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame for his contribution to the sport.

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