The History of BC Beer Parlours

From Saloons to Tasting Rooms

From the sawdust-floor saloons of the 19th century to the ritzy cocktail lounges that sprang up in the 1950s, the evolution of licensed premises in BC is closely tied to two things: the hotels that housed them and government control of the liquor industry.

Yet, 100 years ago the province’s liquor industry as a whole was staring at oblivion, following a referendum in September 1916 that favoured Prohibition. BC officially went dry on October 1, 1917.

Although Prohibition was overturned three years later, it wasn’t until 1924 that licensed drinking establishments were allowed again in BC.

BC’s Drinking Problem

To understand the authorities’ concerns over alcohol, it’s worth bearing in mind that BC had a pretty serious drinking problem in the 19th century. The rate of alcohol consumption in BC was nearly double the national average in the 1890s, writes Robert Campbell in Demon Rum or Easy Money, a history of government control of liquor.

A powerful temperance movement soon took shape, urging the need for moderation for the sake of society. Squarely in their sights was what they deemed to be that den of iniquity: the saloon.

The most famous saloon in BC’s history was the one belonging to Gassy Jack, around which the community of Gastown, and later Vancouver, was formed.

The Rise of Saloons

Saloons in BC took after the British tradition of the inn, providing food and shelter as well as drink. Perhaps the most famous saloon in BC’s history was the one belonging to Gassy Jack, around which the community of Gastown, and later Vancouver, was formed.

To control the number of saloons, the government required them to be housed in hotels in the hope that the high cost of operation would act as a deterrent.  It had little effect, however, with many unlicensed saloons operating under the radar and many hotels effectively operating as saloons by another name.

The temperance movement, which had a growing wing calling for complete Prohibition, focused in on this breakdown in regulation, citing the saloon as a hub of drunkenness, drugs, crime, and prostitution.

Helped in their cause by the First World War and its pressures on resources, the “dry’s” got their wish when British Columbians voted for Prohibition.

However, BC became anything but dry. Many saloons remained open, selling legal “near beer”, a watery 1.5% ABV brew. Many new unlicensed saloons appeared too, competing with hotels. Both sold illegal liquor, ready for quick disposal upon the sight of an inspector.

The Fall of Prohibition

When it was clear that Prohibition had been a failure, the government set another plebiscite, asking voters to either keep it or replace Prohibition with strict government control. In 1921, they voted the latter.

At first, government stores were the only way the public could buy liquor. Saloons had been banned, but soon pressure emerged to bring them back. Liquor store prices were set discouragingly high, which meant that bootlegging continued. Meanwhile, private clubs, in which the laws around selling beer remained murky, drew hundreds of members.

Together with the Moderation League movement, the newly organized British Columbia Hotels’ Association (BCHA) lobbied the government for the right to serve beer by the glass. The BCHA saw the chance to at least partially alleviate the crippling effects of post-war depression on the industry by having controlled alcohol sales.

The Birth of Beer Parlours

In 1924, the province brought back beer by the glass and the beer parlour was born.

These parlours were the result of an informal arrangement between the government and the BCHA. Hotels were deemed to be the most suitable venues because they already had the facilities and space, as well as the tradition of licensed public drinking.

However, the government, likely fearing the Wild West days of the saloons, laid down some draconian rules on how beer parlours should be run.

Only draught or bottled beer was allowed; no food, soda or cigarettes. Only one brand of draught beer could be served. Patrons couldn’t stand with their drink, but were instead served at tables by waiters. There was no bar. There was no advertising. No entertainment or games of any kind were allowed.

The atmosphere is neatly summed up in the title of Campbell’s history of the beer parlour, Sit Down and Drink Your Beer.

For a time, only men were allowed in beer parlours, with the authorities citing the saloons’ past reputation for prostitution. Soon, a separate space was allocated for women and escorts – but during the Second World War, officials’ fears over a “fifth column” of venereal disease led to a six-foot-high partition being installed between the two sections of the parlour. The rule wasn’t repealed until 1963.

The Arrival of Entertainment and Food

By the 1960s, some other rules had been relaxed. The 1953 Government Liquor Act allowed music, radio and TV in beer parlours and sandwiches could be served. At the same time, restaurants and cabarets were given the chance to apply for liquor licences and cocktail lounges were allowed for the first time. The BCHA, which had battled unsuccessfully to keep its monopoly on licensed premises, now fought to keep control over the beer parlour. Luckily for the hotels, the conservative Social Credit government saw no need to further relax the liquor laws.

“The BCHA resisted change, so did the province, and what emerged was a profitable status quo for both sides,” Campbell says.

Pubs had to provide food and entertainment to prevent patrons from drinking to excess.

New Neighbourhood Pubs

Things didn’t significantly change until 1974, when a new NDP government unveiled a raft of liquor reforms, including the first licences for neighbourhood pubs. In a complete reversal to the thinking behind beer parlours, these pubs had to provide food and entertainment to prevent patrons from drinking to excess. Beer parlours, meanwhile, were given the right to serve wine in a bid to attract more women and standing, at last was allowed.

The varying models of licensed premises soon began blending into each other. By the 1980s, the beer parlours in their original guise had all but disappeared. Today, many of the old parlours have been refurbished beyond recognition, while others, such as those at the Empress and Balmoral hotels in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, have fallen into sad decline.

It was Expo 86 that symbolically sealed the beer parlour’s fate, when liquor laws were relaxed for the world’s fair. British Columbians got a taste of pub culture and liked what they saw. The politicians of the day approved Sunday opening hours for pubs as well as BC’s first private liquor stores.

New Liquor Laws

When the provincial liquor policy review began in 2014, many more of the laws dating back to the repeal of Prohibition were relinquished.

Now, alongside pubs, bars and restaurants there are tasting rooms, lounges and picnic areas at BC’s growing number of breweries, distilleries and wineries. In the former beer parlour of Pat’s Pub at the Patricia Hotel in Vancouver, there’s now an in-house brewery. In Courtenay, there’s a brewery lounge attached to the Best Western the Westerly Hotel. The evolution continues.