The Birth of a Giant: The Story of the Molson Brewing Company

By Molly Thacker

If there’s one name that has left its indelible stamp on the history of brewing in Montreal, it’s Molson. With a rich history dating back to the late 1700s, the Molson Brewing Company has played an integral role in shaping the economic and cultural landscape of Montreal. But how did the juggernaut of Canadian brewing come to be? Who were the masterminds behind the establishment and proliferation of such an enduringly formidable brewing dynasty? Hold on to your hops, because we’re about to take a deep dive into the fascinating and frothy history of the Molson Brewing Company.

The Rise of the Molson Brewing Dynasty: 1800s-1900s

Let’s take a step back in time to the late 1700s, when the world was a vastly different place and beer was just starting to flow in Montreal. It was during this time that John Molson arrived in Canada after a perilous journey from England, landing in Montreal on May 2, 1782. Molson could sense untapped opportunity bubbling in his new place of residence as prices for wine and other spirits were rising, a tension which was heightened by the influx of immigrants from the beer-loving British Isles.

Upon his arrival in Montreal, Molson began working at the brewery of Thomas Loyd, which he would eventually take ownership of in 1785. Not long after, he travelled briefly back to England, where he acquired more knowledge about the industry while in search of better tools and ingredients for brewing. He returned to Montreal full of inspiration and savoir-faire, deciding to distribute free seeds to local farmers under the condition that they would cultivate them in order to provide the malt necessary to keep up with the growing demand for beer. In 1786, Molson produced his first batch of ale, thus establishing the Molson Brewery and laying the foundations of an institution that would become an essential part of Montreal’s cultural and economic fabric.

With his passion for brewing and drive for innovation, Molson quickly made a name for himself, producing beers that satisfied the taste buds of the masses. And as the brewery grew, so did its reach. Molson diversified his business portfolio throughout the late 1700s and early 1800s, making forays into the lumber, steamboat, and banking industries. In 1816, Molson forged an entrepreneurial partnership with his three sons, John, Thomas, and William. Of his three offspring, it was Thomas who would proceed to take the reigns of the brewing dynasty established by his father after the patriarch’s death in 1836. Eventually, Thomas’ grandson Herbert would join forces with brewmaster John Hyde in 1903 to create Molson Brewing’s longest-running beer brand: Molson Export, which is still available today.

Brewing World Domination: 1900s-2000s

The Molson family decided to to transform the brewery into a limited liability public enterprise in 1945, opening the door for other parties to stake their claim in the fast-growing company. With a flood of new interest and economic triumph in the years following, Molson Brewing was able to open a new brewery in Toronto and expand its portfolio of beers to include the famous Molson Canadian lager. 1958 was a year of unprecedented growth for Molson in this regard, as it expanded its influence far outside the confines of Montreal through the acquisition of six breweries, five of which were located in Western Canada.

The success of Molson Brewing continued to be fuelled by the strategic, forward-looking mergers and acquisitions of other breweries, a form of business savvy which has cemented their status as a modern brewing empire. In 1989, they merged with Carling O’Keefe, thus expanding their portfolio of brewing real estate, consolidating its market share in Quebec, and becoming the largest brewery in Canada. In 2005, they merged with American brewing giant Coors to establish the Molson Coors Brewing Company. Then, in 2016, Molson Coors puchased all of SABMiller’s interests in MillerCoors. This transaction granted Molson Coors complete ownership of Miller’s brand portfolio outside of the US and Puerto Rico, while also permitting them to retain the rights to all brands in the MillerCoors portfolio within the US and Puerto Rico.

Today, Molson Coors employs over 17,000 people and is considered the fifth-largest brewer in the world. In addition to its primary labels—such as Molson Canadian, Molson Export, Molson M, and Molson Dry—it also produces beers through microbreweries it has acquired, like Creemore Springs and Granville Island Brewing.

Beer has been a staple of Montreal’s social and economic fabric for centuries. From casual gatherings with friends to large-scale events and festivals, beer has played a central role in the city’s life. And Molson Brewing Company has been at the forefront of this vibrant beer culture, producing a number of staple beers that have become synonymous with the city itself. The brewery has played a significant role in shaping the city’s identity, from its contributions to local events and festivals to its sponsorship of sports teams, cultural initiatives, and organizations. With its rich history and enduring legacy, Molson is an integral part of what makes Montreal the vibrant and dynamic city that it is today. 

Whether you’re a beer enthusiast, a student of history, or simply someone who appreciates a good story, the history of Molson Brewing Company is a fascinating and inspiring tale. For those looking to learn more, we recommend exploring the Molson Coors archives, visiting Montreal museums, and reading some of the many books and articles written about this iconic brewery.

Who owns Molson today?

Molson Coors is a Canadian-US multinational drink and brewing company, has its headquarters located in Chicago, IL, with primary offices in Golden, Colorado, and Montreal, Quebec. The company’s inception in 2005 resulted from the merger of Molson of Canada and Coors of the United States. Notably, in 2016, Molson Coors completed the acquisition of Miller Brewing Company for around US$12 billion, solidifying its position as the third largest brewer worldwide. It maintains a presence on both the New York Stock Exchange and Toronto Stock Exchange, having been a constituent of the S&P500 since its establishment in 2005.

If you know one thing about Molly, it’s that she loves beer. When she’s not working or studying, you’ll find her researching, writing about, and of course, drinking beer. After moving to Montréal following her studies in France and the UK, she fell in love with the unique culture and history surrounding the breweries of Montréal and Québec as a whole. You can find her on Instagram @mtlbeerclub.

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