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Beer, bathtubs and bricks: how craft beer lived, died and was eventually reborn in uptown Waterloo

Until a few years ago, the smell of boiling wort was a fragrant reminder that beer was brewing in the lower reaches of uptown Waterloo. Wafting from the former Brick Brewery, the malty odour – inviting to some, off-putting to others – was a connection to a long brewing history in what’s become one of the city’s trendiest residential neighbourhoods.

When Brick relocated in 2014, it marked the first time in almost 150 years that beer wasn’t brewing along the short stretch of King Street South between William and Allen streets. Throughout that period, beer empires rose, fell, and rose again, all the while reflecting (and influencing) larger trends in the brewing industry. Though Waterloo is better known for whisky production – its whisky barrel warehouses are still standing, after all – our brewing heritage is just as important to understanding how the city grew and developed.

Waterloo’s original craft brewers

If today’s DIY-obsessed homebrewers can take inspiration from a figure in the Waterloo’s beer history, it’s David Kuntz. Though he went on to found one of the country’s largest breweries, he started from scratch as a German immigrant in the 1840s, re-purposing equipment he already owned and making whatever else he needed. This included fermenting in an old wooden bathtub, transporting the beer in self-made kegs (he was also cooper), selling it door-to-door, and when it came time to build a proper brewery at the corner of William and King, making the bricks himself.


The Kuntz brewery was one of the earliest sources of economic development as Waterloo began to industrialize and grow in the mid-1800s. (Flickr/thomasfisherlibrary)

By the early 1860s, the Spring Brewery – named for the natural water source on site – had scaled up considerably, brewing 12,000 gallons of German style lager in 1861. Just a few years after Waterloo incorporated as a village, the brewery became an early source of economic development through employment and purchase of local grain and hops – the latter of which came from a massive farm on the edge of town at Moore and Union streets. “The largest hop fields of the Dominion” fed the growing beer industry in Waterloo, which also included a brewery at the Huether Hotel site. Kuntz was also busy building other city things, including a malting building at Erb and Regina and two landmark homes that remain on the municipal heritage register: the Kuntz-Labatt House and Kuntz-Eckert House. A third, Nixon House, was moved (by horse!) to Norman Street when Spring Brewery needed space to expand – one of Waterloo’s first examples of built heritage preservation.


Kuntz’s flagship Old German Lager was a connection between the Old and New Worlds in Waterloo. (Flickr/thomasfisherlibrary)

Most importantly, perhaps, Kuntz’s beer was actually good, or at least appealed to the regional tastes of a very German population. “The best beer in the country,” the city enumerator said of the flagship Old German Lager. “The Brewery, Cellars, and House are of first quality.” While we don’t know exactly how it would taste – especially the bathtub fermented version – it was likely a mild German lager that relied on lightly malted barley for flavour and hops for preservation.

With business booming and other projects in mind, David Kuntz turned the brewery over to his son Louis in 1870. In a nod to the new owner and the civic infrastructure nearby – a park with large fountains that extended along the entire King Street frontage of the site – the business was renamed L. Kuntz’s Park Brewery. While it’s unclear how the public used the park in its early days, by the time streetcars and vehicle traffic appeared along King Street, it appears in photos and postcards as a cherished public space, especially in summer when children would treat the fountains like an old fashioned splash pad.


Waterloo’s first splashpad? Children play in the Kuntz brewery fountain, with uptown Waterloo in the background. (Ellis Little Local History Room of the Waterloo Public Library)

The rise of industrial brewing in uptown Waterloo

Though the Kuntz family suffered a tragedy with the premature death of Louis in 1891, the beer business continued to boom. Photos from the period show an expanding footprint for the sprawling brewery with a growing workforce to match. By the early 1910s, the brewery was the second largest in Ontario, selling over 90,000 barrels a year. The Kuntz family, now led by Louis’s son David Jr., had also developed property throughout Waterloo and southwestern Ontario, including a hotel across from the brewery and an opera house in Hamilton. David Sr. even bequeathed a bell – named after his wife Magdelena – to St. Louis Church that continues to ring out over the Mary Allen neighbourhood today.


The growing staff of Louis Kuntz’s Park Brewery in 1894. (Ellis Little Local History Room of the Waterloo Public Library)

With prohibition on the horizon, however, the first age of craft brewing in Ontario was quickly coming to an end. Forced to produce ultra light beer – 2.5% ABV or less, tragically – and soft drinks from 1916-27, Kuntz turned to bootlegging to keep the business going. The federal government eventually uncovered this activity and sued the brewery for $200,000 in unpaid taxes on bootlegging revenue, an enormous sum for an already struggling operation.

Like any good start-up fallen on hard times, the Kuntz brewery attracted the attention of takeover bids, and was forced sell to infamous brewery baron EP Taylor for the price of paying taxes owed to the government. Though the Kuntz name remained until the mid 1940s, further mergers and acquisitions led to ownership by progressively larger beer consortiums, until in 1977 it became Labatt’s – one of the biggest names in Canadian industrial brewing.


The sprawling Carling/Labatt’s brewery site, bordered by King St (top), William St (left), Park St (bottom) and Allen St (middle). (Ellis Little Local History Room of the Waterloo Public Library)

Operating on a sprawling site with some buildings that had been around for 100+ years, Labatt shut down operations just 16 years after taking over the site. The brewery was quickly demolished, opening up an enormous space for re-development in uptown Waterloo, eventually becoming a retirement residence and two higher density housing projects that would help the initiate the conversion of uptown from industrial to more residential uses. Though the demolition marked the end of brewing at the site, one of the original Kuntz Park fountains was discovered in the process and restored to its original condition in what stands at King and William today – Brewmeister’s Green.


The former Brick Brewery building during its heyday at 181 King St S. (wikimedia)

The Ontario craft brewery is re-born in Waterloo

With industrial brewing winding down at the corner of William and King, just down the street the craft method of production was reborn in the form of Brick Brewery. Situated in an old furniture factory 200 metres south of Labatt’s, Brick and its relatively small workforce – just 10 people – started Ontario’s first craft brewery in 1984. Drawing inspiration from Waterloo’s brewing heritage, founder Jim Brickman made German lagers that appealed to the descendants of those who likely drank the same style of Kuntz beer 100 years before. In doing so, he honoured the legacy of the city’s brewing pioneers and proved that the market for craft beer was just as strong as when David Kuntz was selling washtub beer door-to-door.

The second coming of the idea that local beer should be made for local tastes was a powerful one, and not only for Brick – now an industrial-scale brewer in its own right – but for the proliferation of craft breweries across Ontario and North America. Once again, communities are orienting themselves around brewing, strengthening local identities and economic development efforts in the process. Around Waterloo, the likes of Abe Erb, Arabella Park, Block Three, DescendantsInnocente, Short Finger and Together We’re Bitter are carrying on the work David Kuntz started over 175 years ago, ensuring the enticing smell of beer continues to waft from breweries and pint glasses, bringing people together from across the region.

Written with research notes and files from the staff at City of Waterloo Museum.