Beer Is In The Blood: An Interview with John W. Sleeman

For John W. Sleeman, beer is in the blood.

Take a drive through southwestern Ontario and you’ll find yourself in Guelph, a city founded by the Scottish poet and novelist John Galt. As one approaches the city via Highway 6, the gleaming façade of the Sleeman Brewery becomes visible, steel fermentation vessels rising up to meet the sky. It is here, in this picturesque university town, that John Sleeman took up the mantle and reclaimed a family legacy.

And what a legacy. The Sleeman family history reads like the fodder for a gritty HBO drama, or perhaps a novel with characters as rich as those penned by Guelph’s founder. Pirates, intrigue, secrets, smuggling, a brush with Al Capone, arrests, and a fifty-year ban on the family’s ability to brew or sell beer, perhaps robbing a generation of its birthright — such is the stuff that the Sleeman story is made of.

The Sleemans descended from the Slymans, a family of pirates who operated illegal businesses in England. In the 1700s, the family attempted to tread the straight and narrow with a changed surname and a legitimate brewery and string of pubs. In 1834, John H. Sleeman crossed the Atlantic and, in the family tradition, opened a brewery in St. Catherine’s, Upper Canada. Pollution, thanks to the burgeoning industrial revolution, threatened the surrounding waters by the middle of the century; water being an important ingredient in the brewing process, Sleeman relocated the operation to Guelph.

Things went smoothly for the family business until 1933. At the tail end of American prohibition, the Sleemans were caught smuggling beer to Al Capone. They were slapped with a fifty-year prohibition of their own: no member of the Sleeman family would be allowed to brew or sell beer until 1984.

None of this history was known to the young John W. Sleeman. Raised in an alcohol-free household, his heritage remained unknown to him when he moved to England as a young man and fell in love with British pub culture, and still when he returned to Canada and opened a pub in a shopping mall with a vision of selling authentic English draft beer.

One day, an aunt approached the young Sleeman. Unbeknownst to him, the clock was running out on the family ban, and the possibility of a new chapter lay on the other side. With an old recipe book and an old bottle of beer, she unveiled the family’s secret, tumultuous history. “It’s time you knew about the old family beer business,” she said, and the rest was — well, history.

It took Sleeman some time to warm up to the idea of carrying on the tradition of his great-great-grandfather. But eventually he did, and in 1988, the Sleeman name in brewing was reclaimed and a legacy resurrected.

Why did your Aunt Florian come to you with this legacy? Did your siblings have any interest in joining in the venture?

She explained it to me this way: As a young girl, when she heard that the family was to be put out of business, she decided to save the recipe book and an old bottle, determined to wait the 50 years to see if any family member might be willing to resurrect the firm. By the time the 50 years probation period was up in the mid 1980s, there were many Sleeman family members in that generation, but I was the only one already in the beer business. I do have a sister, but she has a career in the legal profession.

You sat on it for some time before deciding to take what could be considered a leap of faith. What was the turning point that made you want to revive the family tradition?

When Florian approached me out of the blue with the recipe book and bottle, I was already heavily involved in the beverage alcohol business. I had built and run a pub in Oakville and then started and was running a company that imported beer from around the world, brands like Guinness and Heineken. I was intrigued with the idea of rebuilding the family brewery, but was enjoying what I was doing…and I was also quite nervous about taking on the giants of the domestic beer business, who at the time were Molson, Labatt, and Carling. Because of that, I kept putting Florian off, until she finally used guilt to get me to take that “leap of faith,” saying that she “was getting elderly” and it would “mean a lot to her” if I would just try this before she died. How can a person resist that?

Did you have the full support of your family in entering the beer brewing industry?

I certainly had the support of my entire family. They probably thought I was crazy but they still supported me.

What was the landscape of craft beer culture back in 1988, and who were your main competitors at the time? 

The craft beer culture was in its infancy in the mid- to late 1980s. That meant that we and a handful of other entrepreneurs were at the forefront [of] today’s movement. Firms like Sleeman, Creemore Springs, Brick, and Upper Canada all started around the same time, but we thought of the larger brewers as our competition, not our own small group of startups.

In the ’80s and ’90s, the restaurant industry was booming and the birth of Lolapalooza festivals and the like were at an all-time high. How did the brand capitalize on this and who masterminded your marketing campaigns?

In the ’80s and ’90s, the rules around pubs and restaurants were starting to open up. You no longer needed to have someone from the wait staff carry your drink from one table to another. The hours of sale were being extended and you could purchase beer to take home on a Sunday. The large brewers continued to promote their brands using lifestyle advertising, but we wanted to differentiate ourselves. So the marketing team and I decided we’d talk about the quality of our products, our heritage, and using the unique style of Sleeman clear glass embossed bottle that Florian gave me that originated back in my grandfather’s day.

In the ’90s, the Atkins craze attacked carbohydrates and, of course, beer. How did this impact the business and what did you do to solve that dilemma?

Always being aware of what consumers desire is not an easy task. But in the ’90s, once we saw their need for a low-cal and low-carb beer, we developed a recipe for a product that would fit their demands and came up with Sleeman Clear. Even after all these years, it’s still one of our top sellers.

We have learned that your depth of commitment to the business took its toll on your family life. Would you have any advice to others who wish to follow a dream such as yours?

I’m not always comfortable letting the public into my personal life, so will keep my comments on this subject rather vague. But yes, creating from scratch and then running businesses can bring certain personal challenges. My previous and current families tell me to this day that I am not at all good at having a “work/life balance.” I’m afraid that that is not likely to change and my advice for others wishing to start a business and continue to run it is to be aware that it requires tremendous dedication and personal sacrifice. And that often creates problems at home. Just know that going in, and make every effort to balance the demands on your time. Regrettably, there’s no easy answer to that issue.

Are you still brewing beer true to your great grandfather’s original Cream Ale recipe? And how has the Sleeman lineup evolved over the years?

Happy to say that we still brew our Sleeman Cream Ale to the same recipe that’s found on page 64 of my grandfather’s recipe book… It dates from January 5th, 1898. And over the years, as consumers have asked for more variety, we have made other products from that book: our Silver Creek Lager, our Dark beer, and there are others that we have developed new recipes for, like our Honey Brown Lager. And we will continue to listen to our customers and try to respond, just as we always have.



Next month we will circle back with Mr. Sleeman to speak to him about his very exciting venture that has been “brewing” over the past year or so.