A history of the Canadian vinegar industry

Reginald SmithVinegar History, Vinegar Industry29 Comments

The following is taken in part from my book on vinegar history,  Vinegar, The Eternal Condiment available on Amazon!

When people here in the US think Canadian vinegar one might have an amusing notion of a barrel of maple vinegar fermenting in some snowy, remote lodge in Northern Ontario. While Canada is obviously a leader in maple vinegar production (though Vermont based maple syrup mega giant Sweet Tree Holdings has entered this fray with their Maple Guild brand), it has had a large and dynamic vinegar industry in its own right. As explained later, it even pioneered national consolidation of the vinegar industry before the US or UK.

While Canada had vinegar companies develop in almost all of its provinces, some of the first large companies were founded in Quebec, possibly because of the influence of French vinegar culture on French Canadians. One prominent firm was Manufacture de Vinaigre de Montreal (Montreal Vinegar Works) founded by Michel Lefebvre in 1874. One of the largest Canadian vinegar companies at the time it could produce 200,000 gallons of vinegar per year. Other prominent vinegar makers in Quebec included Lion Vinegar and the St. Lawrence Vinegar Co.

Michel Lefebvre
The Montreal Vinegar Works
The Montreal Vinegar Works

Ontario was the other large vinegar producing province with production centering near the Toronto area. Its firms included the Queen City Vinegar, S. Allen Vinegar, and Imperial Vinegar. Due to the high transport cost relative to price for vinegar, Canada, like the similarly large US, had to have vinegar factories in the more remote provinces to service businesses and consumers efficiently. Western Vinegars Ltd. was the largest such firm with plants in both Alberta and Manitoba. The other large western players were Pioneer Vinegar out of Edmonton and Vinegars Ltd. which has founded in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in 1949.

A Lion Vinegar cookbook cover

There was a British Columbia Vinegar Company during the 1920s in Vancouver, but it was not what the name implied. In fact, it was a mob front to supply liquor to the US illegally during Prohibition set up by Henry Reifel, a German-born Canadian brewer and bootlegging partner of Joseph Kennedy, father of future president John F. Kennedy. Canadian authorities became suspicious when it was found the company produced many barrels of goods, none of which contained vinegar. The owner James Ball fled to Seattle before authorities could get him to testify about his activities before the Royal Commission on Customs and Excise.

As the vinegar industry became crowded and overcapacity loomed prices plummeted. Therefore Canada went through a process preceding the similar actions in the United States and United Kingdom where smaller regional companies based in multiple provinces were bought out or consolidated.

Canada began merging most of its vinegar companies into one conglomerate in 1925 in a move that presaged the similar formation of British Vinegars several years later in the UK. Canada Vinegars was granted a Dominion charter and absorbed Western Vinegar, Lion Vinegar, Queen City Vinegar, and S. Allen Vinegar as well as some smaller players in Ontario. In 1929, it also absorbed Pioneer Vinegar. Decades later, Vinegars Ltd. was absorbed as well.

At its height, Canada Vinegars claimed to be the largest consolidated manufacturer of vinegar in North America. This may have been true though Fleischmann’s Vinegar in the US would undoubtedly dispute this. Canada Vinegars eventually expanded beyond vinegar making sauces and condiments and rebranded itself as Canvin Products in 1971 to accommodate its wider scope.

A Canada Vinegar cookbook
Vintage Canada Vinegar bottles 

Canadian vinegar would be shaken to its core though when Campbell’s Soup acquired Canvin in 1979. Seeing its operational footprint as large and inefficient, over the next several years Campbell’s disposed of most of Canvin’s remaining plants, either through closure or by sale to Fleischmann’s/Burns Philp. Fleischmann’s itself would eventually quit the Canadian market as well (in factory presence, not exports) and hand its assets to what was then the last remaining major vinegar manufacturer in Canada: Reinhart Foods.

Reinhart Foods, though founded in 1910, did not aggressively enter the vinegar market until the 1950s with the advent of acetator technology. Based in Stayner, Ontario they were able to hold their own and grow against the large, but sclerotic, Canada Vinegars Ltd. located nearby. As the assets of Canada Vinegar were shed or passed to successive buyers, they were able to grow their share of the market until they had the largest, and almost only footprint in Canada. Today, besides US imports, the Canadian market is dominated by Reinhart Foods who operates plants in Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia.


29 Comments on “A history of the Canadian vinegar industry”

  1. Where and when did Dyson’s vinegar co ltd start. I found that Western vinegars ltd was successors to them. I would like to find the history of the Dyson’s co. as a have a olive jar with there name embossed on it

    1. According to this old article, Dyson’s was started in 1887 by David J. Dyson a former soldier from Ontario who came to help put down Riel’s Rebellion. Dyson combined with some other vinegar makers in Manitoba and Alberta to form Western Vinegars in 1928. At one time they claimed to be the largest producer in Canada, but honestly, many others did too.

  2. My grand father was an employee of Lion vinegar in Montreal. I was wondering if you ever came across pictures of the factory?

    1. Unfortunately I do not have images of their factory but I will separately email you a PDF of a recipe/uses book of Lion Vinegar that I have.

    2. My direct ancestor is Michel Lefebvre. I documented the Michel Lefebvre Vinegar Co. in Montréal. At the time, his (their: with his sons) business was branded «Lion Brand» (circa 1880-95), the factory was on Papineau street, between Ste-Rose and René-Lévesque (Dorchester) . I do have a copy of a drawing of that manufacture. Later, the company was shut down due to the fall of the Banque du Peuple. The facilities were sold to other hands after 1896 and the industry went on throught another name. Familly tellings say that the classic québécois brands, Confitures Raymond and Habitant, are what’s left of the Lefebvre’s industry.

      1. Interesting story! Thanks for sharing. Feel free to email me the drawing and I can add it to the blog post. The Lion brand was long an iconic brand in Canada and I never knew it was from the Lefebvre family. It’s sad to see how a bank failure can take down such a great entrepreneur.

      2. Hi,

        I am also interested in any information you have regarding Michel Lefebvre and his vinegar factory. I heard the story of the collapse of the Banque du Peuple from my mother, Renée Lefebvre who was his grand-daughter. Thanks

        1. I would be glad to share with you about the Lefebvre’s manufactures and history. I made a lot of research. I do remember that one of my father’s aunt was named Renée. I hope to get news from you. Here’s my email adress: vinclef@hotmail.com

        2. Thinking of it, I actually met your mother around 2011. J’espère pouvoir entrer en contact avec vous. Meilleures salutations

  3. I have an Agreement and Declaration of Trust dated March 20, 1918 showing my grandfather, William James Blair, purchased Pioneer Vinegar Company Limited in Edmonton for the sum of $4,000.00. He later sold the company in the late 1920’s. I also have two photos taken in the 1920’s of vinegar bottles on display. One photo is titled The Edmonton Vinegar Works Limited showing the Pioneer Brand. The other displayed photo is marked ‘A Real Product Buy – Edmonton made Vinegars’. Do you have any more information on the sale of Pioneer Vinegar to Canada Vinegars. Thank you, Bill Gilchrist

    1. Hi Mr. Gilchrist. Pioneer Vinegar Company Limited merged with several other vinegar makers in Manitoba, Alberta, and British Columbia into Western Vinegars Ltd. which I have seen was a subsidiary of the larger Canada Vinegars. I have seen 1928 as the date touted for the merger which probably included Dyson of Winnipeg (see other comments on this blog article) and Alberta Vinegar of Calgary. Pioneer of Edmonton and Premier Vinegar of Vancouver were added in 1929. I would guess that your grandfather William James Blair received stock in Western Vinegars or Canada Vinegars as part of the deal. The latter deals are briefly described in The Ottawa Citizen on April 26, 1929.

      Canada Vinegars later became CanVin, was bought by Campbell, and later dismembered and largely shut down under Campbell’s ownership.

      I would be interested in seeing the bottle pictures if you could scan and send them to sales@supremevinegar.com.

  4. I have a rather plain small bottle with Western Vinegars Limited embossed on the bottom. Would there be anyone interested in it? I was just going to throw it away.

  5. What is the date of the pickle recipes booklet shown at the top of this page.

    Bill wickie

  6. I am wondering if you have any more specific information on Pioneer Vinegar of Edmonton? I have a little family memoir book that mentions 3 brothers who were “involved in a business known as the Pioneer Vinegar Works” in Edmonton. Their names were James (Jim) Coates Stanton b.orn 1859, William (Will) Harrison Stanton born 1863, and George Egar (called Egar) Stanton born 1878. I am guessing this must have been sometime around 1912, give or take. These men were 2nd cousins twice removed to me.

    I am trying to figure out what was their involvement (e.g. employees, founders, agents?) and a more exact timeframe. Any information or even tips on where to look would be most greatly appreciated.

    1. Hi, apologies for the delayed response. I looked through all the information I had about Pioneer Vinegar and could find nothing about the names Stanton or much else for that matter. It seems Pioneer Vinegar was not well documented up until the sale to Canada Vinegars Ltd. in 1929. Sorry I could not be of more help.

  7. Do you have any idea of the age of the cookbook which you show just above the vinegar bottles. I have my Grandmother’s copy and it is nearly in shreds, was just wondering how old it was.

  8. I have a bottle labelled:
    Aged in Wood

    Can you give me some more info?
    It’s a large bottle with label still very intact.

    1. I wish I had good information on Kent Foods. It seems to have been around until at least the 1970s. Not sure if they were ever a large player in the Canadian vinegar scene.

      1. The Canada Vinegar Company (later known as Canvin after its purchase by Cerebos Foods of Britain), acquired Kent Foods in the 1940’s or ‘50’s. Canada Vinegars, along with Allen’s apple juice, was a family owned business owned by my Grandfather, C. E. Carsley, and then later by his sons. My uncle Joe was initially responsible for running Kent Foods in the Annapolis Valley. My Uncle Louis ran Canada Vinegars in Toronto, and my Father, Bill ran the operation -the original Lion Vinegar Co. – in Montreal. The factory was on Drolet street, and then moved to LaSalle in the late fifties. One of my brothers and a cousin each worked in the business at some point in their careers, but left (or were removed) after Campbell’s bought the whole enterprise, which by that time had a huge variety of food products such as A1 sauce, Bisto instant gravy and Gattuso olives and pickles.

  9. Hi I have a 5 gallon Jug marked on the bottom Canada Vinegars Limited. Do you think it would be worth something?

    1. Not sure but I personally don’t think more than $20-30 that such vinegar collectibles typically go for on Ebay.

  10. Hello, I have this Allen’s Sweet Drinking Cider Ice Box bottle and was wondering if you could provide me with any information on it. When was this product manufactured and from what decade is it from? I see from your information that the S. Allen Vinegar was absorbed by Canada Vinegars in 1925, so possibly the bottle is older than the 1920s.

    I can send an image, if interested.

    1. Hi, unfortunately I don’t have much information besides the date of the purchase by Canada Vinegars.

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